Angle of Repose

by Wallace Stegner

Paperback, 1992

Call number




Penguin Books (1992), 569 pages


Fiction. Literature. HTML: Wallace Stegner's uniquely American classic centers on Lyman Ward, a noted historian who relates a fictionalized biography of his pioneer grandparents at a time when he has become estranged from his own family. Through a combination of research, memory, and exaggeration, Ward voices ideas concerning the relationship between history and the present, art and life, parents and children, husbands and wives. Like other great quests in literature, Lyman Ward's investigation leads him deep into the dark shadows of his own life. The result is a deeply moving novel that, through the prism of one family, illuminates the American present against the fascinating background of its past. Set in many parts of the West, Angle of Repose is a story of discoveryâ??personal, historical, and geographicalâ??that endures as Wallace Stegner's masterwork: an illumination of yesterday's reality that speaks to today's… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member lauralkeet
What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their
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future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That's where the interest is. That's where the meaning will be if I find any. (p. 211)

Lyman Ward is writing a family history. More specifically, it's the story of a marriage between his grandmother (Susan Burling Ward) and grandfather (Oliver Ward) who lived in the American West in the late 1800s. Day after day, Lyman pores over family records, news clippings, and letters, and records his thoughts on cassette tapes. Lyman lives alone, is out of touch with his family, and severely disabled due to a bone disease. He gets around in a wheelchair, and uses only a few rooms of his house. Every evening a neighbor woman stops in to check on Lyman and give him his bath, and they have a nightcap together. The story of Susan and Oliver Ward begins around 1870, when Susan was a budding artist in New York. She moves in artsy social circles, and spends nearly every minute with a very dear friend, Augusta. When Augusta decides to marry Susan sees their relationship beginning to change, and she sets her sights on Oliver, a mining engineer. While they agree to marry, the union is put off for several years while Oliver establishes his career and readies a home for himself and Susan.

When frontier historians theorize about the uprooted, the lawless, the purseless, and the socially cut-off who settled the West, they are not talking about people like my grandmother. So much that was cherished and loved, women like her had to give up; and the more they gave it up, the more they carried it helplessly with them. It was a process like ionization: what was subtracted from one pole was added to the other. (p. 277)
In moving west, Susan sacrificed all she knew and held dear. Accustomed to moving in cultured, literate circles, she initially threw herself into mining camp life with gusto. But she brought her art supplies with her, and continued to draw. Augusta's husband Thomas, now a successful magazine editor, commissioned several pieces and relied on Susan for her interesting portraits of life in the far-off west. Susan also enjoyed evenings by the fire with two of Oliver's colleagues, Frank Sargent and Ian Price. In them she found others who loved literature and stimulating conversation; it fed her soul.

I know that Grandfather was trying to do, by personal initiative and with the financial resources of a small and struggling corporation, what only the immense power of the federal government ultimately proved able to do. That does not mean he was foolish or mistaken. He was premature. His clock was set on pioneer time. He met trains that had not yet arrived, he waited on platforms that hadn't yet been built, beside tracks that might never be laid .... Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality. (p. 382)
Oliver was a successful engineer, rewarded for his hard work through promotions and special projects. He was a bit of a dreamer, envisioning possibilities and developing new materials and methods in his own time. He was usually a bit ahead of the curve, with ideas not quite ready for prime time. And while money was often tight, Oliver refused to allow Susan's earnings to be used to support the family. Oliver and Susan had a family, and moved several times for Oliver's work. Their son Ollie (Lyman's father) was often sent to stay with relatives in New York, because the mining camps were deemed unsuitable.

Through his research, Lyman carefully pieces together the story of Oliver and Susan's marriage, reconstructing the series of events which brought their relationship to the "angle of repose" (the angle at which soil settles after being dumped). Susan loved Oliver and had faith in his abilities, but was often disappointed with the actual results. She wanted so badly for her children to grow up refined and "Eastern," and became increasingly frustrated with their living conditions and the people she encountered day-to-day. Susan and Oliver's fortunes, and their hopes for the future, ebb and flow over the years. As Lyman tells Susan and Oliver's story, he tries to come to terms with his own failed marriage and the rapidly changing world around him.

I absolutely loved this book. The prose captured me instantly, and I became completely wrapped up both in Lyman's California of 1970, and the dusty Victorian mining camps. I identified strongly with Susan: her feelings of isolation, her persistence in keeping her artistic talents fresh, her devotion to her family, her longing for intellectual stimulation. And my heart went out to Lyman, with his own isolation and struggles with a failing body. These characters were so real to me; during the week it took me to read this book, I thought about them all the time. Towards the end, I wanted to prolong the relationship -- instead of rushing to finish, I read the last 50 pages very slowly, setting the book aside to make it last. This will undoubtedly make my "Top 10" list for the year.
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LibraryThing member lit_chick
Lyman Ward, a recently divorced university professor, wheelchair-bound by a debilitating bone disease, has retired to the California home of his paternal grandparents, where he is researching the life of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward.

