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Angle of Repose

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Confined to a wheelchair, retired historian Lyman Ward sets out to write his grandparents' remarkable story, chronicling their days spent carving civilization into the surface of America's western frontier. But his research reveals even more about his own life than he's willing to admit. What emerges is an enthralling portrait of four generations in the life of an American family.

Wallace Stegner's Pultizer Prize-winning novel is a story of discovery—personal, historical, and geographical.

569 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 1971

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About the author

Wallace Stegner

192 books1,589 followers
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.

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Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,086 reviews7,013 followers
May 28, 2018
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972, this book is considered by some to be Stegner’s masterpiece. It’s a great read that is largely based on the true story of a woman pioneer in the west when so many other books about this era tell the stories of men.

Layered on the frontier story is the fictional story of the man writing it who turns these pioneers into his grandparents. An older divorced man confined to a wheel chair with one leg missing, Stegner interweaves his narrator’s isolation on a western ranch and his family’s efforts to get him into some kind of assisted living. He has a local woman and her daughter help him bathe and dress, take dictation and type his story. Their family dramas provide us with at times humorous interludes to the main historical saga. The daughter is a flower child from Berkeley and our old-fogey narrator spares no words in telling us what he thinks about that generation.

The historical saga is mainly the true story of Mary Hallock Foote, child of a wealthy New York Quaker family, born in 1847. By marrying a young mining engineer headed west to make his fortune, Mary choose to leave her life of comfort and culture tied in with famous New York literary lights to go live in shacks in western towns where she was often the only educated woman for miles around. It was as if she had gone to Mars.


To keep her brain alive, she writes frequently to literary friends back east (often without seeing them for years) and we a learn a lot about her marriage, their family hardships and her financial struggles from these real letters. She’s an artist who sells her sketches of western life and short stories back east to magazines like Harper’s and Century Magazine. As her husband struggles, often her income becomes the sole support of the family.

For the 60 years of her marriage (1876-1936) she lived in New Almaden near San Jose, California; Leadville, Colorado; Deadwood, South Dakota; Boise, Idaho, Michoacán, Mexico and Grass Valley, California. It took her a long time to realize that what she thought of in her youth as an “excursion” had become a lifetime commitment to exile from her Eastern roots. Nothing went well; they always struggled financially and lost money on irrigation schemes. At one point she confides in a life-long male friend (and perhaps a lover) “There lie the most wasted years of our lives.”


Some passages I liked:

“I am impressed with how much of my grandparents’ life depended on continuities, contacts, connections, friendships, and blood relationships. Contrary to the myth, the West was not made entirely by pioneers who had thrown everything away but an ax and a gun.”

“It is not the Nevada City I knew as a boy. Towns are like people. Old ones have character, the new ones are interchangeable. Nevada City is in the process of changing from old to new.”

“…the West was not a new country being created, but an old one being reproduced; in that sense our pioneer women were always more realistic than our pioneer men.”


The way Stegner used Mary Foote’s letters caused controversy among her family and among literary critics in a way that sullied Stegner’s reputation. Yes, he had permission from the family to use her letters as historical background for the story. But he published many of her previously unpublished letters verbatim, making up a good portion of the book. The letters were later published separately in a book titled A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote.

To photo: Deadwood, South Dakota from oldglorygunsmith.blogspot.com

Middle photo: Leadville, Colorado in 1904 from narrowgauge.org

Lower: Mary Hallock Foote sketched by her daughter from Wikipedia
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews875 followers
December 12, 2013
Fellow Goodreaders know that feeling of exhilaration when a new entrant pushes its way onto a top-ten-of-all-time list. Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winner from 1972 is my most recent example. Of course, Goodreads reviewers also know the pressure involved in justifying the choice. So what makes this one so good? As befits a top ten inclusion, here are ten factors that come to mind.

1. A Damn Good Story

Lyman Ward is a former professor of history with a bone disease that put him in a wheelchair. He moved into his grandparents’ house in California where he’d spent much of his boyhood. With a strong personal interest and a research historian’s skills, he studied the lives of his grandmother, Susan, and his grandfather, Oliver. She was an artist and later a writer transplanted from her genteel life in New York to be with her husband, the earnest engineer, out West. He specialized in big projects: mines, irrigation canals, etc. His integrity prevented the material success he would have liked as a source of comfort for Susan. She created what culture she could in mining towns, and had become known for her illustrations and magazine articles about life in the West. Stegner had permission to use real letters of a writer and painter from that era, lending the narrative an authentic voice. As their family dramas unfolded, Lyman had a few related episodes of self-discovery, all very cleverly done.

2. Complex Characters

What book could ever be considered great without an interesting cast? These players were decidedly not stick figures – more like Rubenesque (actually, that’s not the exact opposite I was going for, but you know what I mean). Starting out, Lyman seemed like a stock character – the crusty recluse – but he becomes more central and more nuanced as the book goes on. The way we see his grandparents through his eyes tells us a lot about him. To be honest, early in his narration I was put off by his invented dialog and false omniscience, but later, after he copped to this as a way to make them more real, I actually liked the device. All the characters, the ones on the periphery included, seemed very credible, with emotions that rang true and unexpected depths that only a first-rate writer could have imagined.

3. Interesting History

It’s an impressive laundry list of things the curious reader can learn more about: technology of the time (from Oliver’s various engineering projects), culture (the arts community in NY, pioneer life in the West, the opulent part of Mexico where Susan and Oliver almost stayed for a job), and manners (subtle social conventions, shady business dealings, dirty politics). Lyman, with his background in history, was a very knowledgeable narrator. He had remarkable tunnel vision (literally, since his disease prevented him from turning his head) trained on his subjects.

4. Conflict

Clashes were easy to come by when the refined East (civilized society) met the rough-and-tumble West (opportunity). Tightrope walks were performed between desire and moral responsibility, the practical and the romantic, and in the case of Lyman and a curvy young assistant, the stodgy academic and the free-spirited hippie. There was conflict in Lyman’s concept of himself, too. Was he more like his grandmother or grandfather? It turned out to be a key question.

5. Blissful(?) Institutions

The give-and-take of a marriage was a central theme. Susan was described as “more lady than woman” and Oliver was “more man than gentleman.” This made for some tension. As Stegner himself said in a Paris Review interview:
Susan is more talented in many ways than Oliver. She shows off better. But while I wrote that book, thinking that I was writing about her as a heroine, I came to the end of it thinking maybe he is the hero because there is a flaw in her, a flaw of snobbery. She doesn’t adequately appreciate the kind of person he is, or the kind of work he does. That’s a story not about either men or women, but about a relationship, a novel about a marriage.

