Wallace Earle Stegner was an American historian, novelist, short story writer, and environmentalist. Some call him "The Dean of Western Writers." He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and the U.S. National Book Award in 1977.
Have you ever met someone whose zest for life is so clear and palpable that it’s nearly contagious? A person who loves so much and wants to share that love with one and all? Not necessarily the super annoying idealist type, but one who tries to understand everything and just IS. His or her existence sparkles. He or she appreciates the small things. I have a best friend like this. I rarely get to see her anymore, except perhaps one day every two years or so. She’s suffered a lot, but all through her pain she’s always thought of others. She took interest in other lives and never saddened the tone with the huge things that were happening to her even in the moment. She traveled and took in what it meant to live in this world. To talk to her, however, you would not know all this. She didn’t do these things so she could preach to us about them. She did them because she loves living. Joe Allston had a person like this in his life. Her name was Marian.
“Walk openly, Marian used to say. Love even the threat and the pain, feel yourself fully alive, cast a bold shadow, accept, accept. What we call evil is only a groping toward good, part of the trial and error by which we move toward the perfected consciousness.”
Joe is actually one of those grumpy old man personas that at first rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t think we were going to hit it off. I guess I can’t say he became the most beloved character to me, but I grew to understand him, thanks to the brilliance of Wallace Stegner who has not yet ceased to amaze me. Joe had lived through a tragedy in his life and wanted to settle quietly with his wife Ruth in a Californian Eden of sorts. This takes place during the 1960s, and sure enough, a hippie named Jim Peck drifted into town on his motorcycle, asking Joe if he could set up a camp of sorts on his property. Right from the beginning the two didn’t see eye to eye. Not surprising considering the difference in age and sensibilities between these men. But the truth went deeper than that. Something about Jim Peck reminded Joe of his troubled son, Curtis. Upon their first meeting, we knew Joe was not going to give Peck the benefit of the doubt, not for one measly second! I had to laugh out loud, knowing exactly where this was headed.
“He was young, no more than twenty-two or -three. His hair was long and tousled, even matted where the helmet, now hung on a handlebar, had crushed it down. It crawled over his collar, and was pushed forward on his forehead, hiding his horns.”
Marian and her husband, John, became close friends with Joe and Ruth almost immediately. It brought to mind Crossing to Safety which I read not long ago. Clearly, Stegner knew something about the bond of special friendships. Marian and Joe had several friendly yet mostly opposing philosophical discussions about life. These were my favorite bits of the novel. I love to hear about different points of view, and admire it when both sides can carry on such exchanges in an intelligent fashion without resorting to finger pointing and ill will. It’s very refreshing in these days of constant hostilities. Naturally the situation of Jim Peck, who expanded his living arrangements to quite the elaborate “campout” complete with a horde of followers and a concept of free love, came into these chats between Marian and Joe.
“It seemed to me that when the joking tone and the verbal sparring didn’t tempt us into being merely provocative with one another, she was the one person in the world to whom I could say something I deeply felt.”
As with the other two novels I’ve read by this author, the prose is the star of the show. Characterization is an extremely competent co-star. Setting is a lovely backdrop for the stage, and the plot, though not prominent, does give the story a good amount of momentum, allowing the players to grow and leave a mark on one’s heart. I’m not sure this novel soared quite to the level of Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety, but it’s a damn good story. I have to see what’s left on my bookshelf, otherwise it’s time to do a bit of Stegner shopping again soon! For now, it’s time to celebrate that very special friend who has a birthday coming up next week. I just know she revels in “all the little live things” too.
“If every particle in the universe has both consciousness and choice… then it also has responsibility, including the responsibility to try to understand. I am not exempt, no matter how I may yearn for the old undemanding darkness under the stone.”
Once again, Wallace Stegner’s beautiful, descriptive prose drew me in to this novel from the beginning. It was like a lovely walk in a forest, with streams, birds singing, and maybe a waterfall. Then, just when I was completely soothed into the atmosphere, it was like a rock fell from beside the waterfall and startled me into a story. The story of Joe Allston and his wife, Ruth.
In their mid-60’s and retired now, the Allstons left the East coast and are in California, in mourning. I chose the word ‘mourning’ rather than ‘grieving’, because their feelings were a combination of grief, regrets, disappointment, and guilt among others. Their son died and no matter how hard they had tried, they felt stuck in the deformed relationship they had experienced with their son.
A young man, Jim Pitt, comes along and wants to build a small camp at the bottom of their property. Is this a chance for redemption for both? Joe’s back goes up when young Pitt’s values and attitude clash with his own, but Ruth wants to give him a chance, so Joe reluctantly agrees.
A young couple named Marian and John move in to the next-door cabin with their 6 year old daughter, Debby. For Joe, Marian is the daughter he wished he could have had. Joe and Ruth become close to the couple and their daughter very quickly.
There are neighbourhood problems that crop up – a land development on the hill across from them. Another neighbour is having problems with their 16 year old daughter.
As these pains and pleasures blossom into the story one by one, the links to the past come through, sometimes like thorns, other times like bright green leaves. And then Marian becomes ill and the balance shifts once more.
This story is interesting, engaging, and magnificently moving. For me, it is Wallace Stegner’s ability to mold and shape words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs like a master sculptor that breathes life and energy and emotion into it.
I enjoyed experiencing the nuances and literary references that spiced these pages, but it was the story itself and how brilliantly it was written that made me feel everything so deeply. I recommend this read to anyone who enjoys high quality writing that goes down like the finest ambrosia.
If there has ever been a writer who can cut you open, pull out your heart, and make you sit and contemplate it while it beats in your hands, Wallace Stegner is that man. He does it so casually sometimes that you cannot feel it coming, but I felt it in almost every page of this novel. I felt tension and anger as Joe Allston dealt with the encroaching hippie, Jim Peck, and his out of control lifestyle that spreads destruction all around him, while preaching love that has a cost to everyone but himself. And I felt anger and sadness as, with Joe, I watched Marian Catlin, a lovely soul whose love is real and universal, slowly losing her battle against cancer.
Written at the height of the “free love” hippie movement in California, Wallace Stegner captures to perfection what is wrong with this philosophy and how detrimental it can be to society in general. Both Ruth, Joe’s wife, and Marian want Joe to be indulgent and understanding of the young hippies, but I felt complete sympathy with Joe, who wants to be kinder and more tolerant, but who cannot help seeing the truth of the situation and the danger in it. The idea that a person should never have to work, should be allowed to live off the land (anyone’s land) and put nothing in, but only take things out, is shown for the hypocrisy it is, as Jim Peck takes water and electricity, scatters filth and trash, and preys upon the innocence of a rebellious young girl who is too young for the sexual awareness she embraces.
