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Essential American literature
on May 19, 2017
I hesitate to write much since I am incapable of conveying how deeply this tragically intricate novel moved me. I mostly tend to read American and German literature from the first half of the 20th century. If that strikes a chord with you, I think, like me, you’ll love this book as I did, from the first word to the last.
Stegner’s tale is an American saga, not about gods and heroes but, much like Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil and Laxness’s Independent People, about common folk who pioneer and struggle to make something out of nothing in a brutal, hostile world. Much like those novels, this story provides deep insight about how collective individualities build national character and identity. I am reminded of the classic Doonesbury cartoon when Mike embarks on a motorcycle tour of the country as Zonker asks him to “Call me when you find America.” Reading this epic would have been a good starting point for that journey.
Set in the first third of the 20th century, we follow the Mason family at they struggle to prosper and consistently fail to set roots of stability. Bo Mason drives and draws along his wife and two sons through sporadic, momentary cycles of booms and prolonged and brutal busts. Their nomadic journey takes us throughout the West during historical episodes that include frontier settlement, the Klondike gold rush, the Spanish flu of 1918, prohibition, and the advent of legal gambling.
The beauty and depth of Stegner’s descriptive writing is all-consuming and overwhelming. You can feel the musty grit of the North Dakota winds; you can smell meadow flowers of a lazy Montana summer day; you can feel Bo’s car struggle through an vicious blizzard; you can hear the guns go off to celebrate the end of World War I; you can smell the stench of a rotting horse carcass; you can see the dust floating in the sunbeam coming into a stuffy room; everything is a visceral experience. Most importantly, these characters are as completely human and real as any about whom I’ve ever read.
Bo Mason “was a man who was born disliking the present and believing in the future.” His compelling drive to search for and find that mythical Big Rock Candy Mountain of contentment is constantly stymied by his violent frustrations, bluster, fears, insecurities, and dreams. Elsa Norgaard Mason is the force of stability, a loving mother of two boys who might well be one of the most sympathetic characters in American literature, whose “qualities…would get you saintliness, but never greatness.” And we see her boys Chet and Bruce grow up from infancy to childhood, constantly straining to wish them a good, happy life.