Big Rock Candy Mountain, The

by Wallace Stegner


This is a strange book. It is simultaneously depressing, irritating, and utterly engrossing. I did not really like it but I couldn’t stop reading it. It is extremely well-written yet I found myself disgusted by the plot. Like I said, strange.

It is basically the story of a family that, due to the vagabonding, grass-is-greener nature of the father, endures a constantly upended home life over the course of three or so decades. That description makes it sound less depressing than it actually is, because in practice the book basically chronicles one misfortune after another, a sort of witness to the perpetual hobbling of a family just as you think they’re finally getting on their feet. Like I said, depressing, and irritating as well with what seems after a few hundred pages like a fairly formulaic structure (Hope, hope, hope. . . CRASH unceremoniously back to earth).

That said, it was quite a compelling read. Stegner has a way of bringing the epic out of the mundane, although he did it better in Angle of Repose. At the same time, the epic sense kind of annoyed me after a while too. Either the average joes lived much more epic lives in the beginning of the 20th century, or Stegner is melodramatic.

Either way, I’m pretty sure that most people don’t convey four or five emotions with a single glance. Or if they do, the recipient of said look is not usually as aware of the conveyed emotions as they are in the pages of a Stegner novel (not sure exactly how much is autobiographical and how much is fiction).

The most impressive part of the book is the language that Stegner uses throughout. He displays an incredibly intimate knowledge of so many different towns, states and regions in the West. He uses words that I didn’t know existed as casually as an everyday conversation. A brief example:

They came over a steep hump that had her warm and breathless, her legs tired, and before them lay a level trail cut through the aspen. Through the thin trees on the lower edge of the trail she could look over a long oceanic roll of ridges and peaks, a forested valley stretching southward, the blue glimmer of water. Clouds like cottonwool coasted over the peaks on the Alta side, snagged on spines of rock, blew eastward in frayed strings.

“Those are the Ontario Lakes,” Bruce said, pointing. “The valley is Bonanza Flat.”

Now, I don’t know if Stegner made up those place names or really knew about the surrounding geography of the Cottonwood canyons east of Salt Lake City. But both options are completely plausible, and I guess the impressive thing is that he makes you believe he knows it that well, regardless. And he does that throughout the book when describing the geography of different regions (not to mention his use of words like “oceanic” and “cottonwool,” and his detailed description of things like clouds).

He was either incredibly brilliant, with a natural mind for such geography, vocabulary, and description, or he was one of the most rigorous and studious novelists ever. Both cases would be about equally impressive. Overall, I’m just really curious to know more about his writing process.

I think that’s the general idea of my feelings on this book. A really good novel would leave me thinking about the characters and the story, or the emotions they aroused. Again, not sure how much of “Big Rock” is an actual novel, but I could care less about those things in the aftermath. I’m more impressed by the intellectual feat it took to rigorously document all of the places and memories, and I wonder how he did it.


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