On top of this, Lyman reflected on his own former marriage. Would he forgive his ex-wife for what she did to him? Should he have done more to prevent it from happening in the first place? More good questions both for him and for us.

6. Metaphorical Resonance

“Angle of repose” is an engineering term referring to the angle at which rocks and soil settle when tumbling down off a slope before coming to a stop. Lyman’s goal was to see “how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.” Another way to think of it may be as the point at which the slights that we suffer lose their animating force and finally give way to acceptance.

Stegner spells out a second metaphor so well that I’m willing to risk further attention-squelching length to include it.
There is another physical law that teases me, too: the Doppler Effect. The sound of anything coming at you – a train, say, or the future – has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away. If you have perfect pitch and a head for mathematics you can compute the speed of the object by the interval between its arriving and departing sounds. I have neither perfect pitch nor a head for mathematics, and anyway who wants to compute the speed of history? Like all falling bodies, it constantly accelerates. But I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a somber sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne.

7. Powerful Descriptions

What was clever here was how natural it was for Susan, the artist, to describe and even embellish the new sights she would see out West. Her eye for detail never got tedious. Of course, we know to credit Stegner for excluding any word that didn’t pull its weight. There were countless little analogies, too, that made for a pleasant experience. For example: “Bunion footed, wearing her look of a supposedly house-broken dog which is called upon to explain a puddle on the floor, Mrs. Briscoe labored toward them.”

8. Organic Philosophy

I like reading bigger thoughts, but less so when they’re without context. If they appear as natural outgrowths of a story or a character profile, I’m all in. With A of R I’m spoiled for choice looking for examples. Here are a few, ranging from aphorism and homily:
It is an easy mistake to think that non-talkers are non-feelers.

You'll do what you think you want to do, or what you think you ought to do. If you're very lucky, luckier than anybody I know, the two will coincide.

Home is a notion that only the nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.

Civilizations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations. The rebels and the revolutionaries are only eddies, they keep the stream from getting stagnant but they get swept down and absorbed, they're a side issue. Quiet desperation is another name for the human condition. If revolutionaries would learn that they can't remodel society by day after tomorrow -- haven't the wisdom to and shouldn't be permitted to -- I'd have more respect for them ... Civilizations grow and change and decline -- they aren't remade.

9. Awfully Good Writing

I may have made my case already with the examples I’ve included, but let me add that this is more than just pretty language we’re talking about here. There’s plenty of substance to it, too. To my mind, Stegner is a true master of the craft. Every sentence has heft, yet never at the expense of flow. Early on I thought Stegner is like a grown-up when so many others are mere children in comparison. His candle-power shines brightly on every page.

10. Opportunities for Growth

Hokeyness aside, how many books do you read and wonder, “Gee willikers, am I possibly becoming a better person?” If you’re drawn to intelligence, please give Lyman, his grandparents, and most of all Stegner a try. If cumulative insight into human experience floats your boat, ships ahoy.
17 reviews13 followers
August 8, 2008
I read this book based largely on the Goodreads reviews. Maybe I'm not as smart as other reviewers, or maybe other reviewers give it high praise because it was a Pulitzer Prize winner and they didn't want to look dumb (something to which I have no aversion), or maybe this was just a fluke, but I didn't think this book was worth reading. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I started the book about 4 or 5 times, and when I finally did slog through it, it was in 5 and 10 page increments. I just couldn't get rolling with it. My bottom-line, four word review is: This book is boring.

Not to say that it didn't have good points. There were two real strengths, in my opinion. (1) As others have pointed out, Stegner has an extraordinary way with words. His descriptive prose is remarkable. It flows like poetry from line to line to line, and definitely sets a scene. (2) This is the only Pulitzer Prize winning book that I have read that contains the phrase, "I felt a hot erection rising from my mutilated lap." Ah, memories of seventh grade algebra.

But those don't make up for the bad. NOTHING HAPPENS. Maybe I should put a spoiler alert there (or here), but nothing happens. The book has no plot. They go from place to place to place. He's unsuccessful. She is a pouting snob. They wait for their break. They move. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Don't get me wrong, I can enjoy books about relationships and internal strife and family struggles. I don't need hermaphrodite crack dealers racing jet skis through burning buildings while cheating on their KGB spy/stripper girlfriends or anything. But I do need some plot.

Also, the main character, the narrator's grandmother, is one of the more annoying characters that I have ever come across. I spent the majority of the book hoping that she'd step in front of a train. Alas, she doesn't. It took me 550 arduous pages to learn this.
Profile Image for Candi.
614 reviews4,642 followers
October 9, 2020
“What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.”

When I picked up this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I assumed it to be a captivating story of the settling of the western frontier. It was that. But it was more than that too. Much more. At its firmly beating heart, Angle of Repose is a gripping portrait of a marriage. Two marriages, actually. As Lyman Ward tries to make sense of his wife’s sudden exit from his life following his confinement to a wheelchair, he decides to delve into the lives of his grandparents, Susan and Oliver Ward. I went kicking and screaming into another story about the dissection of a relationship, wondering if I could handle another. I’ve come out relatively unscathed (I’m perhaps becoming numb these days) and a deeply satisfied reader as a result.

“I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a sober sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne…”

I think it is human nature to want to peer at the lives of others in order to shed light on and find consolation for our own troubles. It’s one of the reasons we read, yes? Much of the time, Lyman seems to speak directly to his grandmother, living as she did in another century. But she is already gone from this world when he attempts to unravel her life. Much of what he learns is from letters she wrote to her dear friend, Augusta Drake, back in New York. Susan left Augusta as well as a life of literature, art and intellectualism behind in order to pledge herself to a man and a life she knew little about. This isn’t just a story about a woman turned adventuress and heroine of the West, however. Susan isn’t some grand conqueror of the frontier; she doesn’t throw aside all her inhibitions and principles in order to ride off into the sunset on her horse, snatching at whatever she wants in life. It’s much more real than all that. Like the rest of us, she confronts doubts, struggles, and temptations. There are failures, tests of faith, loss of confidence. Similarly, Oliver Ward is no icon of the West. He’s a quiet, honorable man who doesn’t always meet her expectations.

