I don’t know if I should be glad that Crossing to Safety is the first Wallace Stegner novel I’ve read–because of course how could I know that? It’s the first one I’ve read. Maybe all of the rest of them are inferior; maybe they’re all vastly superior. In any case, I am glad that I read it. It’s an excellent book and you should all read it too.
There are a lot of different views of the good life to choose from. Some argue that the good life is the life of society working together, dealing with the weak and drawing on the strength of the strong. Some argue that it is a life of radical independence, where society intrudes as little as possible. I happen to lean towards the view held out in Crossing to Safety:
The people we are talking about are hangovers from a quieter time. They have been able to buy quiet, and distance themselves from industrial ugliness. They live behind university walls part of the year, and in a green garden the rest of it. Their intelligence and their civilized tradition protect them from most of the temptations, indiscretions, vulgarities, and passionate errors that pester and perturb most of us. They fascinate their children because they are so decent, so gracious, so compassionate and understanding and cultivated and well-meaning. [Earlier, about these same people]
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction? (241)
Yes of course, this is in some ways an affluent and aristocratic idea. The factory worker, the field hand, and most other blue collar (and even many white collar) professions can’t hope to have this life of leisured enjoyment. And yet, I maintain that it is not the financial standing that makes such a life possible (though of course it helps), it is rather a sense of restraint and contentment that creates such an ideal in the first place. Even the rich won’t have a good life if they are defined by ambition, greed, and the lust for power. But even the poor can live well if we moderate our tastes and find our pleasure in simple things. At least, I sincerely hope we can. Because although I do teach at a university, I am certainly not independently wealthy (as, spoiler alert, the characters in this book eventually are). To steal an image from another book, we can’t all be Frodo Baggins living in a mansion under the hill. Be we can all hope to be Sam Gamgees, content with out own lives.
Two other points about this book that stood out:
- Friendship is essential to this good life. Of the two views of the good life listed at the beginning of this review, one implies a political coordination and the other a separation from politics. Stegner’s book settles somewhere in the middle, focusing repeatedly on “amicitia“, or “friendship” as the defining communal experience in this pleasant life. It is something less than politics–there is no power involved beyond the power of the various personalities in play. But it is something more than the solitary individual. Responsibility to a greater whole is still a core aspect of the good life.
- Friendship endures through personality differences–even extreme ones. One of the lead characters is a control freak, who insists on organizing and managing everything. I’d give examples, but they would give away key plot points. In a truly ‘modern’ novel, either this character would learn their lesson; or the other characters would break the friendship. Instead, the tension between this character’s personality traits and the other characters is woven into the friendship. Yes, it causes difficulties and yes there are times when you want to pull your hear out reading about this individual, but that tolerance within the friendship is something truly at odds with the modern world. We would demand that they give up their attempts at domination, or face the consequences of not being our friends. Instead, the characters fight, push back, give and take, but preserve the friendship as something worthwhile even in the face of personalities grating on each other from time to time. They are the better for this.
But even this kind of criticism from competing worldviews is insufficient. At the end of the day, all worldly perspectives fall short in their ability to answer the big questions. For example, how can we prepare for death? No worldview provides for that, least of all the one held out by this book. As one of the lead characters says as they lay dying:
Its [death] as natural as being born… and even if we stop being the individuals we once were, there’s an immortality of organic molecules that’s absolutely certain. Don’t you find that a wonderful comfort? I do. To think that we’ll become part of he grass and trees and animals, that we’ll stay right here where we loved it while we were alive. People will drink us with their morning milk and pour us as maple syrup over their breakfast pancakes. So I say we should be happy and grateful, and make the most of it. I’ve had a wonderful life, I’ve loved every minute.” (292-293)
There is some truth to this, of course. Our temporary bodies will die and decay until they are replaced with our eternal ones at the resurrection. But until then I don’t know that it’s actual comfort that after our death we’ll be made into pancakes. What’s more, it runs counter to the spark of transcendent immortality that defines each individual human soul and that is a reflection of God. This is where Christianity sweeps all these worldviews away by putting them in their place. We teach that man is immortal, that we die because of sin, and that sin can be paid for on the cross. In this sense, this story (and every story told from a strictly human worldview) is deeply sad, for all the attractiveness of the lifestyle presented herein. The good news is that we have another, better, story that far surpasses this one. And that’s saying something, because Crossing to Safety is an excellent story.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO.