Angle of Repose

May 17, 2011

The Angle of Repose: Among engineers, it's a term describing the angle at which soil, dug up then dumped, finally re-settles. If you're Lyman Ward, the wheelchair bound narrator of Wallace Stegner's epic novel, it's a position from which to reflect on family history. And what a history. Lyman Ward sifts through his grandmother's old letters and imagines those decades after the Civil War when mining tycoons like George Hearst banked on the promise of irrigation systems and paved roads to make them rich. They financed engineers who harnessed rivers; who turned limestone and clay into hydraulic cement.
Lyman's grandfather, Oliver Ward, is such an engineer; his grandmother, Susan, an artist. Stegner powerfully evokes those early mining companies and the formidable mountains they tap, but he foregrounds the story of a Victorian marriage. Susan Ward's friends, New York writers and publishers, believe she has married beneath her. What in the world could she see in a man who would drag her from mining camp to mining camp, who would send his son beaver pelts and an elk head as birthday presents? And as the years pass, the talented and socially sophisticated Mrs. Ward begins to doubt her husband, who turns out to be a brilliant engineer but a lousy businessman. Oliver Ward is Old School. He believes a handshake seals a deal. Against the scoundrel profiteers banking on his talent, he hasn't a prayer. And so, a marriage between two stout hearts erodes into a heartbreaking domestic tragedy.
What a pleasure it was to read this book. I'm a sucker for a good love story and this is a great one but it was the historical detail and utterly realistic scenes that hooked me. My own great grandfather worked in Colorado's Leadville mine at the turn of the century. Stegner took me there: onto those treacherous mountain passes, into those mines. In one scene, Oliver takes Susan on tour. Here's what she sees in the belly of the mountain: " light approached, the hollow mountain hummed, the light resolved itself into a candle on a hat An ore car rumbled past, and the man pushing it turned his curious face. the whole mountain crawled with men like that . swinging picks, drilling holes It raised the gooseflesh on her arms; it was as if she had suddenly discovered that the conduits of her blood teemed with tiny, busy, visible vermin."
Stegner drew from Mary Hallock Foote's actual letters, liberally quoting and paraphrasing them, for which he was strongly criticized, but it's hard to quarrel with the magnificent way he enlivened her details. This is a big book, and I heartily recommend it for this summer's reading. Over 500 pages; never a dull moment.