“She saw in his face that he had contracted the incurable Western disease. He had set his cross-hairs on the snowpeak of a vision, and there he would go, triangulating his way across a bone-dry future, dragging her and the children with him, until they all died of thirst.”

I so loved my romp across the American western frontier, from California to Colorado to Mexico to Idaho. Stegner’s prose is beautifully descriptive and this novel is indeed sprawling - across the country and across the generations. The analysis of marriage is sharp and penetrating. Like the men and women of the West, I had no idea what lay ahead, but I eagerly anticipated one page after another. I was not disappointed. I alternately soared with hopefulness and shrank with apprehension. The ending was simply breathtaking. This is my first Wallace Stegner work and it was everything my friends here have told me it would be!

“It’s as if every morning the world had to create itself all new. Everything’s still to do, the word isn’t yet spoken. It’s like standing in front of a whited block that you have to make into a picture. No matter how many times I watch it happen, I’m never sure it will happen next time. I keep thinking I’m looking into our life, and it’s as vague and unclear as that.”

“The dove’s long mournful throaty cooing was a dirge for the failed and disappointed, for the innocent and incompetent, themselves not excepted, who wandered out to this harsh place and were destroyed.”
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews28 followers
July 14, 2018
Update.... geeeezzz Marie!!! Another $1.99 Kindle gem this morning- ( I bought it myself) ... and I own an old paper copy!
It’s true I never wrote a review- read it before I did such foolish things ... haha..
But if readers have not read this book yet - TIMELESS ( and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner... also TIMELESS)... you’re missing two wonderful books. Two of my all time favorites!!!!

I’m sure you can find more detailed reviews either here on Goodreads or Amazon -

Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize.
- some of the location takes place near where I live and trails I hike.



Here is another book I never wrote a review ---

Its sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo good!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

One of my all favorite books!
Profile Image for Debbie W..
726 reviews492 followers
February 17, 2022
If you enjoy character-driven novels, author Wallace Stegner does it in spades with this story!

As character Lyman Ward narrates a biography about his grandparents and their 60-year marriage, we begin to see how their lives parallel his own. The characterization build-up of Susan Ward (grandma) and Oliver Ward (grandpa) was slow, but oh, so necessary! Far from perfect, all the characters are relatable in some way. At times, I would laugh, gasp, groan and even cry as I listened to this story, wondering about the outcome of these people I've come to know and care about.

Audiobook narrator, Mark Bramhall, is spot-on!

A story about love, betrayal, grief, guilt and forgiveness (or lack thereof).

Superb! I highly recommend this story for anyone who is (or has been) in a long-term relationship.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,547 followers
November 20, 2019
This book started out great, but quickly got repetitive for me. Learning on Wikipedia that Stegner derived (with permission!) large parts of it from real letters published the next year certainly took winds out of my sails. Several critics have mentioned that Stegner's version of Mary Hallock Foote diverges considerably from the original - a necessity for the author trying to fit his story to her narrative. That being said, it is impossible not to recognize the talent behind the writing and the clever weaving of the story of the amputee grandson writing about the tribulations of his grandparents while also telling one story of how the West was americanized. My favorite bits are probably the dialogs between Susan and Oliver, but I found there was an annoying sucking sound as their lives spun like broken records with only slight variations as Oliver drifted from broken promise to broken dream over and over again. Both the author and the narrator are fairly conservative with respect to history and although capable of tenderness, both are afflicted with a deprecating view of women which also hampered my enjoyment. Perhaps you will say that Roth or Updike are even more deprecating to which I will answer: they don't pretend to be sort of hip old farts like the narrator in this book feigning a modern attitude, but in a sort of condescending way in his dialogues with Shelley while in fact being quite reactionary. And, yes, I will read Crossing to Safety to give Stegner a second chance!

An interesting read nonetheless.
Profile Image for Dolors.
527 reviews2,217 followers
October 22, 2017
Little did I expect that the taming of the Wild West could be so intricately reflected in the ongoing evolution of a marriage, with all its tensions, compromises and sporadic moments of exultation; a marriage that seemed doomed to failure from the start.

Lyman Ward, retired historian and scholar, now prostrated in a wheelchair, sets his mind to write the story of his grandparents and their generation, of the many young adventurers who embarked on a non-return trip to the inhospitable Western lands to lay down the foundations of a future civilization in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The evocative, fast-paced storytelling takes the reader into virgin landscapes across the American border, from Idaho to Mexico, featuring the West as the silent protagonist of this historical epic, mixing flawless and highly descriptive narration with letters that document the daily life and struggles of Sue and Oliver Ward to make a home of this remote, unforgiving territory.

As Lyman absorbs his grandmother’s intimate thoughts through her correspondence, he is unconsciously searching for a way to come to terms with his present, which has him paralyzed in a deadlock situation. Abandoned by his wife, dependent, and isolated from the world, he juxtaposes the values of the sixties with the ones that ruled in the “Old West” and drowns his frustration and loneliness in whisky every night, hoping to find the definite answer in his grandmother’s resolution to stick to her own decisions, to her marriage, for better or for worse, in spite of the many differences that separated her from her husband.
Sue, more a lady than a woman, a refined, sophisticated artist and social creature from the East , never ceased to feel that she was living in exile among brute rogues. Her husband Oliver, more a man than a gentleman, an idealistic engineer with many ideas and few words, sought self-realization laboring under his sense of impending failure. The silent battle of wills brings the couple to the limit, and circumstances, the disappointments and tragedies of life converge towards a false arch in which they submit to each other in what Lyman calls the “angle of repose.”

In mining jargon, that term refers to the angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling to find immovable rest. It takes three generations for the Wards to find such balance, if not complete mental peace, because life is merciless, punishment sometimes disproportionate and humans too complex and volatile to be simplified in black and white actions. But Lyman finally understands that above any aspiration to moral justice, greatness or dignity, above pride or self-discipline; the only chance of a future, the only means to accept his situation is to forgive the cumulative errors of the past.