Susan is a genteel, Victorian East-coaster, an
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accomplished artist and writer, and part of New York’s literary elite when she meets Oliver Ward, a mining engineer. Much to the dismay of her friends, she marries him and moves west – her Victorian gentility transplanted to late 1800s frontier. Their peripatetic existence is marred by failure and disappointment, one after the next, as Oliver’s innovative engineering projects seem rarely to come to fruition. The two of them, now with their three children, pick up and move – and move again. Susan, continuing to write and sketch, easily secures steady commissions from the East. But she never wholly submits to her chosen life – holding her superior self, so she deems, always at arm’s length from both West and Westerners. When tragedy besets the family, the irreconcilability of her situation can no longer be dismissed: “I have held myself above my chosen life, with results that I must repent and grieve for the rest of my days. I have not been loyal.” (VIII, 7)

As the novel moves back and forth between frontier and Lyman Ward’s present experience, it is revealed that his own life, too, is characterized by distance from family, by failed relationships. Stegner uses the engineering term, angle of repose, in a brilliant extended metaphor which permeates the novel. Lyman says of his grandparents:

“What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.” (IV, 1)

The Angle of Repose is a novel (an experience really) of the sort that comes along very rarely. I cannot say enough about it: brilliant, outstanding, magnificent, resplendent, I could go on. It has found a place on my list of all-time favourites. Highly, highly recommended.


The prose:
“A trance was on her eyes, she saw up, down, ahead, and to both sides without moving head or eyeballs. Before her, reaching to her feet, was the pocked, silvered dust of the corral, across which the shadow of the opposite fence was drawn like a musical staff. High across the river her window glowed orange; straight ahead, and up, Arrow Rock jutted black beside the moon. All her right hand was a blackness of cliff. Upward the sky opened, a broad strip of silver gilt with the moon burning through it and stars like fading sparks flung down toward the world's rim.” (VII, 7)
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LibraryThing member -Cee-
This was a book that swept me away! Nothing else around me existed while I was reading this. It will no doubt be in my top 10 this year.

Stegner's writing was stuffed with gems of insight on human behavior and emotions, and beautifully detailed descriptions. There are so many impressive passages
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that stick with me - unforgettable, disturbing, thoughtful. Stegner imposes a realistic sense of the great distance geographically and culturally between the East and West as the country expanded, and presents a kaleidoscope of conflicting lifestyles, values and morals. Strong (many times downright hard) character and cooperation in building a civilized frontier, sacrifices, tragedy, life-changing decisions, betrayal, struggles of marriage, forgiveness - it's all there.

I'm convinced by many LTers that Stegner has written much that is great. I can't imagine I would like another story any better. But I will definitely read more of his books in the hope they are as wholly satisfactory as this one.
Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
I know that my review won't do this book justice. So, suffice it to say that if you haven't read this book, you should. It's is definitely among my favorite books of the past few years.

Lyman Ward is a retired historian. Confined to a wheelchair, he returns to his grandparents' house to read
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through old papers and write their story. And what a story it is. Oliver Ward is a quintessential westerner, an engineer who works in mining and builds canals. His wife Susan never quite feels comfortable in the west. She is an artist and a writer who places a high value on civility and culture. But it is through her eyes, the eyes of an artist, that the west comes alive in this book.

The story moves fluidly from Susan and Oliver's life in the late nineteenth century to Lyman's life in the present day (the early 1970s). Stegner uses this device to build suspense. Especially near the end of the book, we are learning the secrets of Susan and Oliver along with Lyman. This also allows us to see parallels between the challenges faced by Susan and Oliver and those in Lyman's life. There is a strong sense of place and time in both parts of the story. In the end, this is a story full of big ideas. It is a story of the west - of its invention and reinvention. It is a story of relationships and the difficulty in maintaining them. It is a story of tension - tension between east and west, betwen civilation and exploration, between living fully and surviving.

Because Susan is an artist, Stegner provides many descriptions of her sketches and paintings. I found myself wishing I could see these. Her work is so much a part of her that I felt I couldn't know the character without seeing the art. But about halfway through the book, I realized that Stegner was providing vivid pictures of the west. His medium is words, and he uses them as masterfully as any artist.

Without question, a five-star read.
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LibraryThing member 1morechapter
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. It is a story about family, marriage, and even American history. Susan Burling Ward, an artist from the East, goes West with her Western mining engineer husband to “begin a new civilization”. Their struggles with each other,
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with outsiders, and the land itself are chronicled by Lyman Ward, their grandson who is a retired history professor. As Lyman ends their story, he realizes certain parallel struggles in his own story and wonders how he will overcome them.

I enjoyed Stegner’s writing very much. I thought his portrayal of Susan was very convincing. I enjoyed his grandparents’ story a little more than his own just because there was some s*xual dialogue used that I don’t care for. These were few and far between though, and I do plan on reading more from this author.
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LibraryThing member Polaris-
Quite a memorable read, although it did feel like a bit of a slog where it lagged in some of the middle chapters. Stegner's writing is sumptuous and full of beautiful lyrical description of setting and a real sense of a place in time.

The novel is set in the early 1970s as a retired academic writes
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the story of his grandparents' marriage through a series of discovered letters, artefacts and clippings. The family story begins in the 1870s and spans a period of roughly 15 years as the saga is told. A talented and artistic young women begins her life with an ambitious and somewhat stoic engineer who plans to help pioneer in the American west. Via California, Colorado, Mexico, Idaho and later back to California the story weaves between episodes of hope and despair as one fate befalls another.

