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Book Clubbing


Crossing to Safety
by Wallace Stegner



Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner

Author Interview

About the Book

Called a “magnificently crafted story . . . brimming with wisdom” by Howard Frank Mosher in The Washington Post Book World, Crossing to Safety has, since its publication in 1987, established itself as one of the greatest and most cherished American novels of the twentieth century. Tracing the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples who move between Vermont and Wisconsin, it is a work of quiet majesty, deep compassion, and powerful insight into the alchemy of friendship and marriage. (From the publisher.) 

About the Author

  • 1937 Little Brown Prize for Remembering Laughter
  • 1945 Houghton-Mifflin Life-in-America Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for
  • One Nation
  • 1950-1951 Rockefeller fellowship to teach writers in the Far East
  • 1953 Wenner-Gren Foundation grant
  • 1956 Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences fellowship
  • 1967 Commonwealth Club Medal for All the Little Live Things
  • 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Angle of Repose
  • 1976 Commonwealth Club Medal for The Spectator Bird
  • 1977 National Book Award for The Spectator Bird
  • 1980 Los Angeles Times Kirsch award for lifetime achievement
  • 1990 Center USA West award for his body of work
  • 1991 California Arts Council award for his body of work
  • 1992 National Endowment for the Arts (refused) 

Some call Wallace Stegner "The Dean of Western Writers." He was born in Lake Mills, Iowa and grew up in Great Falls, Montana, Salt Lake City, Utah and southern Saskatchewan, which he wrote about in his autobiography Wolf Willow. Stegner says he "lived in twenty places in eight states and Canada". While living in Utah, he joined a Boy Scout troop at a Mormon church (though he was not Mormon but Presbyterian himself) and earned the Eagle Scout award.

He received his B.A. at the University of Utah in 1930. He taught at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University, and then he settled in at Stanford University, where he  founded the creative writing program. His students included Sandra Day O'Connor, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Ernest Gaines, and Larry McMurtry.
He served as a special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He was elected to the Sierra Club board of directors for a term that lasted 1964—1966. He also moved into a house in nearby Los Altos Hills and became one of the town's most prominent residents.

Stegner's novel Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972, and was directly based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote (later published as the memoir A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West). Stegner's use of uncredited passages taken directly from Foote's letters caused a minor controversy. Stegner also won the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird in 1977. In the late 1980s, he refused a National Medal from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992 because he believed the NEA had become too politicized. He died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, while visiting the city to give a lecture. His death was the result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident on March 28, 1993. He is the father of nature writer Page Stegner. (From Wikipedia.) 

Discussion Questions

  1. Given the difference between their upbringings (social class), what is the basis of friendship between these two couples? What does each couple gain from the friendship? Is it an equal or unequal relationship?
  2. Talk about the nature of the two marriages, how they differ. The Langs' marriage seems to be the one most under the microscope here, the most complicated of the two marriages.
  3. Then there's Charity—clearly the most complex character of the four. Do you like her, despise her? What drives her?
  4. What are Charity's expectations of Sid? Does she desire academic status? Does she want him to realize his full potential or live up to his best self? What does she want from him?
  5. Why does Sid stay with Charity? What do you think will happen to him after she dies? Will he choose to go on without her?
  6. Stegner is very much a nature writer, using the natural beauty of Vermont as a sort of back drop to his human drama. In what way might he be making a comparison between the immutable natural world and mutable human world? 

(Questions by LitLovers.)

  1. How has Madison changed since the 1930s? Was Stegner's Madison recognizable to you? If not, do you attribute that to the passage of time or the role of the city in the characters' lives? If so, did you find yourself focused on our town's streets and landmarks to the detriment of plot and character, or was it an enhancement?
  2. Have you ever had friends as generous as Sid and Charity Lang? How did Stegner write the pairs of characters so that we would believe Larry and Sally could accept the Langs repeated gifts without inducing shame and guilt?
  3. Discuss the role of wives in the book. Have wives, especially faculty wives, changed since the 1930s?
  4. Larry ruminates on the basis of their friendship with the Langs when they flatter him on his writing, asking on page 18: "Do we respond only to people who seem to find us interesting?" and "Can I think of anyone in my whole life whom I have liked without his first showing signs of liking me?" How do you respond to Larry's questions?
  5. How did you react to Charity's personality? Did you see her as controlling? Did you like her?
  6. Stegner is a known environmentalist. Did his descriptions of Battell Pond and its environs show that? What feelings were evoked by his descriptions of their summers there?
  7. Compare the ways each of the women dealt with their illness. Did either Charity or Sally change their personal style as a result of their illness? Is that as you would've expected?
  8. Larry explains his idea of novelists on page 194: "They invent only plots they can resolve. They ask the questions they can answer." How does this inform the richness of these characters and their plights? Do you believe Larry? Is that really Stegner talking? Why or why not?

(Questions by Madison Public Library)