This is probably the finest account I have ever read about the awakening of the West.
This is also one of the best novels about the evolution of marriage that presents it as it really is, without embellishments of any kind.
This is also the finest meditation on the contradictions of progress and inconsistences of human nature.
Stegner’s prose is crude and elegant, fragrant with his personal values. His memorable characters provide such depth of realism, so rare in fiction, that they will acquire a permanent dimension in your mind, and in your heart. Do not resist them and allow the current of Stegner’s flowing storytelling to wash you till you reach your angle of repose, and breathe in the regenerative breeze of possibility.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,743 reviews2,271 followers
January 16, 2018
”I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”

”I can look in any direction by turning my wheelchair, and I choose to look back … that is the only direction we can learn from.”

While confined to a wheelchair, Lyman Ward begins to read through his grandmother’s papers, her stories, old letters, and their story. A story that tells of the history of the west, when it was still a frontier to be settled, and of her struggles from being uprooted from the only home she ever knew, in the east, leaving behind not only family and friends, but comfort and the well-established civility of her life for a life devoid of certainty, comfort and culture.

”Was the quiet I always felt in you really repose? I wish I thought so. It is one of the questions I want the papers to answer.”

”But I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a sober sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne.”

Lyman’s grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, and grandfather, Oliver Ward, take us through the changes they encounter, while periodically returning to Lyman’s thoughts, his reflections on his days in Grass Valley while researching this story, his thoughts on the changing of America, his thoughts on the story of his grandparents, his thoughts on the people in his day-to-day encounters. And always returning to his grandmother’s thoughts, trying to burrow his way into her feelings beyond the words she left behind.

”Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished.”

Regrets, unspoken or unwritten as they may be, filter through, but for most of these years Susan at least tries to rise to the challenge presented by each camp they find themselves residing in with Oliver, a mining engineer. From California to Colorado, and then to Mexico, followed by Idaho, and then back. During those years, they went from newly married to having their first child, and then more children.

A glance behind the scenes of four generations of one family, of life on the western frontier, an insightful, objectively penetrating look at a marriage, Stegner mining it for gems that invariably expose dirt, destruction and what remains.

”What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.”

I added this book to my list of Want-to-Reads back at the beginning of February 2016, after reading Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety” in 2014, and debating which Stegner novel to add, so sure that I’d already read his best. Which is his best out of even just these two? Both are magnificent.

Highly Recommended
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book488 followers
May 3, 2016
Staggering. Riveting. Perceptive. Penetrating. Wallace Stegner knows how to get inside a marriage and pull at it and prod at it, until it settles down into what it cannot help becoming and finds its angle of repose. This story is the saddest kind of story possible, because it is about the loss of opportunity, the loss of happiness, and the loss of what might have been. It wrenches and tears and tatters the reader. I was gasping from the injustice, the cross-purposes, the lack of communication and the sorrow of characters wanting the wrong things.

Stegner’s prose is poetry. His descriptions are revealing in a way that cuts to the heart of both his external and his internal subject matter. He grabbed me by the throat early on and I was hooked in almost the first paragraph:

I believe in time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.

As he plumbs the life of his grandparents, Lyman Ward plumbs the depths of what it is to live connected and disconnected from those around us. What it is to love a life, a friend, a man or woman, a place, a child and an idea; and what it is to betray the trust of others or your own needs and desires. This book is packed with combustible materials, that spark and hiss and finally fly apart in a deafening explosion of emotional release.

Each of the main characters is fleshy and real. Lyman, who might initially seem pitiable in his handicapped condition, proves to be strong and intelligent. Susan and Oliver are, if anything, too strong and independent for their own good. They are the sterner stuff that the West was forged from, but they maintain their sensibilities and weaknesses--the flaws that make them all too human.

I have been married for 35 years to a man I both love and respect. At times it has been amazingly easy to be married, at times it has been equally difficult, and there have been moments of “what if” and “I might have” for both of us. It is unrealistic to think that any one person can or should live his life in a measured sync with you. Marriage is work, with compromise and obstacles, and if you throw in the difficulties of life in the late 1800s and settling the West, understandably challenging. If you have ever packed up and left your home for parts unknown (and I have), you can recognize how well Stegner understands the pain of lost family, lost worlds and lost dreams.

When reviewing a book like this one, I have almost uncontrollable desires to “talk” about it. I want to delve into the specifics, reflect on all the lessons to be learned, revel and roll in the astute revelations that the author has shared. At the same time, I want to allow others to read and enjoy it as I have without a single spoiler to be had anywhere. So, I will not say anything more about what this book is “about”, except to say it is about us, whomever we are, because it is about what it is to be human and vulnerable and to succeed and to fail and to endure.

I hope everyone reads it and enjoys it as I have. I am so glad to have come to Wallace Stegner at last and feel a bit put out that he has been waiting for me for over forty years. Thank you, Mr. Stegner for your gift and forgive me for being so late in accepting it.

Profile Image for Beth.
77 reviews6 followers
April 9, 2008
I have read this book twice so far. The first time, I was a single college student. The second time, I had been married about five years. I'm sure I will read it again a few more times. And I'm sure that the more years of marriage I've logged, the more I will get out of this book.

Marriage, and what it takes -- and takes out of you -- to make it work is the main theme of this book. Stegner has some profound things to say about it. But even before I could personally relate to the story's main theme, I found the book beautiful and haunting.

Stegner is a real artist. His individual sentences are carefully crafted. He masterfully winds together multiple plot lines, which span centuries, and uses them to enrich and illuminate each other. He also creates a vivid sense of place in his descriptions of the 19th century American West.

The characters are not easy; they are multi-dimensional, prickly, and flawed. But how could you write a realistic book about marriage with perfectly likable characters?
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,382 reviews2,256 followers
September 17, 2016
Wallace Stegner was once quoted as saying " It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that’s my story", this was referring to the tour-de-force novel that is 'Angle of Repose' which just about ticks all the boxes in terms of literary perfection, containing masterful writing of great prose and vision, an epic, engrossing and mature story charting four generations of an american family trying to carve a piece of history into the western frontier, and richly detailed characters that take us on a journey that truly stands the test of time. Retired historian Lyman Ward charts the remarkable story of his grandparents and in particular his grandmother Susan Burling Ward, confined to a wheelchair in their old home he goes through many a letter starting from the latter stages of the ninetieth century regarding their first encounter, marriage, children, friends and work colleagues, and long travels in search of work opportunities for Lyman's grandfather Oliver Ward who is trying and often failing to tap into the development of mining. Having been bought up east in the New York area where civilization is settled and life grand, Susan would go on to make the ultimate sacrifice regarding her own aspirations and leaving behind her family and very close friend Augusta to travel far west with her husband who has a clear vision for their future. With Susan a refined and well educated young lady and Oliver an overly enthusiastic adventurer type who is always humbled in the presence of his wife they head out west in search of the all-american dream.