Concurrently, the author, writing from his wheelchair in the ancestral cottage in California, looks at the process of marriage and life with disappointment both in his grandparents' past and in his own present. Very believable characters and expansive prose serve to transport the reader effectively to a world gone by - some of the descriptive passages of travelling in the old west especially stood out as some of the best I've ever read.

This is the first book of his that I've read and I will definitely read more.
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LibraryThing member PiyushC
Dare I say it, dare I rate it, with a month still left in the year, as my read of the year? There have been few contenders this year, and I have generally refrained from making absolute statements like these, I have tried to take the easier way out these last two years, by rating my Top 5 reads of
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the year rather than an absolute 1 or 3. I will take my chances, I will bear the consequences, the shame of editions in my thread, my blog, my review, and declare this one to be the winner, an absolute read, a work of perfection.

I exaggerate perhaps, and yet sometimes hyperbole is the best figure of speech to come near the true magnitude of the event, its worth to the singer of an ode, not always an absolute measure, and yet more relevant to the cause.

This was a book about nothing really, an old man with a stump sitting all day in a wheelchair, reading letters and correspondences of and belonging to his grandmother, tracking, plotting, jotting, piecing together her life events, adding a missing piece or two out of his own imagination, creating a biography no one would perhaps read, not even his own son. One cannot probably come up with a duller story, a theme so bankrupt in drama, that it would be a chore to read a 50 pages worth of short story, let alone a full work of 569 pages. Well, apart from the fact that it wasn't...

The story tracks the life of a cultured lady, a lady of art, of creation, travelling across the barren acres of the wild wild west, a life away from what she was accustomed to, away from whoever she held near and dear, away from the accomplishments and accolades she could have gained, the pleasures and experiences she forsook, in her free will, an action which would cause her lifelong misery and bitterness. In the background is the equally shattered life of her grandson, her biographer, in some ways set in his ideas as much as his grandmother, in others, even more so. A moralist of sorts, instinctive to judge, headstrong, unforgiving, disappointed father, heartbroken husband, proud son, prouder grandson.

There are probably a dozen other characters, some short, others shorter and amazingly, they are all fleshed out. The screen time, the page length, not withstanding. We know those characters more intimately than protagonists of tomes. The power of the written word, good writing, excellent writing!

This one was a strong recommendation from my Classics buddy, Mac, and I am so glad, so very glad, that I took up his suggestion, late by over a year, better than never.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Heraclitus and I, prophets of flux, know that the flux is composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other. Am or was, I am cumulative, too. I am everything I ever was... I am much of what my parents and especially my grandparents were—inherited stature, coloring, brains,
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transmitted prejudices, culture, scruples, likings, moralities, and moral errors that I defend as if they were personal and not familial.

When the book opens, history professor Lyman Ward has returned to his childhood home - his grandparents' house in Grass Valley, California. A bone disease has severely restricted his movement and confined him to a wheelchair, but his mind is still active. He plans to devote his time to reading his grandmother's papers and writing the story of their marriage. Ward's grandmother was Susan Burling Ward, an artist and writer who had followed her mining engineer husband west after their marriage. Susan was a cultured woman, and she didn't intend to spend her whole life in the “wild west”. Once her husband established himself in a career, she believed they would return to the East where she would resume her position among her cultured friends. That didn't happen. Lyman's research among his grandmother's letters, diaries, and papers reveals the hopes and disappointments of his grandparents' marriage and their shared life in the West.

As Lyman tells Susan and Oliver's story, it's easy to forget that, while they're the subject of the book that Lyman is writing, Lyman himself is the central character of this novel. The opening sentence establishes a conflict: “Now I believe they will leave me alone.” Who is they? Lyman's son, Rodman, for one. But who else? What do they want Lyman to do that he doesn't want to do? Lyman sets aside his own conflict to research and write about his grandparents' lives. Lyman is good at avoiding his problems, except when he's forced to by a surprise visit from his son, or by the provocative comments of his assistant, Shelly, a product of the 1960s counterculture. Every now and then Lyman has a thought or makes a connection that inserts itself into his grandparents' story, reminding readers of his presence.

This novel will likely be among my top five reads for the year. It's a book deserving of careful study and multiple readings. I'm already thinking about my next reading of this book, when I'll pay more attention to its structure than the story.
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LibraryThing member KatherineGregg
Lyman Ward, 58 years old and living in his grandparents' former house in California, discovers his grandmother's correspondence. A scholar and a retired professor, Lyman reflects back on the life of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, as he sifts through stacks of her letters and newspaper
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clippings. As a side note, Lyman is an amputee and gets by with the help of an elderly couple and their daughter who is helping him organize his grandmother's letters. Lyman is now divorced and his son, Rodman, is anxious to move him into assisted living. However, Lyman is mentally fit, and as long as he has helpers, he is happy and able to live in his own house. As Lyman makes sense of Susan's life, he works on her biography which at the same time helps him make sense of his own life.

Susan Burling, originally from the Boston area, marries Oliver Ward who takes her west so he can pursue his somewhat speculative career in engineering working for mines and the railroads. The timeframe is the late 19th century and frontier life is difficult. Bad luck and failed business dealings derail Oliver's plans as he plods along, moving his family from place to place. Meanwhile, Susan corresponds with Augusta, her best friend from Boston. Augusta has married well and lives a comfortable life rich in culture. It is the correspondence between Susan and Augusta that Lyman has cataloged in order to write his grandmother's biography. Susan slowly grew unhappy in her marriage. Although she admired and respected Oliver, she fell in love with Frank, her husband's close affiliate. At times she compared her difficult and rugged life in the west with Augusta's privileged lifestyle back east. Tragedy struck sometime in her 40s when Susan's youngest daughter Agnes was found drowned, and when Frank fatally shot himself. Susan was a Victorian and couldn't part with her puritan framework so stuck out the marriage to Oliver to the bitter end.

