The Spectator Bird

by Wallace Stegner

Paperback, 1990

Call number




Penguin Books (1990), Edition: Reprint, 224 pages


Retired literary agent Joe Allston passes through life as a spectator until he discovers the journals of a trip he took to his mother's birthplace years before.

Media reviews

[A] seamless, beautiful work of imagination and re-imagination, of personal and social history, of love and family, of intimacy and alienation, of loss and discovery.

User reviews

LibraryThing member weird_O
From the first page, I liked The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner. It's the writing. The narrator, Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, is shuffling papers in his study.

From my study I can watch wrens and bush tits in the live oak outside. The wrens are nesting in a hole for the fifth straight
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year and are very busy: tilted tails going in, sharp heads with the white eyebrow stripe coming out. They are surly and aggressive, and I wonder idly why I, who seems to be as testy as the wrens, much prefer the social bush tits. Maybe because the bush tits are doing what I thought we would be doing out here, just messing around , paying no attention to time or duty, kicking up leaves and playing hide-and-seek up and down the oak trunks and generally enjoying themselves.

It is meditation of this kind that keeps me, at nearly seventy, so contented and wholesome.

Joe is shuffling papers to "pacify a wife who worries about him and who reads newspaper psychiatrists urging the retired to keep their minds active." A postcard arrives that takes him back twenty years, to a trip he and Ruth (his wife) took to Denmark, in part seeking information about his mother's birthplace, but also to salve spirits and emotions damaged by the death six months before of their only child, a 20-year-old son, Curt.

Joe: "He died an over-age beach bum, evading to the last any obligation to become what his mother and I tried to make or help him be, and like my mother's, his death lay down accusingly at my door. He was my only descendant, as she was my only ancestor, and I failed both."

The trip was without itinerary or timetable. Within days of arriving, they rent an apartment, only to learn that the regular occupant is remaining there, giving them three rooms and keeping one for herself. She's a countess, but strangely ostracized by…well…just about everyone. We learn about the trip because Joe kept a diary. When the postcard arrives, he gets out his old diary to revisit that time and place. In short order, Ruth, who didn't know of its existence, insists that he read it to her.

"You don't expect me to read through the whole thing like some schoolmaster doing his annual rereading of Dickens?"

"I thought that's what we were going to do."

Rain like sand pattered at the window. I heard the clogged downspout by the door overflowing a heavy stream onto the bricks. I would have to get the leaves out of that before the next rain. "You want your pound of flesh," I said.

"Oh, Joe!"

"I told you, this isn't going to give either of us much pleasure."

"I didn't think that was the purpose."

"No?" I said. "What was the purpose?" But after a second or two in which we looked at each other with that baffled, stubborn expression that people who have been long time married often wear when they are reading each other's minds, I began reading again. My problem was the opposite of what I said it was. In our relationship with Astrid Wredel-Krarup, and in the recollections that the diary brought back, I wasn't quite spectator enough.

The novel is a story of the couple's explorations in Denmark, but even more, it's a story of an enduring marriage.
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LibraryThing member BCCJillster
fabulous writing; depressing, blah story. Should have been a short story. Reexamination of a life wasted, as far as the main character is concerned, and I stopped caring. What's with stegner that he has to take these introspective, grumbling into his beard journeys? No mas.
LibraryThing member stevesmits
Joe Allston is not living his “golden years” gracefully. Nearly 70, he is consumed with the notion that he’s just “killing time until time kills him.” He’s obsessed with his physical ailments and thinks he’s losing his sharpness and vigor. He views his life as mostly one of failure to
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impact anyone for positive. His wife Ruth is impatient with his dour affect. She urges him to write as a form of therapy, but he’s reluctant to do so as he just doesn’t have the spirit that’s needed. He lost an adult son years ago (to suicide or accidental drowning?), a child who always disappointed, and looks back at his parenting as failure and missed opportunity.

What could be worse than reflecting on the course of one’s life without joy or pride? That’s Allston’s chief problem: regrets at feeling not having left behind a legacy of value and worth to him and those he’s loved.