What is striking in the early stages is the experience of seeing the west through eastern eyes where Susan is horrified at the lack of any culture and order who discovers a land of dirt, dust and immense heat that make up a hostile and unforgiving place to try and settle where the terrain is a character in it's own right (this Stegner does impeccably) , eventually she does start to appreciate the raw and rugged beauty of her surroundings but with Oliver gone most of the time Susan is often left on her own and throughout their married life she often defines herself with life back east. Once settled in a home it's not long before they are on the move again due to financial problems and Oliver would take up a post elsewhere but with one of three children they would go on to have the emotional strain for Susan is beginning to impact hard, with the trend of traveling often and leaving son Ollie back east she is clearly starting to question her love, but love is a powerful thing and does keep them together through thick and thin, well at least for sometime to come. Oliver I think never really realized that his wife has a life of her own as well, with his worthiness as husband and provider being enough to keep the family in check where he just does what he thinks best to secure a bright future for them, but money issues, uncertainty and suspicions about Susan's love for him, troubles are never far away.

Had Susan's story been just the main focal point then there is every chance this could have turned out to be a flat epic melodrama but thankfully this is not the case as Lyman Ward who is our narrator is every bit as important to the overall structure with the perspective of his own self that helps to broaden the novels scope. It's going over his grandmother's life that starts him to bring his own into the equation, with a grown son who he may not see often, an ex-wife who he definitely does not want to see and little in the way of friends apart from those who help him around the house he is quite a lonely person where it seems looking into the past is his only way to find solace. Stegner is technically brilliant here where swinging back and forward in time helps keep things from getting boring as at near six hundred pages I can't think of a single moment that became an issue. Recognizing america's change both people and the land is what is what lies at it's core, mixing the culture east with the barren west, family history both young and old, the power of reality and the frailties of big dreams, this is one epic family saga that vastly exceeded my expectations and ranks as one of the grandest novels I will ever read.
Profile Image for Guille.
757 reviews1,552 followers
June 10, 2021
La historia de una pareja imposible que duró 60 años. También una sentida y generosa alabanza a los pioneros del Oeste norteamericano.
"Lo que a mí me interesa de todos esos papeles no es la novelista e ilustradora Susan Burling Ward, ni Oliver Ward, el ingeniero, ni tampoco el Oeste donde pasaron sus vidas. Lo que realmente me interesa es cómo dos partículas tan distintas pudieron fundirse, y con cuánta presión, para rodar cuesta abajo hacia el futuro y hasta alcanzar el ángulo de reposo en que yo los conocí. Ahí es donde está el interés."
Un ángulo de reposo apenas concebible dada la fuerte inclinación que el montículo de su matrimonio presentaba, siempre amenazando derrumbe, a causa de las enormes diferencias que entre ellos había en sus caracteres, estilos de vida, intereses y ambiciones sociales.
“Una romántica y un realista. Una mujer que era más señora que mujer, y un hombre que era más hombre que caballero.”
Nada parecía unirles. Él, ingeniero, un hombre con ansias de libertad, de una vida al aire libre y nómada en la que sentir la emoción de construir cosas, íntegro, fiel a sus principios por mucho que ello le perjudicara en su carrera, competente en su oficio y poco fuera de él. Ella, con temperamento y capacidades artísticas, pintora y escritora, acostumbrada a una intensa vida social y cultural, y con una fuerte necesidad de pertenencia a un lugar, con inclinaciones homosexuales o hacia hombres sensibles y delicados y una esnob aristocrática que se encuentra molesta por la falta de ambición de él, por su espíritu de segundón, por su escasa brillantez social, por su excesiva confianza en todo ser humano y lo mal que se defendía ante las injusticias, por lo difícil que le resultaban las palabras y lo mucho que ella las amaba. Su nieto, con 58 años, inválido e historiador retirado, un muñeco roto y viejo, como él se ve, aborda la tarea de descubrir el secreto que tal relación matrimonial guarda, quizás esperando averiguar algo importante de su vida. Para ello cuenta con la abundante correspondencia de su abuela.
“… me gustaría oír tu vida como tú la oyes, acercándose a ti, en vez de oírla como yo la oigo, un sonido austero de expectativas reducidas, deseos mitigados, esperanzas postergadas o abandonadas, oportunidades perdidas, derrotas aceptadas, agravios sufridos…”
Y será su abuela Susan el personaje central, como lo fue Charity en su novela “En lugar seguro”, otra mujer fuerte que vivió un tiempo en el que las mujeres tenían muy difícil (más) desarrollar su potencial y que sufrió por la escasa ambición y méritos de su marido. Pero hay importantes diferencias entre ellas, mientras que Susan se sacrificó y hasta apoyó en ocasiones de forma entusiasta el trabajo nómada y salvaje de su esposo, sin abandonar sus trabajos como ilustradora y escritora, Charity puso por encima de las pretensiones artísticas de su marido sus vicarias ambiciones profesionales.
"… ¿que los mantuvo juntos a él y a la abuela durante más de sesenta años? ¿pasión? ¿integridad? ¿cultura? ¿las convenciones?...”
Otra cosa importante que une a las dos novelas es el estilo claro y ligero por el que te dejas llevar en volandas capítulo tras capítulo haciéndote cómplice, por lo mucho que deja a la inteligencia y a la imaginación del lector, de unos hechos y unas vidas sencillas a las que, no obstante, dota de una relevancia extraordinaria.