Marian Catlin wants the world to be taken for what it is. She believes that we have to experience the pain in order to experience the joy. It is Marian who loves the “little live things”. She celebrates all life, even the downside, and she refuses to believe in evil as anything real.
Maybe what we call evil is only, as she told me the first day we met, what conflicts with our interests; but maybe there are realities as ignorance, selfishness, jealousy, malice, criminal carelessness, and maybe these things are evil no matter whose interests they serve or conflict with."
Again, I understood Marian's argument, but ascribed to Joe’s.
Dangerousness is not necessarily a function of malicious intent. If I were painting a portrait of the father of evil, I wonder if I wouldn't give him the face of a high-minded fool."
Joe is not perfect, nor does he think he is. He often feels guilty for things he should not regret, and sometimes he does things that I found just crass, hurtful and unnecessary. What sets him apart is his inability to pretend to himself. He doesn’t persuade himself to believe what he doesn’t believe, even when he thinks he should. I like his honesty and his strong sense of observation and his ability to love without worshipping or excusing. He wonders if he could have had a better relationship with his dead son, and he ponders whether he handled things as well as he could have, but he never pretends he could have or would want to have behaved differently where his beliefs were concerned.
There is no way to step off the treadmill. It is all treadmill.
Sadly, he is right. If you have lived as long as I have, you come to realize that there is at least as much of life that you cannot control as there is of what you exercise even minimal control over. Death, our own or that of those we love, is one of those things we cannot control, but even with death looming, Stegner seems to say, life is a trip worth taking.
If you have not ever read Wallace Stegner, please do yourself the favor of experiencing him. I waited far too long before I read my first Stegner. He has become a favorite author and one of the few that is guaranteed to make me laugh, cry, seriously ponder, and always treasure every word he writes.
“All the Little Live Things”... is a perfect bookend to “The Spectacular Bird”
It begins with this quote: “Oh, Sir! the good die first, And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust Burn to the socket” William Wordsworth
We meet Joe and Ruth Allston - once more - ten years earlier than in “The Spectacular Bird”. It takes place in the 1960’s ... not far from me - in the Los Altos Hills - ( where our daughter’s went to school everyday for years), in Northern California. It’s also where Wallace Stegner lived for years, too.... it was their retirement home.
I was laughing more in this novel than in “The Spectacular Bird”.... but it’s certainly not a haha-funny book. We are told at the start that the character Marian Catlin dies...( before we even meet her). But this story flows smoothly... It’s a ‘hard-to-put-down’....’page turner’.... with Joe Allston being a charming-adorable-grumpy grump-curmudgeon. I loved how honest Joe was with his own flaws.
Ruth and Joe Allston have built their retirement/summer home,( five acres of land)... They were mourning their son, Curtis, who died in a Southern California surfing accident... ( perhaps intentional). We soon meet Jim Peck.... a 24 year old hippie. He comes with his a motorcycle- a full beard... his scrawny and skinny body... and a righteous personality... That..... is perhaps charming... but that depends on whose eyes you’re looking through. NOT charming to Joe. I kinda liked him. Ruth did too.
This is what Joe would say about Jim Peck: “He has a bad case of disestablishmentarianism”..... Peck eats only nuts and fruits and vegetables. His father’s some bigwig in the meat-packing business in Chicago and that’s why he won’t eat any meat”.
Ha.... the real problem for Joe, is that Peck wants to camp on his property. Joe, reluctantly agrees. “What’s the problem?, Ruth might say”. I’m telling you — I found the whole situation hilarious. Would you let a hippie stay on your land if you had the room? Hm??? Funny, I might! In fact... I probably would have.
As a treehouse loving girl myself ( Paul lived in a treehouse that he built himself - with stain glass windows to boot when I first met him)... I loved the idea of this hippie -college drop out -being a ‘productive’ hippie on Joe’s land... working with wood.... and living creatively. A little nostalgic memories came rushing back. Oh... and our hippie guy has visitors - [yes friends] -playing guitar and singing topless outside in fresh air. Joe grumbles every step of the way with Peck. We can almost see Ruth smiling.
We also meet the new neighbors. Marian, John, and their little girl. Joe becomes close to Marian as one might with an adult daughter. They have interesting conversations about nature... and little ‘live’ things. They have many debates about good and bad little critters, and weed species. “Every kind of life you can think of is under attack by some other kind”. They talk about the benefits vs. lack of benefits of the gopher.... crawling fleas ticks, and tapeworms. Again... some funny dialogue going on. Joe can be stubborn - but Marian - slowly -opens his eyes to look at things from other perspectives.
We meet the bulldozing Dave Weld...who will rub noses with Joe about concerns for the environment.
The characterization is complex, rich, simple in many ways... but always very realistic. Marian Catlin was a women to admire. As she stood for ‘all’ little live things...I found myself cheering her points of view on.
After sixty... “you are aware how vulnerable everything is, including yourself, but even after sixty you may need an occasional reminder. And though I am glad that Caitlin got out before she had to go through the distress of the pigeon shooting, I am remorseful at the discomfort my big mouth must have caused her”.
Love and remorse....this is another ‘Stegner-gem-of-a book’... with characters to cherish!
"Sympathy I have failed in, stoicism I have barely passed. But I have made straight A in irony - that curse, the evasion, that armor, that way of staying safe while seeming wise."
Joe Allston, the narrator of All the Little Live Things, is often introspective as shown in the above quote. Joe is frequently angry: angry at the young antiestablishment hippies of the then present 60's, angry at the defacement of the land caused by development, angry that his son's needless death has prevented any chance of reconciliation, angry at the randomness of disease and death. But he is always honest with himself, very observant, frequently funny and brilliant. Joe is flawed but oh so human. You can hate and love him simultaneously.
Joe and his wife Ruth move to the hill country of California after he retires from his job as a literary agent on the east coast. They want to escape from city life and, hopefully, from their grief of losing their son. In their idyllic new country home they meet their new neighbors the Catlins. Marian, the mother, has a young child and is pregnant. She is also dying of cancer. On the opening pages of this novel Joe and Ruth are returning from her funeral. The novel spans the months between the meeting of the two families and Marian's death. Her upbeat outlook and acceptance of life, all the little live things, challenge Joe's negativity and rage. She accepts all that life gives, from the insects that eat Joe's plants to the pain caused by her disease. Their deepening friendship enables Joe to see life in a new way. Sometimes the most painful events of our lives enrich us in ways we can never imagine at the time, but we feel for months or years, and possibly change us forever. We should all know a Marian.
