Wallace Stegner crafted Angle of Repose using the human suspicion that we are not just an accumulation of our entire life, but that we are also formed by our ancestor’s choices.
Suspicion because it’s what we by nature resist to believe, but deep down we understand we are only where we are because of what other people have done.
At the surface, Angle of Repose is about Lyman Ward’s infiltration into his grandparent’s history. Who they were compared to the man and woman he knew growing up. This exploration gives him something to do, as he’s afflicted with a disease and is without one leg.
I find the novel to be about human nature, specifically about forgiveness and the attempt to understand someone else while trying to understand yourself. It’s about a man who parallels his life to his grandparents in an attempt to answer why. Why things happened the way they did.
Stegner has mastered the art of giving information in this novel. It unfolds without pause. It’s not given at once or sporadically. It’s quite simply unfolded page by page throughout.
Lyman Ward details his grandparent’s, mostly grandmother’s, history by way of telling. The novel is told by Lyman speaking into a microphone and then fades into the time and place of the grandparent’s. This allows for an interesting contrast of point of view. At times he breaks the past narrative to recognize he is unable to give a full truth account, but as a historian continues to create scenes based on letters and histories he’s collected.
The way it’s told endears the novel because as the reader we feel the cathartic nature of “talking things out” into a microphone, or what can also be seen as talking to yourself as you iron out an idea or thought.
As the reader we see both present time and history intermingled and yet it does not disrupt the flow. Unlike many novels when two stories are told at once when one always outshines the other, both Lyman’s life and the life of his grandparents merged so well that the change of scene was always welcome and intriguing.
The progression of the grandparent’s marriage was heartbreakingly real. And when contrasted against Lyman’s life, even more so.
Imagine using real information to fabricate the scenes of a life lived by a person you love deeply. Imagine using that to cope with your own life, but realizing the true tragedy of their life along the way.
Lyman’s grandfather, Oliver Ward, came from a different world then his grandmother, Susan Burling. Yet, they married and Susan gave up her life in the east to bare the west. Through struggles and separations the west causes, Susan keeps her art and correspondence with her closest friend Augusta.
This was the 1800s—the east the cultivated, the west the wild and untamed.
Lyman, dealing with his own demons yearns for the moral capacity of his grandparent’s time. His present takes place in the 1970s, a stark difference to the history he tells.
Oliver and Susan’s marriage begins relaxed, indulgent, gentle—because it doesn’t need the drama. The narration switch to Lyman gives the reader the conflict the story needs. Oliver is quiet and patient; Susan creates beauty of the vast unknown.
But the vast unknown of the west becomes too heavy for Susan. Forgiveness of failures, which allows her to ease into hard circumstances, and a type of love she has for Oliver all falters. It turns into bitterness, a hardened heart, and respect without true companionship.
It comes down to Augusta, or rather what Augusta is a symbol for. As the reader we are never given anything other than vain reason why the friendship between Susan and Augusta would be so deep and rich after so long and after such a different life lived.
Susan late in the novel admits she never truly submitted to her life in the west. And that is the crux. Augusta stands for all that Susan wanted to be and she never let go of that idea, which caused turmoil within her and her life.
It accumulates to Susan never able to put her full faith into her husband, yet she pretends. This is when the parallel becomes apparent to Lyman’s life. His own martial problem is what he’s seeking an answer for. He wants to answer why his grandparent’s stayed together even after the hardness, but he was left alone during the most vulnerable time of his life.
What is passed from one generation to the next, as the next looks back in effort to make sense of everything.
Stegner tells the story of both generations with depth and clarity, except near the end. When Lyman touches on the biggest struggle of his grandparent’s, the reader is brought in, but kept at a distance. Much like Lyman would distance himself from truly indulging the memory.
This is a novel that stays with the reader for years. It can be realized as a cautionary tale—that forgiveness has no definition, only levels. It’s also a reminder that despite what we believe, a part of us parallels with the past; we a part of who our parents, who their parents, who their parent were.