¿Entonces por qué no cinco estrellas? La pregunta realmente debería ser ¿por qué cuatro y no tres? Bien, por la sencilla razón de que todo eso que digo arriba pesa tanto en mi valoración que compensa con mucho las, para mí, sobrantes y pesadas descripciones de paisajes, costumbres y personas del oeste del XIX, o el generoso uso de la técnica proustiana de ilustrarnos acerca de lo que sienten los personajes, de los que piensan, de lo que les sucede, mediante retratos de un detallismo abrumador de conversaciones y escenas que en no pocos casos me han parecido banales o, por ejemplo, mostrándonos el mérito literario de Susan mediante un buen número de las numerosas cartas que redactó (escritas realmente por Mary Hallock Foote, la ilustradora y escritora en la que está inspirada Susan). Es más, buena parte de esta historia de los abuelos se me hizo más molesta aun por el abrumador desequilibrio que guarda con la parte en la que sabemos de la situación que atraviesa el narrador, los problemas con su vida pasada y presente, con un mundo que cambia demasiado rápido. Tanto que más de una vez pensé (e hice) algo parecido a lo que nos comenta sobre las muchas cartas de su abuela:
“Tengo que ir pasando y pasando las páginas de esas cartas de pura cháchara, vacías, durante mucho tiempo hasta dar con alguna en la que merezca la pena detenerse.”
Profile Image for Jonathan.
917 reviews947 followers
February 13, 2023

Stegner is almost unheard of outside the U.S, and even in his home country he seems to remain at the periphery of the collective literary consciousness. For the life of me I cannot work out why. Apparently, even after winning the Pulitzer, the New York Times refused to review this novel.

The first point to note about Stegner is that he is a master of prose, a craftsman of great skill and control. Reading his work is a pleasure, pure and simple. There is perhaps something of the lyrical, or the Romantic, in his evocation of landscape and his love of the West but it never becomes overbearing. It is realism, of course, and (as unfashionable as that remains) is almost defiantly un-postmodern.

Nevertheless, the novel’s structure is interestingly complex. The narrator, a retired historian suffering from degenerative arthritis, attempts to distract himself from the unpleasantness of his present by writing a biography of his grandparents. This second level of narrative takes up the majority of the book and is drawn from the real life accounts of Arthur and Mary Hallock Foote. Indeed, some of Mary’s letters appear unedited in the text (totally unfounded and idiotic plagiarism accusations were made against Stegner, but he is always clear about his sources and his desire to create a fictional novel from such historical detritus).

Susan Burling, the narrator’s grandmother and focus of the novel, is a displaced, educated woman from the East coast who falls in love with an idealistic engineer seeking his fortune in the West. The conflict between the Idea and the Real, the imagined West and the brutal, tedious, dirty reality of frontier life, makes for a dynamic and dramatic narrative.

It is also a book about love, about what a marriage can mean, about betrayal and forgiveness and the stumbling truths of our lives. It is also, at times, simply beautiful.

“Touch. It is touch that is the deadliest enemy of chastity, loyalty, monogamy, gentility with its codes and conventions and restraints. By touch we are betrayed and betray others ... an accidental brushing of shoulders or touching of hands ... hands laid on shoulders in a gesture of comfort that lies like a thief, that takes, not gives, that wants, not offers, that awakes, not pacifies. When one flesh is waiting, there is electricity in the merest contact.”

This was the first of his I read, and led me to read pretty much everything else he has written. I would not hesitate to recommend every single one of them. He is a true American master of the novel and deserves recognition as such.
Profile Image for Carol.
353 reviews330 followers
February 16, 2015
For me, it took a while for this novel to reach a certain momentum as the author introduces the reader to the narrator, Lyman Ward. He is a wheelchair-bound historian in the process of writing a biography of the life of his grandparents, Oliver and Susan Ward. He recreates their lives, mostly from his grandmother’s letters written in the 1870’s. I’m a great fan of American Western fiction but I lean towards a pared down, spare writing style; so this woman’s florid prose and descriptions – her very formal, pretentious manners were often mind-numbing for me.

Oliver’s mostly failed career took them from California to Colorado, Mexico, Idaho, and back to California. My commitment to this novel deepened once they settled in Leadville, Colorado. As a Colorado native, I can only imagine the severe weather and hardship that living in Leadville must have been in the late 19th century! By this point, a degree of disenchantment begins to set into what was once a marriage full of promise and feelings of affinity.

This story beautifully illustrates the dynamic forces at work in their marriage – an unlikely union between the genteel and educated Susan from the east and Oliver Ward, an unworldly and straightforward mining engineer. Susan Burling Ward left her New York life dedicated to art and literature to marry and follow Oliver Ward as he struggled to become a successful engineer in the West. Over the course of their marriage, scars from Oliver’s failed business ventures, their constant relocations and the reality of late 19th century frontier life intervene. These hosts of disappointments and unfulfilled goals culminate in a tragic incident that forever changes Oliver and Susan - and with its ripple effect, it is even perceptible in their grandson, the narrator. As he researches his grandparent’s complex relationship issues, Lyman Ward increasingly gains some insight into his own failed marriage.

I was surprised, by the end, at my depth of feeling for this couple. I think everyone who has come to the ending of a failed relationship can relate to this story. It is a nuanced, beautifully written novel about love, betrayal and forgiveness, or lack thereof. It is also about the meaning of marriage and the struggles that exist between two people trying to wrestle with their own issues while holding on to what they have with each other – ultimately settling in for the long haul (my interpretation of reaching an “angle of repose” in a relationship.)

Epic, eloquent and thought-provoking!
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,868 reviews16.5k followers
August 4, 2017
Wallace Stegner’s 1971 novel Angle of Repose was a beautifully written, masterfully crafted, touchingly and ponderously enjoyable to read.

The dictionary tells us that an angle of repose means “the steepest angle at which a sloping surface formed of a particular loose material is stable”. A fitting enough title for a story that had a lot to do with mining and engineering, but in Stegner’s capable hands it comes to mean much more.

Telling the story of his Victorian grandparents as they helped to settle and make civilized the Wild West, retired historian Lyman Ward researches his grandmother’s old letters and recreates not just a biography and more even that a documentary of a family’s progression, but also a journey into what it means to be civil and what marriage and family ties can mean.

Interestingly, Stegner breaches the fourth wall and has Lyman as narrator also explore the world as he sees it. Crippled by an odd disease, broken by a failed marriage and scarred by damaging family relationship, the wheelchair bound Ward finds more interest in the Victorian times of his grandparents than in the free love and unrestrained mores of his own 1970s. But Stegner’s composition is a study in complexity, both in the grandmother’s tale and in Lyman’s own. Family means different things to different people in different times and Stegner’s gift of dialogue and characterization were frequently breathtaking.

I enjoyed this book immensely but I did not love it. It was too long and mostly depressing. But I very much respect Stegner’s skill and accomplishment. His mastery of English prose is matched by few and his subtle wordplay reminded me of Nabokov.

A very, very good book and I recommend it.

Profile Image for Kalliope.
691 reviews22 followers
November 16, 2020

I have struck gold with this novel.