I have shed tears for Lucy Gault, Prince Bolkonski, Hamnet, and Achilles. I have grieved with Hiram when his mother was stripped from his life, with Gifty (Transcendent Kingdom) for the loss of her mother and brother. Why am I attracted to these sad stories? Why did I read about other pandemics during Covid? For me, these books are life, the meat of who we are and what we share. And so I grieved with Joe and Ruth over the death of their young neighbor right from page one when the tragic outcome is clear, straight through the inevitable end.
The Spectator Bird is the second Stegner book about Joe Allston. If you are not into heartbreaking, read the second J.A. book. It is not necessary to read them in order. If you enjoy wonderful stories, lifelike characters, beautiful descriptions, and much to think about, I don't think there are many authors who surpass Stegner. This was the fourth Stegner book I have read, and I hope to finish his oeurve and perhaps his biography as well.
"One thing I have learned hard, if indeed I have learned it now; it is a reduction of our humanity to hide from pain, our own or others".
"Where you find the greatest Good, there you will also find the greatest Evil, for Evil likes Paradise every bit as much as Good does".
4✚ 🐦 🐦 🐦 🐦 Thoughts after reading 2 novels that fit together like bookends.
Spring cleaning this year produced regret at all the clothes I discarded. The past several years I have bought into the ubiquitous cheap disposable clothing that is now an environmental disaster for our planet but still have and wear garments I made 25 years ago which will last until death claims me. Reading back to back Stegners I had misgivings. Why had I put him on the shelf and succumbed to all the cheap free enticing new books which have taken over my TBR and Kindle like spring weeds? Because I’m an addict and you guys with your all your great reviews are not helping.
After reading All the Little Live Things followed by The Spectator Bird about Joe and Ruth Alston negotiating aging and relationship, I am determined to reread Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety because even though you might ask What is your favorite band of all time, favorite book, favorite song, I cannot answer, only a list will do. But ask this addict Who is your favorite author? Without doubt—Wallace Stegner. He crafted prose with paragraphs formed to last a lifetime and pages made to wear and turn through the years. After more than three decades he still raises my resting heart rate and then sings my reader’s soul: 🎵 In the lemonade springs—Where the bluebird sings—In the Big Rock Candy Mountains 🎶
Afterword: Finished writing this and downloaded 3 Free with Prime books so I’m not even close to detox status. Amazon knows what’s on my list and emails eye candy regularly. Sigh.
This is a painful novel to read. It doesn’t provide a moment of respite or anything closer to a comforting closure. Quite the opposite. The last chapter of this novel contains one of the grisliest scenes I have ever read. Grotesque, gory and with such vivid, detailed descriptions of death that I had to stop reading more than once to take a breath in order to keep going.
Life is not what abounds in Stegner’s recollection of Joe Allston’s early life. There is sickness. There is rage. There is scepticism. And there is death. Untimely death. I had met the retired literary agent in Stegner’s later novel “The Spectator Bird” and learned to love his cantankerousness. I never got around to understanding his frustration with the world completely, but I ended up loving his reproving disposition. In that novel Joe accepted his failures, forgave himself, and at the same time started embracing life for the first time, precisely when his was ending. It was a redemptive read.
Nevertheless, “All the Little Live Things” is the antithesis of its sequel. The story we find here is cruel, senseless, random; the kind of violence that crushes any tiny flicker of hope that the reader tries to grasp. The cast of characters are difficult to relate to, starting with a younger Joe who is still trying to make peace with the sudden death of his only son. He is not a likeable character. In this book, Joe and his wife Ruth have just left the coast for a California retreat to start anew, and although their new home sounds like Eden, the arrival of a young hippie called Jim Peck disrupts their privacy and unravels unrequited memories of Joe’s failed relationship with his deceased son. John and Marian enter the picture when they move into the neighboring house and Joe develops a powerful bond with the young woman, whose otherworldly innocence gives him something to look forward to. A person whose brightness might defy his cynical temper. A person who firmly believes there are no evil forces in nature. The daughter he never had. The heated discussions between Joe and Marian are as stimulating as intellectually challenging and they became the major source of joy I got from this book.
Life is heartless most of the time. Joe is aware of it and can’t ignore it any longer. There are many people like Joe. Disappointed. Afraid. Armored with disillusion and regret. There are few people like Marian. People with a strong will and stronger convictions. People with a blind belief in the greater good. I was cheering for both of them but Stegner made this one a bitter pill to swallow. I am grateful that I met Joe at a later moment in his life and that I have perspective of the person he was about to become, otherwise this book might have been too bleak for my taste. Exquisitely written. Dark as hell, where no little things are allowed to live.
"It is a parable for the retired. Sit still, and let the world do the moving".
Joe Allston and his wife Ruth were adhering to that. After a busy career, 37 years living in NYC, and the death of their only son, they move to California to find some peace and make a life filled with contentment and ease. Except life's not like that, not at all, not anywhere, because there are always other people, neighbors both human and otherwise. Gophers, snakes, horses, dogs, poison oak, weeds, there is always something to fight against on your property. And neighbors who must be pacified and accepted with a minimum of civility whether you like them or not. Then two things happen. Jim Peck, a young, shiftless, dirty guru wannabe, assumes squatters rights on an unused piece of your land, while on the other side, a young family moves in, and Marian, the young pregnant mother, turns out to be everything you would have wished for in a daughter. It turns out, that where life is concerned, you can run but you cannot hide.
" Where you find the greatest Good, there you will also find the greatest Evil, for Evil likes paradise every bit as much as Good does".
"There is no way to step off the treadmill. It is all treadmill".
Stegner can always be depended on for at least four things: a good story, beautiful prose, multi-dimensional characters, and a lot of wisdom about the human condition. I have read two of his books twice now: Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety. I figured it was time to branch out with other titles, and was not disappointed.
As with his other titles, this one was brilliant. Because it's what we all have to guard against, all the little live things. Most of all ourselves.
I have real-life book friends but we only meet together at the end of the year to discuss each of our top-ten books. For the last five years, though, we have agreed to a group project for the next year. The first three years were hits but then came Henry James and Gustave Flaubert and my friends were kind of hinting that they might just go their own way, failing to see that defeat has its own kind of reward.
But as the last beer was drunk and the final book discoursed, I offered: Wallace Stegner. We’d probably all read Angle of Repose, I said, but nothing else of his. The rustling of papers quieted, beer glasses stopped in mid-lift. Looks were exchanged. And we had an agreement.
