Stegner, born in Iowa in 1909 and brought up on a Saskatchewan dirt farm, may have been our last frontier writer. As Fradkin notes in this astute biography, it was a miracle that he didnt write pulp Westerns. Instead, Stegner took as his subject the failure of his fathers homestead, built on denial of the most fundamental Western reality: drought. Stegners fiction stalked the slow disintegration of the family as closely as previous potboilers tracked cattle; and he transformed his fathers subsequent ramblesbootlegging the family from the dry northern plains to drier Mormon countiesinto a founding narrative stronger than any ultra-violent "revisionist" Western. Whether as novelist, conservationist, or teacher, Stegner showed how the West has "a way of warping well-carpentered habits, and raising the grain on exposed dreams."
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Environmental historian Fradkin’s previous books about the West focus on sagebrush and stagecoaches, earthquakes and rivers. He now portrays a western writer who mapped the paradoxes of the New West. Fradkin has a deep affinity for Wallace Stegner (1909–93) and makes superb use of Stegner’s evocative writing, including passages never before published. Adept at seeding every scene with myriad details, he follows Stegner from the Saskatchewan prairie, where nature was his narrative, to Utah, where he became a “public library addict.” Stegner’s prizewinning fiction comes under close scrutiny as Fradkin explicates Stegner’s profound insights into the way nature shapes the human condition. Fradkin writes with particular zest about Stegner’s conservation work with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and the Sierra Club, and assesses the enormous influence of Stegner’s “environmental classic” Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954). Fradkin’s dynamic and probing portrait of Stegner brilliantly combines literary and environmental history, and provides a fresh and telling perspective on the rampant development of the arid West, and Stegner’s prophetic warnings of the complex consequences. --Donna Seaman