The definition of "angle of repose" is "the steepest angle at which a sloping surface formed of particular loose material is stable.” Oxford Dictionary. The definition hints at the instability and constant change that was a force in Oliver's engineering occupation in the west. “Angle of repose” also becomes a metaphor for the relationship between Oliver and Susan, as well as a description of the era of the 1970’s, which Lyman believes is responsible for a rift between himself and his son, Rodman.

The book is beautifully written, and I didn't want for it to end.
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LibraryThing member stevesmits
This book is described by critics as a modern classic and it surely deserves high praise. It is the story of pioneering settlement of the west through the lives of the grandparents of the narrator. Lyman Ward is a retired history professor who is experiencing a debilitating disease that is causing
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his body to become rigid. He retires to the California home of his grandparents where he is determined to live on his own and to write the biography of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, who had died at 90 thirty years before. He has come into a trove of letters written by Susan to her closest friend back east. Susan Ward (based on a real person -- more on this later) is a part of the literary elite of the east coast by virture of her artistic and literary skills. She is a favorite illustrator for magazines and books and becomes a popular author of articles and short stories about western life. Susan is the epitome of eastern gentility and passionately values the high culture of her literary circle. Susan, to the doubts and disappointment of her friends, married Oliver Ward, a mining engineer who she met at a party in New York. Oliver attended Yale, but not to graduation, and has determined to make his career and fortune in western mining and public works. The story follows the couple's peripatetic life through the west, moving from place to place across the western territories and Mexico. Susan clings ardently to her eastern sensibilities about values and culture, sometimes describing herself as snobbish in this regard. At the same time, she works hard at making as good a life as possible in the remote and often lonely places where the family settles. Susan genuinely loves her husband, but is drawn to doubts, clearly held by her friends, that she has married beneath her status. Oliver is ambitious and smart, but always falls short of success as he is not able to bring his innovative ideas to full implementation. He does not have good business sense and is outfoxed by others he trusts too much.

In Susan we clearly see the contrasts and clash between the eastern values and standards and the rawness of the west in its developmental time. Susan holds so strongly to eastern values that she is unable to adjust to the realities of western living. She is also a picture of the gentility and mores of Victorian womanhood and this, while seemingly admirable, causes great strains in her life and on her family. She is loyal to her husband, cherishes her children and strives to make her household and family the center of her everyday life. While not giving details to spoil the unfolding of events, it is enough to say a crisis occurs which brings the irreconcilability of her situation to a conclusion.

Should we admire Susan or not? Her standards express the highest levels of culture and learning in our country at the time and her firm adherence to these is to be respected. At the same time, these standards, as the principal basis of her life, do not fit well in the western milieu. Notably, Susan makes great effort to adjust physically to the western environment, but intellectually and emotionally she cannot leave her eastern life. There is a parallel between her and Oliver in that Oliver's failings are somewhat due to being ahead of his time; he cannot bring to closure the engineering innovations the west is not ready for. Susan, as well, frames her existence on cultural standards that don't fit well in her time in the west.

Another prominent theme in the book is Lyman Ward. He is estranged from his family; his children urge him to go a retirement home and his wife has left him in a cruel way. In looking back on the earlier family he remembers with love and reverence he grapples with the distortions of time and personal involvement. Can he be objective as a historian about Susan and Oliver? As their descendent with his own family's failings should he be?

Stegner writes this book in the early 1970's. There is an interesting, often amusing, portrayal of the "modern" culture in its contrast with late 19th century values, especially the "hippiedom" that is described through his relationship with a young caregiver. From our perspective now 40+ years later his cynicism is satisfying.

Finally, there is some notable reactions to the book that have occured in the years after its publication. Susan Ward is based on a real person. Mary Hallock Foote was an illustrator and author whose life is the basis for the fictional character of Susan. Stegner came across letters written by Mary to her eastern friend and uses these to structure the character and story. Stegner received the permission of one of Foote's descendents to use the letters, but promised to change elements in the story so that Foote would not be identifible. He did this, but in ways that, if ascribed to Foote, would be damaging to her memory. Susan's relationship with her friend Augusta has connotations of a homosexual one and her relationship with one of Frank's friends, which is key to the story, was invented. When others in Foote's family saw this depiction they were very unhappy. Also, instead, as he had suggested he would, of using the letters as a prompt for his story line, Stegner quotes verbatium large passages of Foote's letters. I think this controversy is overblown. Fiction is fiction and while Stegner might have been clearer to the family (he did offer them the chance to read the manuscript which they failed to do) the license of a fiction writer is expansive.

This summary does not do full justice to the richness of this book. (The writing is marvelous!) I think it deserves the rank it has been given in American literature.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
Lyman Ward, a retired history professor and writer, returns to his grandparent’s home in Grass Valley, California - wheelchair bound and facing a progressive, crippling bone disease. His intent is to research his grandmother’s life through the news clippings and letters of her past. To write
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her story, Ward must fill in gaps, imagine conversations, and uncover the truths which lie hidden in Susan Burling Ward’s history. During this one hot, dry summer in a quest to know his grandmother, he will discover the meaning beneath the shadows of his own life.