Some of the themes here are dated – environmentalism, pot-smoking, abortion – or at least they seem so, in a 1970-ish American style. Nothing post-modern going on here. Yet the larger issues, and the writing, are really timeless.
I won’t tell the plot, except to say that reading The Emperor of All Maladies earlier this year gave me significant insight into the particulars. This is a book that you cannot put down even as you know it is going to break your heart.
This book moved me deeply. It made me laugh and it made me cry. So far, this is my favorite by the author.
The book is about a couple of months in the life of a retired literary agent and his wife. The setting is on the outskirts of San Francisco during the 1960s. The spot of land where the couple has retired is gorgeous; Stegner draws it in all its beauty. Yet in this idyllic spot, life unfolds, and life for all of us encompasses not only the sweet, but also difficulties, annoyances, uncertainties and terrible trials. Neighbors, some prove themselves to be wonderful, others less so. You learn from the start that one, one very much loved, will die. The book’s central question comes down to this: Is life made richer even by the sorrow it contains?
I do not want to tell you too much. You have to see how the story is drawn. You have to experience the lines. You have to meet the characters. They become so real. Some will infuriate you. Some you may question, but then come to realize that what they do is what a person with such a personality would do. And Joe, the retired literary agent, it is he that is telling us the story, wait till you meet him. I cannot imagine anyone not being moved by his tale.
I believe the book will please most those who have lived through the 1960s, the Hippie era. Now, looking back, one remembers the hopes and dreams of that time, but one recognizes an inherent naivety as well. Looking back, one cannot help but smile.
There is an immense amount of humor written into the lines. There is wisdom too. It is not the plot that draws, but rather the prose-- sometimes stunning in its beauty, other times amusing, other times profound and wise.
The talk reflects perfectly how we then spoke. How we then thought and behaved is extremely well captured too. The book is a mirror of those times.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Edward Hermann. If you ever listen to audiobooks, then listen to this rather than reading the paper book. Hermann’s narration is stunning. With Hermann’s reading you cannot help but hear the humor, and it is essential to the first half of the book. The tempo gains speed in the latter half. Hermann’s pacing is perfect. I have given both the book itself and Edward Hermann’s audiobook narration five stars.
Solid Stegner with many moments of soaring prose. It took me some time to warm to Joe Allston who is wrestling with himself and his relationships amongst his neighbors. As he opens himself up, I too ended up liking him and feeling moved along with him. I love the last line I shall be richer all my life for this sorrow.
’Wherever you find the greatest good, you will find the greatest evil, because evil loves paradise as much as good.’
A lovely gift of happenstance, I chose to listen to this one after recently listening to his The Spectator Bird but wasn’t aware until I began listening that this continues the story of Joe and Ruth Austin following their retirement in California in the 1960’s, after the loss of their son. Joe is a bit stuck in his ways and opinions, but when a graduate student begins to live on his property in a treehouse, he seems to try to find some connection, comparing him to his son.
For some time there is a sense of leniency, while Joe has this inner war within. He doesn’t approve, but keeping this young man around stirs up memories of his own son. At times, it creates a sense of wishing he’d done better by his son and so extends him more lenience, and other times he finds his responses irritatingly arrogant. As time goes by, the arrogance grows more dominant, more mocking.
I think every generation believes they know better than the previous one, wants to solve problems they think they have a better solution for - and perhaps they do - and this story explores that, but also more. What it subtly explores so eloquently, woven throughout this story, is grief. The grief of loss, of helplessly watching a pending loss.
’Love even the threat and the pain, feel yourself fully alive, cast a bold shadow, accept, accept. What we call evil is only a groping towards good, part of the trial and error by which we move toward the perfected consciousness…’
When a young couple become neighbors, Ruth and Joe befriend them, and their young daughter. After a time it becomes obvious that Marian, the wife / mother, has health issues and is trying to live her very best life while she still has one to live.
’One thing I have learned hard, if indeed I have learned it now: it is a reduction of our humanity to hide from pain, our own or others. To hide from anything. That was Marian's text. Be open, be available, be exposed, be skinless. Skinless? Dance around in your bones.’
A moving, lovely, story of a life lived, and the sorrow that will remain.
“All The Little Live Things” is a title that connotes for me sprightliness, energy, and the promise of goodness. It was none of these things. It was, in fact, a very painful book to read, and were it not for the beauty of Stegner’s prose, I might have given it up. It is not a book to read when one is feeling wretched and vulnerable.
Written in 1967, it preceded The Spectator Bird (1976), winner of the 1977 National Book Award, which continued the story of Joe and Ruth Allston who lost their son, Curtis, to a surfing accident. The novel began in a brooding manner with Joe, a bruised man, looking at the rain on a wintry evening. The opening chapter carried a bone-chilling sadness. Joe was stewing in the anguish of having lost Curtis and more recently, a close neighbor-friend (Marian Catlin) to cancer. Joe said this of himself, "I am a tea bag left too long in the cup, and my steepings grow darker and bitterer." And darker and bitterer the novel progressed.
Enter Jim Peck, a hippie undergrad and self-made guru of Free Living 101 who camped out on Joe’s property. Joe’s irascibility was raised manifold. His antagonism toward Peck, borne in part by his unresolved conflicts with Curtis (who was about Peck's age and equally reckless), was poignantly conveyed and almost unbearable to read.
Stegner very convincingly portrayed Joe as a cantankerous old man without the reader losing respect for him. The novel was rich with the loveliest prose when Joe described the gardens and the countryside. Yet, nature too was dominated by the lurking presence of the poison oak, which worked symbolically to underscore the sense of futility in the novel.
There is no consolation when the last page was turned. Joe admitted, "Burrowing among sunny flowers, I never lost the sense of the presence of evil." One is left with a bleak apprehension of man’s inability to obliterate the "component of darkness" from "the force of life." “All The Little Live Things” is not for everyone. It is definitely not recommended if you need a book to read while on vacation.
Joe Allston, retired literary agent, settles with his wife Ruth in a peaceful country home in California. Soon two people arrive who will upset his equilibrium for very different reasons.
