Nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award, "Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs" gathers together Wallace Stegner's most important and memorable writings on the American West: its landscapes, diverse history, and shifting identity; its beauty, fragility, and power. With subjects ranging from the writer's own "migrant childhood" to the need to protect what remains of the great western wilderness (which Stegner dubs "the geography of hope") to poignant profiles of western writers such as John Steinbeck and Norman Maclean, this collection is a riveting testament to the power of place. At the same time it communicates vividly the sensibility and range of this most gifted of American writers, historians, and environmentalists.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys the art of a good essay, outdoor writing, or literary reflections. There is also a bit of autobiography here.
This beautiful book spans topics as vast, varied, and grand as the West itself. Western history, literature, landscape, and character are discussed in superb detail. Wallace summons images and meanings of the West in the heart of this Westerner that are now permanently a part of my own internal landscape. His ability to capture the spirit of what it means to be of and in the West is unparalleled. I loved every moment that I spent with this book and found it nearly perfect.
However, I did enjoy his essays about the Western writers, and added several books to my reading list. I suspect I will prefer his fiction.
Stegner was born in 1909 and, as stated in the Afterword to the Modern Library paperback edition I read, "he grew up poor in a rootless and spectacularly dysfunctional family." (p. 229) He describes his father as "a rainbow-chaser" who moved the family multiple times chasing various get-rich-quick schemes that never worked out. He revered his mother, a "nester" who "believed in all the beauties and strengths and human associations of place" and one of the best essays is a letter he wrote to her many years after her death describing what she meant to him. Besides his mother, his other great love is the wilderness of the American West.
The second section (Habitat) traces the development of the West and Stegner's concerns that the land is being ruined in the civilization process. The five essays in this section repeatedly hammer home the point that the lack of water in the West makes it a fragile environment that must be protected from the short-sighted actions of those who want to remake the country and the climate to fit their own desires. He is clearly not happy about all the dams that have been built to enable more and more people to settle in the West. In a later essay, Stegner admits that he's been fixated on the aridness of the West "ad nauseam" for 50 years and I have to say I often felt the same way about these essays. They seemed to belabor the point without offering much in the way of solutions except to limit the population of the West. That said he raises enormously important issues that I now know more about.
The last section (Witnesses) is about Western writers, most of whom Stegner thinks have been misunderstood or unappreciated by the big literary publishers in the East. Stegner writes about Steinbeck but also about George Stewart, Walter Clark, Norman Maclean and Wendell Berry. He writes beautifully about Norman Maclean and how the structure of "A River Runs Through It" is similar to "shadow casting", a type of fly-fishing. He also writes a wonderful letter to Wendell Berry, a former student, observing that "Everything you write subjects itself to its subject, grapples with the difficult and inexpressible, confronts mystery, conveys real and observed and felt life, and does so modestly and with grace." (p. 213) I can only imagine what it must have meant to Wendell Berry to receive this letter.
At one point, Stegner paraphrases something Robert Frost said about a story beginning in delight and ending in wisdom. At the risk of sounding corny, that's how I felt about this book. I loved the first section and while I probably would have put the book down (if not for a LT group read) after reading one too many essays on the perils of civilizing the West, I did learn alot and I'm glad I had a reason to finish it. The essays on the Western writers have lead to a desire to read some of the books mentioned which is always a good thing for me.
I'm giving this book 4 1/2 stars and would highly recommend it. It's probably best read slowly in order to savor it and not be overwhelmed by the direness of Stegner's environmental positions.
My reading of this collection suffered primarily from the fact that the only other book I have read by Wallace Stegner is Crossing to Safety, which was mentioned in some detail in the final essay and consequently is the one I liked the most. However, that's not to say that someone else couldn't get a lot out of it. I recommend reading Big Rock Candy Mountain in particular first, because it's mentioned often and in some ways is autobiographical. I also had a hard time with his essays on conservation, because I wondered to myself what had happened in the 30-odd years since he'd written, and had no personal memory of, say, water issues in the West in the 1980s. And finally, I had read very little of the books written about the west or by authors he admired, though that by far was my favorite section because I enjoy seeing what makes other readers tick. His essay written as a letter to Wendell Berry was fascinating, and made me want to track down some of Berry's fiction. Don't be discouraged from reading this collection by my lukewarm reaction. There's a lot to like, from his turns of phrase to his honesty of reflection on his own growing up, the West he loves so much, and the authors he admires. I think it would work best for readers familiar with much of his fiction already, and those somewhat conversant in the authors he discusses.