My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Like his contemporaries James Agee and John Steinbeck, and his literary predecessor, Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner captures a voice that is uniquely American and imbues it with a spirit of tenderness and sorrow, hope and survival.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain was published when Stegner was only 34. He was already a prolific writer, but this autobiographical novel brought him the first glimmer of literary fame that would grow to a shining light and earn him the moniker “Dean of Western writers.”
It is a story of epic tragedy that spans the early years of the 20th century through the mid 1930’s. The central theme is grand: it reveals the ending of the dream that was the American West. By the ‘teens, those vast open spaces were nearly filled and the once-wild frontiers had borders. The myths of oil and mineral wealth, the flu pandemic, and economic uncertainty busted the most promising boom towns; the unforgiving terrain and cruel climate crippled farming families and sent them to the cities of Salt Lake, Seattle, and Los Angeles to seek work and shelter.
To take this grand theme from epic story to intimate portrait, Stegner leads us into the heart of a small family desperately seeking the American dream. Bo Mason, his wife Elsa and their young sons Chet and Bruce, personify all that is most hopeful, vital, desperate and tragic about that dream. Like a firefly caught in a jar, Bo Mason flings himself wildly from one get-rich-quick-scheme to the next, dragging his family from shack to tent, homestead to tenement through the Dakotas to Idaho; from Saskatchewan to Seattle; from Salt Lake City to Lake Tahoe. Bo works tirelessly at his ill-conceived schemes; he is earnest and determined. He is also cruel, quick-tempered, selfish and vain. His wife and sons spin nearly helplessly around the vortex of his moods. Stegner, however, never treats Elsa as a victim. He gives her a strong will, clear choices, and opportunities to change her fate. Yet each time, she chooses Bo. Her sons, driven by desire to escape from their father’s oppressive shadow and shameful reputation, make choices they hope will lead them far from the family’s quixotic journeys.
Stegner allows each character a voice, moving seamlessly from husband, wife, son, brother, so that you have a full view of this family from every perspective and develop affection for each, despite their deep, frustrating flaws.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain is loosely based on Stegner’s childhood and adolescence rambling around the American West and the Canadian plains with his parents and older brother. The character of Bruce, a sensitive child coddled and protected by his mother, and often the target of his father’s wrath, is Stegner’s literary other. The losses Bruce suffers as a child and a young man mirror Stegner’s own and the latter part of the novel takes on a very personal and reflective tone, as Bruce becomes the sole survivor of the Mason family tragedy.
Clearly, this is a heavy read, but it is beautiful and gripping. The tragedies presented without melodrama; nearly all are the result of human misjudgment and folly, not some Jobian set of heavenly-sent trials. My heart broke time and again, but the beauty of Stegner’s prose sustained and uplifted it even during the darkest moments.