Wallace Stegner penned Angle of Repose in 1971 for which he won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. The novel - said to be his masterpiece - connects two points in American history…that of the late nineteenth century West with that of the turbulent, sometimes self-indulgent Vietnam era. Stegner creates complex and intriguing characters. Susan Burling (based on the historical figure of Mary Hallock Foote - a nineteenth century writer and illustrator) becomes an unlikely pioneer when she marries the quiet and ambitious dreamer Oliver Ward. Their adventures in mining camps and the vast wilderness of Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and California create a backdrop of unbelievable beauty and isolation from which their lives unfold.

Angle of Repose is not simply an historical novel. It explores the idea of identity and how the past often intersects the present. When Lyman Ward explores his grandmother’s story, he is really seeking to find understanding in his own life.

Stegner’s prose is alluring, filled with gorgeous descriptions which engage the reader’s senses. His characters are bigger than life, but carry real flaws which allow the reader to identify with them; to nod in understanding; to empathize with their torments and cheer for their successes. I can understand why Angle of Repose is lauded, why it captured the Pulitzer and why readers are quick to recommend it. I found myself completely immersed in the lives of Susan, Oliver and Lyman Ward and I was sad to turn the last page of this sprawling and satisfying novel.

Highly recommended; a must read.
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LibraryThing member rosalita
Historian Lyman Ward, 58 years old and suffering from a crippling bone disease that is slowly immobilizing his entire body, retreats to a remote mountain cottage in California to write a biography of his grandmother, a woman who made a name for herself in the late 19th century as an artist and a
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writer, and as the genteel wife of a rough-and-tumble mining engineer. Really, Ward's book is a portrait of a marriage, and the ways that these two wildly mismatched people come together and ultimately fall apart. Much of the book is told through lengthy quotations from his grandmother's letters and private papers, and even as Lyman tries to bury his hopeless present and future in an attempt to understand his family's past, he is forced to draw parallels between the lives of his grandparents and his own circumstances.

The introduction to my edition informed me that Stegner used an actual Victorian woman's letters and papers — verbatim in some place — to create his character, which did not endear him to some of the woman's descendants. That was mildly interesting but the story that Stegner tells and the characters he creates are much more fascinating.

There was a point about halfway to two-thirds of the way through this 500-plus-page book that I felt the story dragged a bit, but by the end I was once again fully invested in Stegner's characters. Overall, I probably enjoyed reading Stegner's [Crossing to Safety] just a little bit more, but this one still earns a recommendation from me.
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LibraryThing member MarianV
Angle of repose is a term used by geologists to determine the place where an object, perhaps after much traveling, has finally come to rest. Wallace Stegner uses this term as the title of his novel about the settling of the American North-West in the 1890's. The story begins with a retired
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historian researching the lives of his grandparents who moved from the comforts of the East coast to the wild plains of Montana. His grandfather was a surveyor & engineer. His grandmother was an artist who had already attracted notice from critics when she left her place in society to join her husband in what she believed to be a great adventure.
The story weaves between the historian narrator (who is old & infirm) & the grandparents - who we see as young, adventurous newly-weds. This could be a love story, but life in the newly-settled territories was harsh & demanding. Mis-understandings arise & the ultimate tragedy drives them apart. Still, they are unable to let each other go. The historian ponders their silent history as his own world of once solid, reliable academia is rocked by the hippie rebelion at his Berkely CA campus. Yet he struggles to understand the world around him & tries not to repeat his grandfather's choice of closing his mind to any possibility that his choice might not be the only one.
The one problem I had reading this book was the back & forth between 1890 & the (then) turbulent 1960's. Seen from a distance of 40 years later, I don't think the "Hippie revolt" had the significance that Stegner gives to it. The story of the pioneer couple was certainly strong enough to stand on its own. Incidently, Stegner modeled the story of his female character on the life of a real artist who had published an account of her life in the "wild west." Stegner was accused of plagiarism, but he did not plariaize. The words he used were all his own.
ANGLE OF REPOSE was awarded a pulitzer prize for fiction.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
I'm afraid I must come down solidly in the contrarian camp on this one. So many LT colleagues have loved and praised [Angle of Repose], but rarely has a fine author frustrated me more than Stegner did here. When I started reading it, I thought I was going to set it aside almost immediately. I
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didn't "take" to the narrator, Lyman Ward, who sets out to research his grandmother's life and write her biography. Nevertheless, once the story of Susan Burling Ward began, I changed my mind, hated to put the book down, couldn't wait to get back to it.