He gets an unexpected postcard from Astrid, a woman he knew twenty years before when he and his wife took a long sabbatical in Denmark after the death of his son. The postcard prompts him to dig out some journals he kept during the trip and his wife encourages him to read them aloud. His description of the stormy ocean voyage to Denmark conveys Joe’s psychological state of being. What prompts Denmark as the destination is Allston’s late mother who immigrated as a girl to lead a tough life in America. Allston always wondered why she left the “old country” and whether, by visiting the places of his ancestors, he could capture feelings of connections and tradition that he never felt in his upbringing. The trip is intended to get him out of his mid-life funk at the age of fifty with the great personal loss he’s experienced and with a career that doesn’t satisfy him. Despite this hope, Allston doesn’t feel any connections with his heritage that are deep and satisfying. But, other things occur that are life-shaping.

In Copenhagen, the Allston’s rent a portion of a flat from Astrid, a countess of Danish nobility who has fallen on hard times and needs the income. Astrid is estranged from her husband who had served time in prison for his collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. She is shunned by Danish society and is eager for the companionship that Joe and Ruth bring.

They develop a close relationship with Astrid who introduces them to her cousin, the renowned author Karen Blixen, a treat for Allston who’s a literary agent by profession. Astrid takes them to her family estate (from which she can no longer rely on for help) where the story of Astrid’s family history unfolds. Astrid’s father was a famous geneticist, respected in scientific circles and known to general public for his experiments in breeding. It turns out that his interests took him beyond animal and plant breeding to experimenting in breeding human stock with the horrifying result of a web of incest and inter-family breeding that became a public scandal, including disclosure that he had had relations with Astrid. Her father committed suicide in the wake of the scandal (as her mother had some years prior). Joe meets estranged Astrid’s brother, now lord of the estate, and it becomes clear that he is still carrying out these vile genetic experiments with the estate’s peasant tenants. The question is raised whether Joe’s mother left because of a pregnancy with the old lord, although Joe could not be the offspring of this liaison.

Joe is drawn to Astrid. She is an attractive woman and her plight plays on his sympathies and his desire to be successful at his connections with others. He is moved by the idea that he can rescue her from her dilemmas; that he can create good for her in ways he never could with his family. The journals reveal that he pleaded for her to leave Denmark and return to New York with them where he would create a full and rewarding life for her. She refuses. Joe’s feelings for her trouble him as a betrayal of his obligations to Ruth, but she responds in a way that affirms he has been all to her that could be expected in a faithful relationship of many years. (She suspected the feelings Joe had for Astrid and never allowed her suspicions to undermine their marriage.)

Stegner conveys the deep disappointment that Joe holds over his perceived failures in life, as a husband, father and in his career; the depth of total absence of a sense that his life has been well lived: that he has been no more than a “spectator bird” having no meaningful influence on anything that has surrounded him. The journals serve to remind him that he did attempt to be more than just a spectator, that he brought value to the lives of others and that he continues to do so.

Of the many notable aspects of this novel is Stegner’s use of the elements, particularly the weather. From the storm-tossed voyage across the Atlantic to the harsh Northern California rains, he creates in the weather the tumult in Allston’s state of mind. At the end of the story, he creates a visual image via the night sky that holds open a promise of a more comfortable view of his life for Joe.
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
Beautiful ruminative writing, of course. But a little too unrelievedly negative portrait of a man in his 70s aging not gracefully.
LibraryThing member novelcommentary
I enjoyed Stegner's novel which brought me back to the narrator,Joe Alston who I first encountered in Stegner's earlier novel, All the Little Live Things. This one takes place a few years latter but the setting is the same. Alston, like the author, lives in Northern California and revels in the
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care and maintenance of his property and garden. He is nearly 70 and suffers from some arthritis and a general feeling of unsatisfactory future options. When he receives a note from a friend in Denmark, the countess Astrid, he digs out the journal he kept during that visit almost twenty years earlier. The novel proceeds to switch between time frames from the present to his reading of the journal to his wife Ruth. The trip was supposed to be part a quest to the homeland of his mother and in part a getaway from the grief suffered over their son's suicide. During their stay with the countess, Joe stumbles upon the amazingly story of Astrid's father who was a brilliant but infamous scientist whose obsession with selective breeding becomes Astrid's cross to bear. This story becomes the plot of the novel along with the unveiling of truths between the long comfortably married couple. Stegner is a wonderfully descriptive nature writer and his reflective tone is one I have come to love. Highly recommend this writer.
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LibraryThing member Bookish59
Love the dialog between Joe and Ruthie; very real. And the description of American youths' perception of seniors as virtually invisible is moving and depressing.