There has been a while since I have felt, when immersing myself in a book, so completely transported into its wide vistas. In this case it implied piercing through a double zoom, both in time and distance, for the tunnel vision created by the opened book took me to the wilderness of the American Far and Mid-West, with its imposing mountains and endless prairies, while it also transferred me back in time to the last quarter of the 19th Century.

This latter zooming back, however, was brought into a very disconcerting high relief as, in parallel to this novel, I was also reading Zola’s Nana, published in 1880 – the same period to which Angle of Repose was transposing me. Both worlds so different!!

And this sense of mental travel flying on the conjured images and enrapturing story surprised me every time I sat and opened Stegner’s book. An instant before I felt well-grounded in my world, but as soon as the facing pages faced me and I had begun reading just a few sentences, there I went off again, so rapidly that I did not even have time to say goodbye to my real surroundings.

This is the magic of reading.

But it was not just a process of blissed alienation. Apart from the many riches offered by this book, such as the story itself (a lesson in human ingenuity), the meditation on the play of destiny when it colludes with human will, the multifaceted characters, the play of history, the role of ‘educated’ culture, I was also fascinated by the exploration of the role of the writer of fiction.

For here we have a man (invented) who is a historian (therefore knows how to handle ‘truth’ out of documents and how to repress his own subjectivity when confronted to external events) but who sets to write a novel (invented) based on the documents such as letters and paper clippings that are real (but that they are real is also invented - or may be not) which will be however a biography (supposedly true) of his beloved grandmother (person known directly but subjectivity comes in). In the process he has to juggle (more room for subjectivity) with his (real) material – the documents – with his personal view of the character (family emotions - personal and subjective impressions) with his own imagination to fill in the gaps (such as the feelings and thoughts saturating someone else’s mind - again the realm of the subject).

But this is not all. There is an additional level. Wallace Stegner, the author, not the narrator above, based himself on actual documentation of a person who did live but who was not his grandmother. The person behind the character Susan Burling Ward, was the real Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938), a woman now, sadly, mostly forgotten. And controversy there was. Stegner obtained permissions from Foote’s family to use her private letters and documents (so these were true after all). But the use of truth and its mixture with fiction dissatisfied many. Some thought it was too truthful (without sufficient acknowledgements) while others found the fictional aspects disparaging.

Fiction and reality just never resolve - there is no Angle of Repose for them.

Mary Hallock Foote in her Grass Valley House, California.
Profile Image for Lori  Keeton.
478 reviews108 followers
May 14, 2021
What a story and what a writer!!!! This is quite a marvelous novel written by Wallace Stegner and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Considered a masterpiece of American literature, Stegner tells a story of marriage, its successes and failures. On the surface it is a picture of his protagonist’s grandparents, Oliver and Susan Ward, but once immersed into the story, we find a deciphering of his own failed marriage. Divorced and suffering from a debilitating disease which has left him wheel-chair bound, Lyman Ward begins to write the history of his grandparents’ lives. As he gets absorbed into his work, he struggles to understand Oliver and Susan’s marriage as well as his own.

As a retired history professor, Lyman values history but his son, Rodman doesn’t see the point or importance. Lyman thinks there is much to glean from history if you’re open to it. He is saddened by the huge shift in the younger generation of 1970 who put less value on the past and what can be learned from it. Without Rodman’s total support, Lyman decides to take on living alone in the home his grandparents last lived while delving into his grandmother’s letters and documents. His grandmother, Susan Burling Ward is an east coast, genteel woman who is the epitome of refinement. When she unexpectedly marries Oliver Ward, a mining engineer, Susan’s life becomes greatly altered in ways she is unaware. She is uprooted from her home and familiar world and planted into the life of the West when it was raw and rudimentary.

My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.

Lyman Ward becomes engrossed in his grandparents’ life discovering roadblocks, difficulties, lost hopes, agonies, unspoken heartbreaks, betrayals, unforgivenesses, unfulfilled expectations. Stegner’s story is complicated but engrossing, captivating and agonizing. His prose is gorgeous and just absolutely stellar. I sat mesmerized with his words too many times to count. This story really allows you to put yourself into its center and evaluate your own relationships. With so much to think about and talk about, it is impossible to justly write about this flawed couple. It is best to take the plunge and discover on your own what makes this an iconic American novel of the West.

What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.
Profile Image for William2.
745 reviews2,969 followers
June 5, 2020
Let me give you the upside first. Wallace Stegner shows here an astonishing gift for narrative continuity and character. The structure swings between present day (1970) Grass Valley, California, and a number of late 19th century western U.S. boom towns. Despite the rough hewn pioneering aspects, the story is highly domestic; you might even call it a love story. And the only thing that glues it together is Stegner’s prodigious gifts for character and continuity. He has no wit to speak of; at least he doesn’t display it here, the only book of his I’ve half read. Neither is his skill at metaphor very zingy; if anything, it’s plodding. But I found it thoroughly enjoyable until about p. 317 when it fell from my hands. It’s too marital, too family centered and earnest. Though a deft writer his subject matter is a stone bore to me.
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
617 reviews338 followers
January 21, 2020
What to say? How to say it?
I have been in love with this book since reading it about 35 years ago and wanting to reread it, yet fearful it might not hold up, or I wouldn’t. Tastes and perspectives change and I didn’t want to fall out of love. Now I marvel how my much younger, unmarried self was able to connect to this story so fiercely then, because as a much older, married for 28 years woman, it was a Whole Foods experience now.
As the end was nearing and the emotional intensity escalated, my breath was a bit shallow and my pulse quickened. Not many authors can make that happen. Experienced Stegner fans highly anticipate his denouements which he painstakingly makes you wait for.
This one is surely perfection, but soon I will revisit Crossing to Safety and won’t be surprised at a photo finish for first place.
Marriage and human connection in literary fiction—nobody does it better.
Profile Image for Ted.
515 reviews744 followers
March 23, 2019
It's perfectly clear to me that if a writer is born to write one story, this is my story.
Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), born in Lake Mills Iowa, died in Santa Fe. Historian, novelist, short story writer, environmentalist. Jackson Benson, in his Introduction to this edition, identifies the “major strands of his career” as his love of the land, his concern for history, his advocacy of cooperation, his antagonism toward rugged individualism, and his dedication to writing. Some of his best known books include The Angle of Repose (awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and voted by readers of the San Francisco Chronicle the number one novel written about the American West), The Big Rock Candy Mountain, The Spectator Bird and Beyond the Hundredth Meridian - the latter a biography of the naturalist John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), a multifaceted man known for the 1869 expedition he led into the Southwest, a cartographic and scientific endeavor which included a raft trip down the Colorado River, the first documented passage by non-Native Americans through the Grand Canyon.