With her talent for drawing, and his practical, idealistic plans for engineering projects, Susan and her husband Oliver seemed destined to leave their mark on civilization, setting out into the American West in the second half of the 19th century. These sections of the novel are often brilliant, containing icy-fresh prose and damnably fine evocations of terrain, weather, landscape and sky. But when the author reverts to Lyman's story, which is as grotesque as his mutilated calcified body, I simply could not care about, nor could I see the point of his torment, in the context of the novel. Ostensibly, there were to be connections made between his situation and his grandparents' life. He had known and loved both Susan and Oliver Ward, and he set out to understand something about their blighted marriage that he apparently hoped might help him deal with his own. As far as I could see, that didn't happen, while his story added nothing to theirs, which began to feel repetitious as one scheme after another came to nothing, and the elder Wards drifted apart. Although her writing and drawing were often the family's primary source of support, neither Susan nor her husband seemed to hold them in any particular regard. The respect and admiration Susan once felt for Oliver's single-minded pursuit of a dream dwindled with his prospects. As Oliver's latest venture failed yet again, necessitating yet another long separation from Susan and their children, not even Stegner's mastery of the language and talent for description of the grandeur of the American western landscape could make me want any more of it. And I grew impatient with Susan's interminable letters to her beloved friend back home, parts of which are apparently not Stegner's invention, but actual excerpts from correspondence written by the woman who was his model for Susan, Mary Hallock Foote. Frequently, Lyman Ward inserts himself into the narrative, telling us what he knows, and what he only imagines; where he got certain details, and which ones he has had to "fill in" when the source material is silent. I was overcome with irritation at what I call "TMA" (too much author). The distinction between fact and fiction, narrator and author became blurry. I'm not a fan of the modern frame for the historical story, as I have seldom seen it done without finding it contrived. Finally, I found the modern ending awkward, painful and bewildering, while the conclusion of Susan's story was abrupt and unsatisfying. It pains me to be so negative about [Angle of Repose], which I have anticipated reading for several years. Unlike many other lauded works of fiction that just didn't work for me, I don't even feel inclined to give this one another chance some day.

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LibraryThing member hellemic
A richly told fictional history of one man's own life and that of his grandparents, with stories of hardships, dreams, and familial concerns crossing and paralleling. Includes fascinating details of California history. Beautifully written.
LibraryThing member jennjack
At a large gathering at an independent bookstore, we were asked to wear a tag with the name of our favorite book, instead of a name tag. I saw many, many people with "Angle of Repose" on their lapels. It is a family history, a saga of the westward migration and its hardships, and a moving personal
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story. I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member pstock
Angle of Repose became the best friend I didn't know I needed and was my introduction to Stegner's work.

It was during difficulty adjusting to a move to California that I discovered the book, actually recommended to me by a wonderful librarian.
LibraryThing member maryreinert
This novel touches on several historical and contemporary issues. Sexism, the role of women, marriage, dependency, family relationships are all examined through the family research of Lyman Ward, a disabled divorced professor. Marriage whether in the 1880's or the 1980's can be very complicated.
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Add adversity to the mix and it can become almost impossible whether one stays in the marriage or leaves it. As Susan writes to her friend back east: "We pretend that by not speaking of them [problems] we have made them not exist. Yet, it is not the marriage I dreamed of, or the marriage it was. It is a bruised and careful truce; we walk in bandages and try not to bump our wounds."

Heavy subjects yet told with humor (Lyman's unsaid remarks about his son and his caretaker are truly zingers). The last several chapters pull the entire story together as well as any novel I have read. The metaphorical use of the engineering/geological term "angle of repose" throughout the story is brilliant. This was truly deserving of a Pulitzer Prize and one that I would highly recommend to anyone looking for a well written, thoughtful, poignant novel sprinkled with humor.
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LibraryThing member kellifrobinson
This quiet book hit home for me on multiple levels and I enjoyed this read very much. The format is a story within a story - one set in the present of the 1970s and the other set in the late 1880s - and the narrator, a retired and disabled Berkley professor, is struggling to write a history of his
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grandparent's lives while simultaneously reflecting on his own lot in life. As a budding genealogist with a secret wish to capture my own family's history on paper, I was drawn to the historical nature of the story as well as the narrator's mission. The book also spoke to me on an emotional level and I enjoyed the study of relationships, and especially the power play between the narrator's grandparents. The balance between his grandmother's career and preconceived notions of what her marriage and husband "should be" and their impact on her husband and children felt very contemporary. Although I have questioned the award of the Pulitzer Prize in the past, this time the accolades are justified.
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LibraryThing member MaggieFlo
While reading this story it becomes clear why this book won the Pulitzer prize for Wallace Stegner. The prose is so well done, the emotions of the characters are very true, the scenery is vivid and the economic times and hardships are well described. The narrator, Lyman Ward in the present day
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(1970s), is writing a biography of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, a genteel, sophisticated well educated woman from New York State who married Oliver Ward, a mining engineer. We follow Professor Ward's struggle with his physical disabilities and his hired help as he uncovers the story and struggles of Susan and Oliver. They love each other very much and she follows him west to mining towns in all kinds of climates. Many of the mines and irrigation projects are failures because they are barren or the financial backers run out of cash. Through all this, she supports the family with her drawings and her stories which are published back east. They raise three children in difficult circumstances and Susan tries to overcome her disappointment in another failure. Oliver is a very clever but stubborn man and continues to search for viable work. Tragedy strikes the family and they grow further apart but eventually are able to reconcile a life together. They both live to very old age.
The story is based on the true lives of Mary Hallock Foote and Arthur Dewint Foote, both very successful figures in their own fields of work.
It is really interesting to see how this 19 th century couple is able to maintain their love for each other through so many struggles while those around Lyman Ward cannot stay together.
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LibraryThing member Matke
A wonderful novel about a marriage in the late 1800's . The wife's career, and indeed her entire life is---surprise!---subordinated to her husband's. These two people couldn't be more unlike: she very "refined" from a cultured eastern background, a writer and artist; the husband an extremely
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talented and impractical engineer.
Although I don't usually like books with a western setting, this is a fascinating exploration of mining and other engineering endeavors, and the difficulty of getting, and keeping, adequate funding to complete projects.
As you read, the characters become very real people. Motivations and actions are completely believable. Stegner uses the now familiar, but then fairly new, conceit of a person writing a history and how that writing effects the historian's own life and character.
I loved this book.
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LibraryThing member MichaelMenche
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,” Wallace Stegner wrote in his “Wilderness Letter,” the reading of which is even more worthwhile than a hike in the woods. Intended as support for governmental land preservation, this 1960
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epistle was earnest, passionate and eloquent enough to be recycled as a profession of faith by The Wilderness Society and The Sierra Club—as well as by parks in Africa, Canada and Australia—to this day.

