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Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics) Paperback – December 1, 2000

4.5 out of 5 stars 40 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Beautiful and moving...In many ways the best of all the good books Stegner has written. -- Walter Van Tilberg Clarck

Enchanting, heartrending, and eminently enviable. -- Vladimir Nabokov

About the Author

Wallace Stegner was born in 1909 in Lake Mills, Iowa. The son of Scandinavian immigrants, he traveled with his parents and brother all over the West-to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, and Wyoming-before settling in Salt Lake City in 1921. Many of the landscapes he encountered in his peripatetic youth figure largely in his work, as do characters based on his stern father and athletic, outgoing brother. Stegner received most of his education in Utah, graduating from the University in 1930. He furthered his education at the University of Iowa, where he received a master's and a doctoral degree. He married Mary Stuart Page in 1934, and for the next decade the couple followed Wallace's teaching career-to the University of Wisconsin, Harvard, and eventually to Stanford University, where he founded the creative writing program, and where he was to remain until his retirement in 1971. A number of his creative writing students have become some of today's most well respected writers, including Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey, Robert Stone, and Larry McMurty.

Throughout his career and after, Stegner's literary output was tremendous. His first novel, Remembering Laughter, was published in 1937. By the time of his death in 1993 he had published some two dozen works of fiction, history, biography, and essays. Among his many literary prizes are the Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971) and the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976). His collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (1992), was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award.

Although his fiction deals with many universal themes, Stegner is primarily recognized as a writer of the American West. Much of his literature deals with debunking myths of the West as a romantic country of heroes on horseback, and his passion for the terrain and its inhabitants have earned him the title 'The Dean of Western Letters'. He was one of the few true Men of Letters in this generation. An historian, essayist, short story writer and novelist, as well as a leading environmental writer. Although always connected in people's minds with the West, he had a long association with New England. Many short stories and one of his most successful novels, Crossing to Safety, are set in Vermont, where he had a summer home for many years. Another novel, The Spectator Bird, takes place in Denmark.

An early environmentalist, he actively championed the region's preservation and was instrumental-with his now-famous 'Wilderness Letter'-in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Honest and straightforward, educated yet unpretentious, cantankerous yet compassionate, Wallace Stegner was an enormous presence in the American literary landscape, a man who wrote and lived with ferocity, energy, and integrity.

Page Stegner is a Professor Emeritus of American Literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (December 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141185015
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141185019
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.7 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #109,680 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ronald Scheer on May 5, 2003
Format: Paperback
This wonderful collection of essays and fiction about the last Western frontier is both romance and anti-romance. Writing in the 1950s, Stegner captures the breath-taking beauty of the unbroken plains of southwest Saskatchewan and the excitement of its settlment at the turn of the century. Part memoir, the book recounts the years of his boyhood in a small town along the Whitemud River in 1914-1919, the summers spent on the family's homestead 50 miles away along the Canadian-U.S border. His book is also an account of the loss of that Eden and the failed promise of agricultural development in this semi-arid region with thin top soil.
Stegner is a gifted, intelligent writer, able to turn the people and events of history into compelling reading. The opening section of the book describes the experience of being on the plains and specifically in the area where Stegner was a boy. And it lays out the geography of that land -- a distant range of hills, the river, the coulees, the town -- which the book will return to again and again.
The following section evokes the period of frontier Canada's early exploration, the emergence of the metis culture, the destruction of the buffalo herds, the introduction of rangeland cattle, and then wave upon wave of settlement pushing the last of the plains Indians westward and northward. A chapter is devoted to the surveying of the boundary along the Canada-U.S. border; another chapter describes the founding of the Mounted Police and its purely Canadian style of bringing law and order to the wild west.
The middle section of the book is a novella and a short story about the winter of 1906-1907. In the longer piece, eight men rounding up cattle are caught on the open plains in an early blizzard.
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Format: Paperback
Wolf Willow is one third local history of the Cypress Hills area of Saskatchewan, One third compelling fiction and one third memior.
The book is an intimate, knowing portrait of the area and an insightful meditation of what living on a frontier was like, not just writing about it or seeing romanticized movies.
While Stegner sometimes suffers from being the creative writing professor he was, for my time and money he remains the preeminent literary voice of the West. As with almost all of his work, Wolf Willow is an engrossing read and will leave you thinking long after you close the back cover.
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Format: Paperback
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Wallace Stegner grew up on the prairie frontiers of North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Montana, and in the mountains of Utah. As is indicated by the subtitle, this volume combines history, a memoir, and historical fiction. Readers who have spent significant time on the snow swept northern steppes may find a small part of themselves, and of this land, in Wolf Willow. ...
"On those miraculously beautiful and murderously cold nights glittering with the green and blue darts from a sky like polished dark metal, when the moon had gone down, leaving the hollow heavens to the stars and the overflowing cold light of the Aurora, he thought he had moments of the clearest vision ... In every direction ... the snow spread; here and there the implacable plain glinted back a spark - the beam of a cold star reflected in a crystal of ice." (The scene evokes in me a powerful memory, as I recall often standing alone on just such "murderously cold" snow blanketed prairies and gazing into those "miraculously beautiful" night skies.)
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Format: Paperback
Wallace Stegner spent a large part of his childhood on nearly the last terrestrial frontier in Continental North America, a harsh corner of southwestern Sasakatchewan. Wolf Willow tells the story of that experience, other great stories about the history and culture of the region, and Stegner's views on going back to the town he grew up in. In reading Wolf Willow, you begin to realize the depth of the loss we've suffered as Western humanity has moved almost exclusively into homogenized, plasticized communities without an iota of the challenge or color Stegner experienced in his youth. Will there ever be another writer like Stegner? Probably not, unless we somehow recapture the crucible of existence chronicled so magnificently in Wolf Willow.
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Format: Paperback
This book has no right to be so absorbing. Though the topic of this forgotten book by Wallace Stegner reeks of self-indulgence-- A writer returns to where he grew up, reminisces about his youth and the history of the frontier town his transient childhood most identified as home and concludes with a 100-page fictionalized account of a the terrible winter of 1906-- he manages to tie his past inexorably to ours, linking his nostalgia for his youth with our own, and exploring the promise and inevitable waste of the American Dream lived out on our frontiers.

Stegner, like Proust, experiences an "ancient, unbearable recognition" spurred by a return to the sites, sounds, and most importantly, smells of his childhood. He dreams of this period and is "haunted, on awakening, by a sense of meanings just withheld, and by a profound nostalgic melancholy." Everyone has some awareness of a deep meaning lurking in our past that has not, or cannot, be fully interpreted.

Perhaps the best part of the book is section three, the novella length exposition on the hope and danger of the high plains that does a superb job of creating looming dread as the winter drops hard on the land. Near the end of section three, Stegner expounds on what it is to be an American pursuing the Dream:

"How does one know what wilderness has meant to Americans unless he has shared the guilt of wastefully and ignorantly tampering with it in the name of progress? One who has lived the dream, the temporary fulfillment, and the disappointment has had the full course.... The vein of melancholy in the North American mind may be owing to many causes, but it is surely not weakened by the perception that the fulfillment of the American Dream means inevitably the death of the noble savagery and freedom of the wild.
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