Excellent read.
LibraryThing member 33racoonie
I didn't care for the constant whining of the central character of the book. But whining people are irritating, so the author was actually successful in his point. I believe the point of the book was to demonstrate how the opposite natures of people will preserve their relationship--each person
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fulfills a deep need of the other. Great book if you enjoy immersing yourself in the emotional struggles of being old and progressively disabled.
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LibraryThing member TimBazzett
I think Stegner may have written THE SPECTATOR BIRD not long after winning the Pulitzer Prize for ANGLE OF REPOSE, and I wonder if he may have been a bit depressed while writing BIRD. Because the book itself is a bit depressing, dwelling as it does on the various infirmities and illnesses of
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encroaching old age. Narrator Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, is feeling out to pasture and used up, it seems. His wife Ruthie keeps urging him to organize his papers, but instead he begins to keep a journal and also resurrects a diary of a trip to Denmark he and his wife had made 20 years earlier where he had met and become enamored of a countess. He reads his diary to Ruth, sharing his thoughts from that year. They reach a kind of sad understanding, and the marriage, even with the aches and pains, grumblings and disagreements, ends up seeming stronger. Bottom line: this is, I fear, primarily a book for old folks, i.e. I liked it well enough, despite its lumbering lugubrious pace and myriad meditations on growing old, death and dying, but it's probably not something readers under, say, sixty, would care much for. And Stegner needn't have worried he'd shot his creative wad. CROSSING TO SAFETY, which I consider one of his finest novels, was yet to come. Wallace Stegner was a national treasure. And his books remain as proof.
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LibraryThing member snash
The book explores the mind of an aging person coming to grips with that fact, reviewing his life and its meaning with honesty. The reminiscing includes a slowly revealed mystery as well. I found it an excellent book true to my experience.
LibraryThing member oldblack
I really enjoyed most of this book. I like reading about aging men looking back on their lives with regret. I suppose it's a kind of camaraderie which makes me feel better. The main character revisits a time when he traveled back to his mother's home country to discover more about himself as well
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as his mother. While he's there something happens that comes between him and his wife. Revisiting that time allows a (partial) restoration of this relationship, but Stegner is too good a writer to leave them living happily ever after. I didn't give this book 5 stars mostly because I was a bit put off by the bizarre situation which the man discovers in his mother's homeland of Denmark. Perhaps I didn't read carefully enough, but I also failed to see what made the man behave the way he did at the end of his Danish trip.
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LibraryThing member rsairs
A deep examination of choices and consequences playing out in a long life. A thick thread of negativity and sadness is in the book, but the affirmation of better choices at the end the book and life are very strong.
LibraryThing member sweetiegherkin
Joe, a retired literary agent, reflects on aging, the death of friends and family, and past memories. This is intensified when he comes across some notebooks detailing a memorable trip he and his wife took to Denmark after the death of their son and stayed in the home of a somewhat idiosyncratic
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This was a 'gentle' sort of read, in that it was much more introspective than plot-driven. (However, it covers deep and weighty topics so it's not particularly a 'feel good' sort of read.) I found the psychological aspects interesting, especially as it seemed Stagner was having his protagonist work through the final stage of Erik Erikson's psychosocial development timeline (i.e., ego integrity versus despair). Joe's voice was distinct, intelligent, and a bit snarky at times, making for a compelling narrator.

Edward Hermann was an excellent reader for the audiobook version, and he really brought Joe and the other characters to life. He did a good job with the various accents as well.