A novelist and historian, Stegner (of whom the centathlete, as an Easterner who lives where citylight washes out the stars, was completely ignorant) addressed the profoundly revitalizing benefits of the Great Outdoors to an American’s spirit and character, and his closeness to nature growing up “on the empty plains of Saskatchewan and Montana and in the mountains of Utah.” He also suggested that modern man needs escape, even if temporary, from the “technological termite-life” that breeds insanity and malignance, conditions that have festered, in his opinion, for decades:

“It seems to me significant that the distinct downturn in our literature from hope to bitterness took place almost at the precise time when the frontier officially came to an end, in 1890, and when the American way of life had begun to turn strongly urban and industrial. The more urban it has become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our literature, and I believe our people, have become.”

The “official” closing Stegner noted was popularized by Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 paper, The Frontier in American History. Turner cited a brief statement about the frontier in the U.S. Census of 1890; he expounded on the “perennial rebirth” and the “fluidity of American life” as a result of ongoing expansion into the West, and he argued that “with [the frontier’s] going has closed the first period of American history.” This thesis has been canonized and, more recently, disparaged by contemporary scholars—in any case the centathlete recalls that rudimentary recognition of Turner and his argument was required in multiple-choice questions on high school history exams.

Stegner’s concurrence with the thrust of Turner’s argument is evident in his 1971 novel, Angle of Repose, which presents a contemporary retired historian relating the life of his grandparents in various far-flung locations out west in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Significantly, the base story concludes in 1890, suggesting that the grandparents’ “frontier days” are over and going forward they must come to terms with a circumscribed, negotiated life together. Look out for “1890” in future retrospectives.

The novel’s heroine, Susan Burling Ward, is an artist and writer who leaves genteel society and cherished personal ties in New York’s Hudson Valley to live with her itinerant engineer husband. She is a Quaker, as reinforced by her usage of “thee” (a Quaker form of address meant to express belief in the equality of all people), which evokes another community that scratched out a life on a harsh frontier of sorts.

Several years go the centathlete traveled to Costa Rica and visited Monteverde, home to a cloud forest, essentially a rainforest (a jungle that receives more than 80” of annual rainfall) at altitude. This reserve was created largely out of land owned by 12 Quaker families from Alabama who had moved there in 1951 in protest of the U.S. military draft.

The resettled Quakers, many of whom still reside in Monteverde, were acting as custodians of the natural environment long before ecotourism was cool (there were at most 60 visitors per year during the 1950’s; there are now more than 50,000 per year).

During one hike through an incredibly lush jungle, the guide explained that ranchers had cleared the entire area, which was then purchased by conservationists who let it alone to grow back quickly in all its diversity. The key to such rebirth is that it must take place within 10 years; even the fertile Costa Rican soil demands a statute of limitations. During an unguided walk a late-morning downpour prompted the howling of unseen monkeys in the treetops. The moment testified to a human’s status as just one minor player in an ancient, uncontrolled drama.

Wallace Stegner was not a Quaker like the Costa Rican conservationists, his heroine Susan Ward, and his fellow historical novelist James Michener (two years older than Stegner), who comes to mind while reading Angle of Repose in light of the family-typifying-an-era formula, geographical and occupational detail, and mixing of fictional characters with actual people. One panner called the novel “a dandified Michener,” a brusque put-down the centathlete considers a hearty recommendation.

Susan Ward and her Eastern friends mingle with impressively accomplished and named personages such as John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Dean Howells. One specimen of the narrative’s name-dropping (we might think of it as a “buffalo chip,” in honor of the prairies traversed by the Wards) is Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Irish-American sculptor whose work included the monument to General Sherman by the southeastern entrance of New York’s Central Park.

The centathlete lives on the same city block as the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Playground, advertised as displaying “bronze and porcelain decorations that harmonize with the new gates, garden area, and play equipment.” This landmark is an ostensible tribute to the Gilded Age artist, but the decorations are few and unremarkable, and any hint of harmonious commemoration is overwhelmed daily by screaming, scrambling toddlers and urchins—Bah, humbug!

Like the Costa Rican Quakers, Wallace Stegner voiced pacifist and egalitarian policies. He opposed the Vietnam War from the beginning and he wrote about unfair discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities. His public status was due not just to his books—he was the head of Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program, which he founded in 1946.

