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The Big Rock Candy Mountain (Penguin Classics) Paperback – July 27, 2010
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"An irreplaceable classic . . . One of the great books from which we may understand America and its rise . . . It has not aged, and it seems unlikely that, as long as memory and history preserve the bringing forth of modern life on this continent, it will ever lose relevance." —Robert Stone, from the Introduction
"Stegner has felt the spell of mountain and prairie, of drought, flood, and blizzard. . . . A harrowing saga." —The New York Times
"Stands out beautifully and unforgettably." —The New Yorker
About the Author
Wallace Stegner (1909–1993) published more than two dozen books throughout his life, including the novels Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize; Crossing to Safety; and The Spectator Bird, which won the National Book Award. An early environmentalist, Stegner was instrumental—with his now famous “Wilderness Letter”—in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Robert Stone (introducer; 1937–2015) wrote more than ten books, including the National Book Award–winning novel Dog Soldiers and the novels Outerbridge Reach and A Flag for Sunrise.
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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.
In addition to depicting the kinds of thinking and action of a man like Bo, Stegner does a brilliant job of showing us the effects his behavior has on the more sensitive, less impulsive people whose lives are interwoven with his. His wife is pretty game, but ends up with little or none of what she wanted in life. His slick older son makes mistakes, and ends up dead early. Only his very smart, overly sensitive son (the Stegner character), manages to remove himself from the world in which the father's actions make some kind of sense, and get himself on a different path through life.
The book is memorable and brilliant. It should be require reading -- in college, perhaps. Too sophisticated for high school.
Most recent customer reviews
a little wordy, perhaps over descriptive at times, and uneven in the narrative ....Read more
Interseting characters written in an reader-friendly way.Read more