The first of these is Jim Peck, a young hippy whom Joe discovers on his property. Egged on by Ruth he reluctantly allows Jim to camp there. It isn’t long before Jim has a thriving community of acolytes. He is the bane of Joe’s life, but Joe hesitates to evict him from the property for a number of reasons. This is how Joe perceives Jim: “Teetering, tiptoeing his padded boots to balance the cycle (surely the feet inside those boots were cloven), he sat and looked at us. He was young, no more than twenty-two or -three. His hair was long and tousled, even matted where the helmet, now hung on a handlebar, had crushed it down. It crawled over his collar, and was pushed forward on his forehead, hiding his horns. His brown eyes, extraordinarily large and bright, gleamed out of that excess of hair, and his teeth, badly spaced, the eyeteeth long and pointed, were bared in a hanging, watchful, half-crazy grin. His coveralls and his shaggy head were splashed with green and gold as the leaves of the bay tree above him moved in the wind. He creaked like a saddle when he shifted, and he gave off an odor like a neglected gym locker.” “Who could persuade him that the Folk who lived simple lives and sang simple songs were also the people who discriminated, segregated, lynched, fought with switchblades, vulgarized everything they touched, saved for a rainy day, bought on credit, were suckers for slogans, loved gadgets, waved the flag, were sentimental about Mother, knew no folksongs, hated beards, and demanded the dismissal of school superintendents who permitted The Catcher in the Rye to appear on high-school reading lists?” One of the reasons for Joe’s antipathy is that his own deceased son had had similar anti-establishment inclinations, and Jim’s presence touches a very raw nerve.
The other person who upsets Joe’s apple cart is Marian Catlin, an absolutely charming young woman who has moved into the next door property with her husband. Before long both Ruth and Joe adore Marian. This affection will result in much heartache. This heartache, together with the bewilderment, anger and guilt over his son’s senseless death, builds to a crescendo of pain for Joe as he considers where he might have gone wrong as a parent. At times Joe descends into the bleak and bitter.
Once again I was captivated by the beauty of Stegner’s prose. Whether it is a long lyrical description of nature, an angry outburst or a witty one-liner as Joe ruminates on life, love and death, Stegner’s prose is brilliant.
I was also struck by the many contrasts in the novel: Joe represents the Establishment; Jim represents anti-establishment. Joe and Ruth live in a beautiful spot, but there are various elements of ugliness around them with regard to neighbours. Their garden is full of singing birds, but then one hears the sound of a shotgun and dead pigeons come fluttering to the ground to the cacophonic sound of barking dogs. The garden has beautiful flowers, but there are wasps and tarantulas about. Joe is plagued by gophers destroying his garden, and as he goes after a gopher he kills a King snake in the process, which very visibly has the gopher in its stomach and Joe realises that he has actually killed an ally. There are snakes in Joe’s paradise - both physically and metaphorically. Marian has a love for all the little live things, and she prefers to have the indigenous over the exotic in her garden. Ruth cultivates roses as well as other flowers. Joe and Ruth have contrasting personalities, and they compliment each other perfectly.
And once again I cannot resist sharing some quotes: “Sympathy I have failed in, stoicism I have barely passed. But I have made straight A in irony—that curse, that evasion, that armor, that way of staying safe while seeming wise.”
“Better a country fox with a hemorrhoid than a city fox with a pile. Aesop must have said it.”
“Lyrical is the word. Dawns with choirs of meadow larks, noons celebrated by our mockingbird friends, afternoons that go down in veils of blue to the sweet sad Tennysonian intonings of mourning doves.”
“Think how often beauty and delicacy and grace are choked out by weeds.”
“Yet he spoke some of my opinions, in his incomparably crackbrained way, and I was uneasily aware that in putting him down I was pinning myself.”
““These people are so hell-bent to be individuals that they don’t even exist except as gangs…””
“He is dangerous, too, and all the more so because, as I now recognize, he has no more malice than he has sense, and has besides a considerable dedication to beliefs that he unquestionably considers virtuous. Dangerousness is not necessarily a function of malicious intent.”
“Could I stand to see humane feelings and noble ideals come half-baked from that oven? I doubted it.”
“It’s the beginning of wisdom when you recognize that the best you can do is choose which rules you want to live by, and it’s persistent and aggravated imbecility to pretend you can live without any.”
“Well, so the more he changed the more he was the same thing.”
“There is no way to step off the treadmill. It is all treadmill.”
How wonderful it was to come across the grumpy and humourless, Joe Allston, whom I first met in Stegner's The Spectator Bird. Now in his sixties, he's retired in California, living a quiet, routine filled life next to his wife of forty years, Ruth.
It's the "crazy 60s" when the youths of the day went on sex, drugs and spiritual experimentation benders. I wasn't alive in the 60s, but I always wonder - would I have joined in or would I have followed the beaten path? I definitely see myself as being anti-war, I'm not so sure about the "free love " (more like free STIs and pregnancies) and the drug-taking.
The Allston routines are interrupted when they come across a young hippy man camped under a tree on their property. Joe Allston has issues with him immediately, he sees the young "revolutionaries" as preposterous. Joe Allston takes everything personally when it comes to Jim - his dishevelled appearance, his speech, his motorcycle - everything is an affront. Joe resents the young man even more, as he gives in and allows him to set camp on a part of his land that was unused. The young man starts building a treehouse, puts up a bridge and does other improvements that the Allstons observe from a distance.
Not long after Jim's camping development, Marian and John, a beautiful married couple, and their six-year old daughter move next to Joe and Ruth. Marian is not only beautiful but she's got a way of being and thinking that endears everyone to her, including Joe and Ruth. She's like the daughter they never had. Their friendship blossoms quickly, the older couple find that their life becomes more interesting, more sparkly in very subtle but noticeable ways.
This novel is about regret and grief, getting old, the clash of generations. It's about the way we affect others and others affect us.
The ending was beautiful: "I shall be richer all my life for this sorrow.'
Wallace Stegner was a very meditative writer. This, I think, is why some people have a hard time getting through his books. There's a lot of rumination on the part of the characters, while the plot sits on the back burner. With some authors this drives me crazy, but with Stegner I somehow have the patience to stay with the writing and savor it. I think it's because he articulated so many truths and feelings I've personally experienced. He handled difficult themes in such a soft way, with the perfect combination of intellect and heart.
All the Little Live Things and The Spectator Bird are companion novels about Joe Allston, a retired literary agent who has moved to California with his wife Ruth. It doesn't matter which book is read first. The two books complement each other and fill in the blanks as needed. The only characters that are constants are Joe and Ruth, and the painful memory of their son Curtis, whose life and death still haunts them. If you need to be strictly chronological, then read All the Little Live Things first.
As the blurb of every edition of this book will tell you, Joe is a retired literary agent who together with his wife decided to leave the busy life of a big city in order to spend the autumn of their lives in the countryside California. They now lead a calm life, enjoying the weather and long walks with magnificent views. They keep largely to themselves until a friendly couple moves in the house “next door” and a young man, obviously trespassing, parks his motorcycle on the overgrown part of Joseph's property. From that day on, nothing is the same anymore. That day, starts a far more emotional period that Joe and Ruth expected by their withdrawn Californian exile. I absolutely adore Joe. I love his unsentimental view on their involuntary tenant and the hypocrisy contained in his revolt against the system. I so much understand his fierce feelings towards garden pests, annoying and naive people, and trespassers. I respect his introspective journey and critical look at himself and his relationship with his son. There are few literary characters with whom I can identify so strongly. Stegner Wallace is from now on, in my own personal hall of fame.