Those who like contemplative, literary novels will likely enjoy this one.
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LibraryThing member Rascalstar
Ah, another excellent book from Stegner. In this one and another I read, it feels as though he's writing nonfiction, it's so real. A note from an acquaintance from 20 years ago sends Joe to his notebooks to read about another time in his life. He and his wife visited Denmark -- he grasping for
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something of his mother and his roots. What he finds is quite different and yet related. The story has plenty of wry humor and also sadness but with an upbeat luminous lining for at least some of the characters.

Stegner's books are such a pleasure to read that I don't want them to end. So, I've ordered most of what he's written, aside from what I've already read. This book is a National Book Award winner and Stegner is a Pulitzer Prize winner. I highly recommend any of his books to those who enjoy literary, soulful writing. I can't think of an author that has his gift for illuminating things we never talk about but all of us know or feel, the grit of this human experience. And he does it elegantly.
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LibraryThing member mamzel
Joe Alston, retired literary agent, is struck by the imminent death of a friend and is moved to pull out some diaries he had written during a trip to Denmark 20 years earlier. He and his wife were still reeling from the death (possibly suicide) of their son and they went to Denmark to see where his
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mother had been born. They plan on staying several months and find a place to stay sharing an apartment with the Countess Astrid Wredel-Krarup, a stunningly beautiful woman, high born but living in near poverty.

His wife, Ruth, persuades him to read them out loud so that they might confront some unresolved thing that occurred.

This book is relatively short but packs a wallop.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
A late autumn look back on a life, highlighted by rereading a journal from a trip twenty years previous to Denmark. An Isak Dinesen cameo, on the heals for reading one of her late books was unexpected.

A slow reminisce on marriage, life, friendship, death. Melancholy.
LibraryThing member Castlelass
Introspective novel about long-term marriage and aging. Protagonist Joe Allston is a retired literary agent who feels he has allowed circumstance, coincidence, and opportunism to govern his life. He and his wife Ruth have retired to Palo Alto, California. As he approaches 70, he looks back on his
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passive life with regret and bitterness. A postcard from an old acquaintance leads Joe to locate the journal he kept when the couple traveled to Denmark twenty years before, after the tragic death of their only son. He reads the journal to his wife, and as he does, it brings back memories of a time when their marriage seemed in peril. Joe finally discloses to Ruth what happened all those years ago. The reader learns of Joe’s family ties to Denmark and the difficult life of a countess they stayed with during that time.

Set in the 1970’s (and published in 1976), a running refrain is Joe’s discontent with the counterculture movement in which his son took part. Themes include aging, guilt, and regret. The book is structured to operate in two timelines, the present day and, with readings of the journal, flashbacks to the earlier time in Denmark. The main characters are deeply drawn, and the writing is erudite. This is a slow-burning build up to a reveal of one of the few times when Joe took a stand, making a crucial decision. Humor and descriptions of natural phenomena are interspersed throughout. Woven into the Danish saga is a story of eugenics, which may be disturbing to some readers. Recommended to those that enjoy quiet, reflective novels about the human condition or character-driven literary fiction.
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LibraryThing member kslade
OK but not fantastic work of fiction by Stegner. I enjoyed it somewhat. Not sure why it won an award.
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Wallace Stegner has a wonderful way of writing about aging and relationships. This novel involves a couple revisiting an old journey to seek family roots via the journal kept by the husband.

"But Ruth is right. It is something—it can be everything—to have found a fellow bird with whom you can
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sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle. ” (Part Five, Ch.4, p.213)

A lovely novel!
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LibraryThing member JBreedlove
Well written by a classic mid -late 20th century American writer. Great first and last chapter detailing the aging of a well read man. This is brought out by the telling of a story from the past to his wife. Great sense of place in the hills of northern CA and the relationship w his wife. The
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diarywas a trick he didn't need as was the incest bit. But the ending was smooth and heartfelt.
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National Book Award (Finalist — Fiction — 1977)
Commonwealth Club of California Book Awards (Silver Medal — Fiction — 1976)




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