One student, Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while at Stanford, said, “I always compared Stegner to Vince Lombardi—he put together not only a good team but a good team of supporting coaches.”

Another, Nancy Packer, observed that Stegner was “courteous, attentive and forbearing” with students, and extremely disciplined in his own work, balancing writing and teaching equally for 25 years at Stanford.

Stegner was uncomfortable with aspects of the counterculture that arose in the Bay Area during the late 1960’s; he dramatized his disdain for history-renouncing radicalism in Angle of Repose through the repartee between the curmudgeonly narrator, Lyman Ward, and the bra-less hippie, Shelly Rasmussen. In 1971 he retired to devote himself to writing, as his wife, Mary Page Stegner, reported:

“Wally didn’t like the way students were trashing the campus, and he didn’t like the fact that they didn’t come to class. He decided he didn’t have to teach, and he said there was no point in teaching when people weren’t coming to class.”

Discipline and endurance, characteristics that Stegner valued and practiced, are evident throughout Angle of Repose. The novel is experienced as a series of arduous slogs enriched by meticulous appreciation of the rugged environments and respect for the enormity of the mining and irrigation projects. Dynamic plot developments, epiphanies and coincidental encounters are scarce and downplayed, in keeping with the upholding of the continuous dedication and resourcefulness that actual pioneers demonstrated.

Then there is the dream sequence in the final chapter, a coda that diverges from the sustained, measured tempo and guarded perspectives of the prior narrative by presenting concentrated, charged intimacies. This coda wraps up the interaction between the past and the present, offering hope for a livable future to be earned.

Stegner was described as “honest and straightforward” and engaged in “debunking myths of the West as a romantic country of heroes on horseback.” The man himself said, “The West does not need to explore its myths much further; it has already relied on them too long.”

Had he been present at certain TV-studio meetings in the mid-1960’s, Stegner would likely have scoffed at one producer’s sales pitch for a new show, promoted as “Wagon Train to the stars.” A popular network melodrama from 1957-1965, Wagon Train was precisely the type of hokey, inaccurate fiction that Stegner sought to dispel.

After Star Trek was greenlighted, its producer-writer Gene Roddenberry drew on a government document (recalling Turner’s reliance on the U.S. Census Report) to craft his famous introduction for each installment. We can imagine the degrees of skepticism, caution and acceptance with which Wallace Stegner would have greeted the first line of Captain James T. Kirk’s monologue, “Space, the final frontier.”
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LibraryThing member Oregonreader
Stegner has to number among America's best writers. He has an understanding of the west and an ability to describe the land and life there that is unsurpassed. In this book, he weaves two stories, one taking place in the 19th century and one in modern times. In 1868, Susan Burling leaves New York
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and follows her mining engineer husband out to South Dakota and Wyoming. The story details her slow acceptance and appreciation of life there. Her story is related by her grandson, Lyman Ward, as he struggles to accept his old age and physical infirmity. The earlier story is the stronger one, maybe because the characters are more interesting and distinct. A wonderful read.
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LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
Mr. Stegner puts a close up view on marriage - the marriage of two people who bring different ideals of life, of what is worthwhile, of what they think of each other. While other themes swirl around (the settling of the West, the rejection of American ideals by the 60's generation, among others)
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the pressure on Susan and Oliver from their own unrealized dreams and their disappointment in each other plays out to the inevitable tragedy. The novel asks - what price forgiveness? where do pride and self-worth fit in with mercy? what can we truly expect from each other and what do we do when we find ourselves let down? So many things to think about - I loved Mr. Stegner's observations on what happens when we try to push each other to change (and reminds me of his novel, "Crossing to Safety") as well as his thoughts on the importance of faith in a marriage. A great book.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, which depicts the taming of the American West through the life of one family. The structure he chose is an unusual one. Instead of presenting a straightforward historical narrative, he tells the story from the point of view of Lyman Ward, a historian
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living in the early 1970s, who is researching and writing about the lives of his grandparents in the frontier West. Lyman suffers from a debilitating bone cancer and is confined to a wheelchair. The only life left to him is the one he lives vicariously through his grandmother's eyes, as he follows her early life as the wife of a mining engineer and a well-known artist and writer in her own right. As her story unfolds, Lyman's own past and the issues he grapples with are slowly revealed.

The novel starts out strongly, as Lyman's grandmother, Susan, meets Oliver Ward, is wooed and won, and follows him from one desolate mining camp to another. Their early lives together are marked by dashed hopes and failed ambitions, and Susan Ward is not always easy to like. But we are slowly drawn to care about her and what happens to her.

Where the book failed fro me is at the climax (I won't reveal too many details, so as not to spoil it). We have been privy to Susan's innermost thoughts and feelings for so long, yet when we come to the turning point of her life, Stegner suddenly pulls back. We aren't allowed to witness the pivotal scene, only to view its aftermath, and that from a distance. I'm sure this was a deliberate choice on Stegner's part, reflecting Lyman's refusal to face head-on his grandparents' largest flaws, but I don't think it works for the reader -- at least, not for this reader. It is frustratingly dissatisfying to invest all this time in a story (and it is a long book) and not be allowed to take part in the climax. The sequence where Lyman wrestles his own inner demons I found just bizarre, jarring me out of the story altogether. I can appreciate what Stegner was trying to do, but I still put the book down feeling somewhat let down by the ending.
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