I got sucked so deep into the lives of the people in this novel that it did not feel like a novel. Ironic because I found the narrative difficult to read sometimes—between the vocabulary and convoluted syntax, I had to reread sections to get meaning or realize a transition to another time had happened. But that aside, because probably it is my limitation as a reader, this was a wonderful, painful, compelling book about real lives and relationships. I was so emotionally involved, I had to take breaks—once to do a full one-hour workout, to use up my adrenaline flood; I longed to run away, yet I couldn’t stop reading, and finally it left me shredded and speechless.
One of my favorite books of all time is Stegner's CROSSING TO SAFETY--it was a very profound story of the transformational potential of friendship. This book also explored that theme, but from such a painful perspective that I suffered as I read.
Stegner's writing is beautiful, but the anger and social prejudice expressed in this novel did not appeal to me. I believe that he was an English professor at Stanford in the late 60's when this book was written. I can only imagine that as he anticipated his 60th year, he must have felt very alienated from the Northern California liberal youth of that era. His students.
The anti-establishment characters in this novel are exposed so harshly by the narrator that it made me cringe. No spirit of romanticism for the fledgling Hippie movement expressed here! And, frankly, that venom spoiled the book for me.
The warmth and love expressed for another character--perceived as pure and generous---was juxtaposed too strongly against the mean-spirited attitude the narrator adapted to other characters.
Perhaps, this book was just too much a period piece that didn't wear well as society adapts and evolves.
While I have loved all of Stegner's novels I've read so far (Angle of Repose, Crossing to Safety, Spectator Bird), this one seems a little bit dated. In this companion to Spectator Bird, almost 70 Joe Allston rants and raves about the hippie barbarians doing their thing on a bit of his property in 1967 Los Altos Hills/Woodside. I kind of wish I had read this in 1967 when it was published, and I was still at Stanford, and Stegner was still in the nearby hills. I have no idea how autobiographical this is (I don't believe Stegner was ever a New York book agent) but it seems I read somewhere that Stegner was not a big fan of the "counter-culture". At my current age I can see his point. Still the writing is luminous as ever.
Some stories are pure entertainment. Some are built for other purposes, as with Wallace Stegner’s, All The Live Little Things. There was not much that I found entertaining, but if I measure the story by it’s impact on me, by it’s provocative nature and wide open doorway to self-reflection, then it was a fabulous piece of writing.
My feelings about the book were hard won. I found the beginning slow going, the writing a bit dated and the whole experience laborious. I had trouble relating to the characters initially, but as the story began to take shape and the right nerve endings plucked, I found myself becoming increasingly drawn into the drama unfolding in this little pocket of semi-suburbia California circa the nineteen-sixties.
And why not? I lived through this tumultuous time and found it easy to enter into the mindset of the principal antagonist, twenty-three year old Jim Peck, whose running conflict with Joe Allston forms much of the heart of the story. At the same time, I am now the age of Joe Allston, the principal character and narrator. Not only did many of the outer details of Joe’s life resemble my own, I found his inner process compelling, perceptive and amazingly similar to mine.
Written almost journalistically, I found myself not only fascinated, but inescapably drawn into Joe’s experiences with both Peck and Marian, a young mother who has recently entered Joe’s life. Two sides of same coin, Peck and Marian were representative of the challenges to the norms and mores of society that created so much upheaval and unrest for over a decade. Peck’s view, based on hostility, dismissal and rejection of the status quo in contrast to Marian who saw love and acceptance as the cornerstones upon which happiness is achieved.
Most people who lived through that period in our history will have a reaction to Stegner’s writing. It was as dramatic as it was traumatic, and like knowing exactly what you were doing at the moment President Kennedy was assassinated in nineteen sixty-three, most will know exactly where they were intellectually and emotionally as change forced its way into the conscience of America.
On a deeper and more personal level, this is a book written for men my age, written with an unflinching honesty and a willingness to own the darker side of our natures. Through Joe Allston, Stegner exposes the mind play, the endless rationalizations, the needing to believe we are right when so many others are wrong. He exposes our prejudices so easily accepted as knowledge earned in the school of life. At the same time he leaves the reader with the understanding, that in spite of everything, the mental restraints we place upon ourselves while seeking order out of chaos, we are still human. We feel and understand feelings. We are rational beings, but we are also wired to emotion. We can not stop ourselves from feeling. We can mask it, hide from it and try to deny it. We can spout the meaningless banalities, “It’s all good,” or “Everything’s perfect,” but feel we will; feel we must.
With Peck, Joe wrestles with feeling taken advantage of, disrespected, marginalized as a representative of a newly evolving social order. When Joe reacts with anger to how he is being treated it is suggested that he is overreacting, that his uncompromising and contracted emotional state is the problem and not the fact that he is being taken advantage of or that his having earned the right to respect, let alone the common courtesy we all deserve, is conspicuously absent. It is Joe who is forced into submission, forced to adopt a generosity he does not feel, forced to ignore the warning signs coming from his hard won knowledge of self, forced to quell the disquiet, the unease born out of the moral turpitude that his invaded his carefully cultivated serenity.
Where Joe reacts to Peck with immediate suspicion, dislike and hostility, his reactions to Marian, although born out of the same emotional and intellectual system, are softened by his overwhelming affection for her. In both relationships Joe is forced to examine his convictions, his morals, his feelings and the most human desire to have control of our lives. In one instance Joe reacts as a man wronged, a man relentlessly taken advantage of, a man unjustifiably mistreated. In the other newly acquired relationship, Joe is challenged, yet allowed to react, and as a result finds himself opening his mind and expanding his views to accommodate another perspective.
As the story unfolded Wallace Stegner’s writing was impossible not to admire. I wasn’t sure about this book when I first started reading, yet urged on by a lifetime of self-reflection as well as journaling, I was determined to make it to the end. Bottom line: Not only did it become easier to continue, I found myself rewarded many times over.
How have I missed out on Wallace Stegner all of my reading life. His writing is absolutely brilliant and this book really had me so engaged. It stirred so many emotions - I laughed, I got angry, I could have cried. I'm also going to say that I saw a bit of myself in our narrator, Joe. I think what that means is that as I've gotten older I've gotten very set in my ways and less tolerant of many things. Be it good or bad, that's just how it is.
