Crossing to Safety became a literary hit of sorts in Australia in 2012 when the First Tuesday Book Club panel unanimously praised it. All of the initial 2012 edition copies sold out around Australia and this tale of the friendship between two couples became a talking point at book clubs everywhere. I'd never heard of Wallace Stegner and I suspect that he had not made much of an impact in Australia during his lifetime. Stegner was an ardent environmentalist and an academic, and he combined the two to make a lasting impact on the way America thought about its wilderness areas. Stegner is known for his writings set in the American West and he published novels, non-fiction and essays between 1937 and 1992 before his untimely death in a car accident.
Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s last novel published in his lifetime and it is fittingly written from the perspective of old age. The narrator, Larry Morgan, looks back over fifty years of friendship with the Lang’s – Sid and Charity. They meet whilst teaching at university in the 1930’s and from the vantage point of the early 1970’s Larry contemplates the vicissitudes of their shared lives.
Crossing to Safety is a classy novel. Stegner’s prose is subtle, poised and flows like a gentle stream over rounded rocks. Relationships and friendships are standard fare in literature, but Stegner manages to offer a fresh perspective. His characters are authentic and well drawn and over-all the narrative is refreshing straightforward. Larry’s wife, Sally, is perhaps underrepresented, however this is mainly because Charity is such a strong presence throughout, leaving Sally to be more of a counterpoint.
As the novel progresses Stegner focuses mainly on the lives of the four characters and only alludes to historical events in passing. The characters’ individual triumphs and struggles are not presented as a microcosm of the wider historical perspective; instead Stegner’s themes are far more existential. In perhaps the only nod to post-modernism in the novel, the good hearted yet controlling Charity suggests to Sid that he should attempt to write a novel about ordinary peoples’ lives, rather than one contrived to be dramatic. Crossing to Safety is, of course, that novel. However Stegner cleverly and subtly brings in the universal existential struggle of humanity during a segment set in Italy. As the couples take in the artistic wonders of Italy Sid notes a certain look in the eyes of the men portrayed in the paintings of the renaissance greats. Then soon after Sid notes that same look in a simple laborer who has damaged his hand in an accident. A man in pain and anguish, yet who is proud and defiant and all the more human for it. This is Stegner’s wider theme; something we all share that is not confined to the movements of history but is universal. Does this mean that the title is ironic? That there is no safety to cross to, only a constant struggle? Perhaps, but I’d rather believe that it is defiant.
It is tempting to see Crossing to Safety as highly autobiographical, however Stegner remarked in an interview that he took cues from his own life, added the lives of others and fragmented it amongst his own creative license. This is no doubt a technique shared among many writers and it works well. The great thing about Stegner’s writing is that you can’t see the joins – his style is seamless.
What the novel does share with ‘real life’ is some of the mundanety of day-to-day living. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting that the novel has mundane sections, it does sag a bit in the middle. The narrator mentions that there would be no bed hopping in this book, as if all effort must be made to avoid it from becoming a John Updike novel. But there can be a price to pay for this stance and Crossing to Safety skirts close for a while. Fortunately there is the payoff of the emotionally intense ending that is both psychologically revealing and extremely moving. The novel is worth reading for this alone, but there are many highlights throughout, all of which leads me to conclude that Stegner’s wider body of work would be well worth investigating in the future