In any event, a story that through the writing put me in Paradise, CA in the 1960's enjoying 'all the little live things'. I don't know where Stegner lived or grew up, but one thing is for sure he most certainly got the California terrain and weather down to a tee.
This was not an uplifting book, there was a great deal of pain and sadness; but it also tries, I think, by way of the character Marian to teach us to embrace much more of what we do and really try to find the silver lining. That was quite the opposite of Joe and we are not really sure by the story's end if he learned anything of this from Marian or not.
The relationship between Joe and his wife, both in their mid-60's, was quite entertaining - Joe really was a curmudgeon of sorts while Ruth was the complete opposite and was never afraid to stand up to him. You have to wonder how their marriage survived, particularly after suffering a great personal loss, but survive it sure did.
The character of Peck annoyed me to no end. He seemed like an antagonist at every turn, and felt that life owed him something whether or not he made any contributions. Pretty much the polar opposite of Joe which made for interesting reading. I took the side of Joe.
The ending was too much for me though -
Other than that, I found it well worth reading, and truly loved some of the descriptive outdoor scene settings and the relationships that were formed between Joe and Ruth, Marian, her husband and her daughter. Joe and Ruth really were like parents to Marian and Marian shares those same thoughts at the story's end.
I get it now!!!! I wondered why so many friends I follow, love Wallace Stegner!! He is right up there with Wendell Berry, and that is saying something ~ I loved this novel!!
Joe - “Sometimes my heart grows tired with beating, it wants rest, like my eyelids “. I can appreciate old Joe’s , thoughts and actions! Funny, how we become less patient, easier to anger, loser with words, more judgmental in our later years. And yet, Joe’s words are filled of wisdom.
Ruth - Joe’s leveling force with forever reasoning words, constant companion, his true life-time love!
Kurt - Joe and Ruth’s son .... rebellious, hateful and disrespectful, “disastrous self waste”. Joe ponders, ‘Did he go to his death, hating or hopeless’?
Jim Peck - aka.. “Long Haired Kook” their conversation on ‘being vegan’ cracked me up.
Marian - she turns the old man into a merrier, softer person. I loved how this novel got its title, ALL THE LITTLE LIVE THINGS!
John - if Joe and Ruth had a daughter, John would have been a perfect son-in-law.
Debbie - little sweetheart, captures everyone love and attention.
This story is heartwarming and yet at the same time heartbreaking! Read it!! Wallace Stegner’s writing is so elegant, I stand in awe! Stegner humor is priceless! His written words carry me happily along like a leaf in the soft autumn breeze.
I always seem to reread this in rhythm or synchronicity with something in life. I actually listened to it, and I was addicted to Edward Herrmann's voice, it was a perfect complement to the narrator's personality, and I wonder again and again why this book is so powerful to me. Set in the 60's with a curmudgeonly charmer who has conservative views in the sleepwalking of his retirement. I don't identify with that, and I really actually don't identify with the most important female character, Marian, either. But I do believe in part of her belief in evolution towards a type of biological perfection or more hippieish, an evolution of soul or consciousness, if not towards perfection, then towards more than we can imagine now.
But this book is a conversation about what it means to live in the world and is still meaningful almost 50 years later. I think it has been a guiding light for me for over 20 years now, since I read it in college, even before I became a nurse. Whenever I am shocked by the triumph of evil over good, I think “wherever you find the greatest good, you will find the greatest evil, because evil loves paradise as much as good.” Whenever I am faced with loss or sorrow, I think, “It is hard doctrine, but I was beginning to understand it then, and I have not repudiated it now: that love, not sin, costs us Eden. Love is a carrier of death - the only thing, in fact, that makes death significant.” Or simply, “I will be richer all my life for this sorrow.”
Those three quotes walk with me every day, and in this rereading, paralleled a situation with another patient (the last time it was an unrestrained child with a traumatic brain injury) that we have been working hard to keep alive, this time, a very close parallel since she is a mother of a young child and will die or have a serious stroke if she does not continue a simple but time consuming regimen of blood thinners. For 8 months, we have gone above and beyond what is reasonable to try to help her, and we are failing. For many reasons, she is non-compliant and we can’t force her to do anything. I have not been willing to let her die, but it is out of my hands now, and it is hard to accept that and wait for the consequences.
But she is the anti-Marian; she has no concept of the preciousness of life and certainly no understanding of what it means to evolve. But what ties them together is their inability to see outside their own frames of reference. I can see both, just as I agree with Marian about some things, but I agree with Joe about others. However, there is no black and white when it comes to life, it is raw and unrestrained and messy and complex. There are no absolutes except the above quotes. No matter the sorrow, it will enrich your life if you learn from it; paradise attracts all of us, and the good and bad change from minute to minute; and love is what makes death powerful.
The forces of blind life that work across this hilltop are as irresistible as she said they were, they work by a principle more potent than fission. But I can’t look upon them as just life, impartial and eternal and in flux, an unceasing interchange of protein. And I can’t find proofs of the crawl toward perfection that she believed in. Maybe what we call evil is only as she told me that first day we met, what conflicts with our interests; but maybe there are such realities as ignorance, selfishness, jealousy, malice, criminal carelessness, and maybe these things are evil no mater whose interests they serve or conflict with.
I have always said that the way to deal with the pain of other’s is by sympathy, which is suffering with, and that the way to deal with one’s own pain is to put one foot after the other. Yet I was never willing to suffer with others, and when my own pain hit me, I crawled into hole. Sympathy I have failed in, stoicism I have barely passed. But I have made straight A’s in irony- that curse, that evasion, that armor, that way of staying safe while seeming wise. One thing I have learned hard, if indeed I have learned it now: it is a reduction of our humanity to hide from pain, our own or other’s. to hide from anything. That was Marian’s text. Be open, be available, be exposed, be skinless. Skinless? Dance around in your bones.
Marian’s eyes absolutely blaze. To meet them is to have a shock of contact as if they were electrically charged. “Now you see? You wondered what was in whale’s milk. Don’t you know now? The same thing that’s in a mushroom spore so small you need a microscope to see it, or in gophers, or poison oak, or anything else we try to pave under or grub out, or poison. There isn’t good life and bad life, there’s only life. Think of the force down there, just telling things to get born!”
“It is hard doctrine, but I was beginning to understand it then, and I have not repudiated it now: that love, not sin, costs us Eden. Love is a carrier of death - the only thing, in fact, that makes death significant.”
“Isn’t it complicated to be human, though?” she said. “Animals seem to give up their lives so naturally…And after all, I grew up, I married John, I had Debby. So knowing, being able to understand and forecast and even predict an approximate date, shouldn’t make any difference. I guess consciousness makes individuals of us, and as individuals we lose the old acceptance…” “The one thing,” Marian said in a voice that went suddenly small and tight, “the thing I can hardly bear sometimes is that I won’t ever see her grow up. She’ll have to do it without whatever I could have given her.” “Time, too, time and everything that one could do in it, and the chance of wasting or losing or never even realizing it. It’s so important to us because we see it so close. We’re individuals, we’re full of ourselves, and so we’re bad historians. We get crazy and anxious because all of sudden there’s so little time left to be loving and generous as we wish we’d always been and always intended to be…do you suppose I feel the shortness of time because I want to experience everything and feel everything that the race has ever felt? Because there’s so much to feel and I’m greedy?”
“Walk openly,” Marian used to say. Love even the threat and the pain, feel yourself fully alive, cast a bold shadow, accept, accept. What we call evil is only a groping towards good, part of the trial and error by which we move toward the perfected consciousness…
Waiting is one of the forms of boredom, as it can be one of the shapes of fear. The thing you wait for compels you time after time toward the same feelings, which become only further repetitive elements in the sameness of the days. Here, even the weather enforces monotony. The mornings curve over, one like another, for a week, two weeks, three weeks, unchanging in temperature, light, color, humidity, or if changing, changing by predictable small gradations that amount to no changes at all. Never a tempest, thunderstorm, high wind; never a cumulus cloud, not at this season. Hardly a symptom to tell you summer is passing into autumn, unless it is the dense green of the tarweed that late in summer…in recollection, those weeks of waiting telescope for me as all dull time does.
God is kind? Life is good? Nature never did betray the heart that loved her? Why the reward she received for living intensely and generously and trying to die with dignity? Why the horror at the bridge her last clear sight of earth?...I do not accept, I am not reconciled. But one thing she did. She taught me the stupidity of the attempt to withdraw and be free of trouble and harm... You can’t retire from the treadmill, there is no way to step off. It is all treadmill.
She said, “You wondered what was in whale’s milk. Now you know. Think of the force down there, just telling things to get born, just to be!”
I had had no answer for her then. Now I might have one. Yes, think of it, I might say. And think how random and indiscriminate it is, think how helplessly we must submit, think how impossible it is to control or direct it. Think how often beauty and delicacy and grace are choked out by weeds. Think how endless and dubious is the progress from weed to flower.
Even alive, she never convinced me with her advocacy of biological perfectionism. She never persuaded me to ignore, or look upon as merely hard pleasures, the evil that I felt in every blight and smut and pest in my garden- that I felt, for that matter, squatting like a toad on my own heart. Think of the force of life, yes, but think of the component of darkness in it. One of the things that’s in whale’s milk is the promise of pain and death.
And so? Admitting what is so obvious, what then? Would I wipe Marion Catlin out of my unperfected consciousness if I could? Would I forgo the pleasure of her company to escape the bleakness of her loss? Would I go back to my own formula, which was twilight sleep, to evade the pain she brought with her?
Not for a moment. And so even in the gnashing of my teeth, I acknowledge my conversion. It turns out to be for me as I once told her it would be for her daughter. I shall be richer all my life for this sorrow.”
I read my first Wallace Stegner book in 2018, Crossing to Safety. The prose was beautiful, I knew I must read more of his books. When he writes about nature it calms my soul. I lived through the 60’s and remember much that’s written about that time. One thing Stegner does well is make his work emotionally relatable. Some of the characters infuriated me while others touched my heart. Initially I didn’t like Joe Allston, but I realized what his personality was. Another consideration is how grief changes a person, you have a new normal which feels very abnormal. Edward Herman ‘s (reminded me of the late James Garner) narration is fantastic. The humor is captured in the first half, and the pacing is perfect for the second half. “I shall be richer all my life for this sorrow.”
This was such a tender, thoughtful book, about a late-middle aged suburban couple retiring from the world in into the Bay Area countryside, and encountering a trespassing hippie couple who troubles their retreat. Beautifully written, honest and without melodrama, considering the issues of the sixties as only a novel can. I found I preferred this contemporary West to his historical works--belongs on the shelf with Updike and Bellow as well as Kesey.
Reading All the little live things and The Spectator bird was like being served food by the best cook in the world for an entire week. Sometimes it was exquisite fine dining, often it was just beans in tomato sauce. Bland and plain as it may seem, they were still the best beans in tomato sauce in the world.
All the Little Live Things. is the story of 64 year-old curmudgeon Joe Allston and how he changes over the course of several months due to a relationship with a new neighbor whom he comes to care for like the daughter he never had.
Joe and Ruth Allston have moved from NYC upon Joe's retirement to withdraw from the world into the rural landscape of California and begin to heal from their son's death.
Stegner's writing, as always, evokes the beauty of the natural world.
"... the breeze dropped to nothing, the leaves still, the haze beginning to spread amethyst and lavender and violet between the layers of the hills, the sun dappling the bricks like something especially sent down from above to soothe our mortal aches away.".
The novel is very character-centric. Stegner evokes the depth of feeling between his characters and tells his tale with perception and some wry humor. The heart of this story is that Marian Catlin, the neighbor, is pregnant with a much wanted second child; and she has cancer. She is determined to bring her pregnancy to term and to prepare her first child, Debby, for life without her. The Allstons and Catlins become very close friends; and Joe rails against her choice to forgo treatment for the cancer.
John, Marian's husband tells him, " 'She's entitled to do it her way. It's her death.' So it was, so it was. and closer every morning.".
There is also some drama with Jim Peck, an anti-establishment dropout who builds a tree house on the Allston's property very close to the Catlin's home. His encounters with Peck mirror Joe's confrontational relationship with his son. The story was published in 1967 and tells of the culture clash between the generations.
There were some places where the book seemed to barely plod along. I have not had this experience with the other 3 Stegner novels I've read -- Crossing to Safety. (my favorite), Angle of Repose., and The Big Rock Candy Mountain..
Ultimately Joe Allston opens a crack in his certainties and his heart.
"And so? Admitting what is so obvious, what then? Would I wipe Marion Catlin out of my unperfected consciousness if I could? Would I forgo the pleasure of her company to escape the bleakness of her loss? Would I go back to my own formula, which was twilight sleep, to evade the pain she brought with her?
Not for a moment. And so even in the gnashing of my teeth, I acknowledge my conversion. It turns out to be for me as I once told her it would be for her daughter. I shall be richer all my life for this sorrow.".