The title, the story behind the story

The angle of repose

Perhaps this is the place to mention how I heard of this novel. My wife and I had ventured to Arizona for a hiking trip, a year or two after the trip that I’ve shown pictures from in THIS review.

Well, we’d arranged to meet and have lunch with one of the guides we’d had on that previous trip, before embarking on the new adventure. So we met this fellow at a restaurant he’d told us how to get to, somewhere up there in northern Arizona. We got to talking books, and he mentioned the one we’re talking about here. “Have you ever read The Angle of Repose?”, he asked. ”Never heard of it.” “Best book I’ve ever read.” [then some other back and forth, and] “Do you know what the angle of repose is?” “No”, I admitted.

So he picks up a pretty full salt shaker, unscrews the top, dumps it out onto the table, points, and says, “That’s the angle of repose.”

(As our waitress goes past, she laughs, and he says, “She knows me.” With a grin.)

from Wiki ^^vv

“The angle of repose of a granular material is the steepest angle, relative to the horizontal, to which the material can be piled without slumping. At this angle, the material on the slope face is on the verge of sliding.”

There’s a great picture illustrating the angle of repose on the cover of the Penguin edition I have.

Eliot Porter. Window in Tin Wall, Eureka Colorado

Mary Hallock Foote

Mary Hallock Foote - if it’s not too strong a word, the inspiration behind the main character in the novel. Foote was born in Milton NY in 1847, died in Grass Valley CA in 1938.

Foote studied at the Cooper Union School of Design for Women, and by her early twenties was being employed as an illustrator by magazines. In 1876, just married, she followed her husband, reluctantly, to the American West; however, once there she found herself fascinated with the people and places she saw, and soon became something of a literary and artistic darling to those in the East who celebrated such things. For three decades she wrote novels and stories, and sent drawings, and wood engravings made from them, to various publications in the East. During all this time she corresponded with a dear female friend of hers back East (“Augusta” in the novel), whom she apparently envied to a great extent because Augusta’s life - immersed in the artistic milieu of the time, visiting Europe, knowing popular writers – was the life that Mary had once envisioned for herself.

The setting and telling of the story


Lyman Ward
- the narrator, 58 years old, retired history professor, wheelchair bound with a debilitating disease. Lyman is engaged in a study of – well, of his grandparents for sure, and beyond that, of time, or rather of people as they move through time. He is writing a narrative of the life of his grandmother and grandfather. His actual recollections of them are based on times he spent, as a child, at the “Zodiac cottage”, where the grandparents came to rest in their mutual slide, where they found their personal angle of repose.

Lyman’s son Rodman (and Rodman’s wife) doubt that he should be living as he does. He has a caretaker who comes daily, but still, they essentially want him in a nursing home. So Lyman himself is struggling to NOT find his angle of repose, desperately trying to keep on sliding, so as to avoid coming to rest.

Susan Burling Ward
- Lyman’s grandmother. The fictional character that is a version of Mary Hallock Foote. Her journey through life shares many correspondences with Foote’s journey – growing up in the east, marrying an engineer and moving west, her artistic capabilities, her friendship with a woman back East. The western locations in which Susan Ward lives follow a similar geographic path as Foote’s did (see below, Place.

Oliver Ward
- Lyman’s grandfather, Susan Burling Ward’s husband. The man who brings her to the West, in pursuit of his own dreams and ambitions. This character cannot be based too closely on Mary Hallock Foote’s own husband, because not too much is known about that real person, beyond the places that he and Mary moved to. The relationship between Susan and Oliver ward is pretty much made up, though there are clues, perhaps somewhat more than clues, in Mary’s correspondence. Actually seems to be quite a bit of Wallace Stegner’s own father mixed into his portrayal of Oliver Ward. This man, George Stegner, “was what his son later called a ‘boomer’, a man looking to find a fortune in the West and who, not finding it in one place, went to another.” This too could be said of the fictional Oliver Ward, but with qualification. Oliver not so much interested in making a fortune as in making a mark, a contribution to the development of the West, a contribution for which he would be remunerated only fairly, and a contribution which would be acknowledged by others. None of these modest goals were ever won by Oliver Ward. And modest they were, given the dedication, never-faltering effort, and engineering talent that he brought to the projects he worked on.

The narrative - Place and Time

Stegner’s story (that is, Lyman Ward’s story) relates to us Susan Ward’s and Oliver Ward’s life together, his engineering efforts, his constant care that she should have everything she needs and wants (at least those needs and wants which he has some conception of, though her inner life of harking back east to the world of Augusta, of publishing, art, books is oh so dim to Oliver, barely discernible in the world of the West that he perceives), and she frequently making drawings of the workers, the Mexican laborers, the miners. And then absorbed in the story, page after page, the reader is suddenly jolted by a passage that transports her out of the story and into the landscape, a passage which describes the beauty of a land sometimes harsh but always mysteriously beautiful … and at times the beautiful because of that harshness.

But first, a few words about …


Lyman Ward’s narrative, when it’s situated in his own present, is often addressed to his grandmother, whose history he is attempting to resurrect. And he speculates on the differences produced by their respective places in time, musing on the Doppler Effect as humans may experience it over the train of extended years.
I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a sober sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne… I would like to hear it as it sounded while it was passing. Having no future of my own, why shouldn’t I look forward to yours?

You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished. It came to you secondhand in the letters of Augusta Hudson. You lived vicariously in her, dined with the literary great …
And later, as he tells of a New Year which determined, not immediately but only in the future, the course of Susan Ward’s life …
Governors Island, as I imagine that last day of December, would have floated like dirty ice out in the bay; the Jersey shore would have fumed with slow smokes.

The Doppler Effect is very apparent in my imagining of that afternoon. I hear it as it was now and as it is then. Nemesis in a wheelchair, I could roll into that party and astonish and appall the company with the things I know. The future is inexorable for all of them; for some it is set like a trap… So many things I know.


But as moving as I found the author’s views of the former, it is, of course, the primacy of place which asserts itself in the novel.

The place being the series of those parts of (North) America’s West, in the 18th century, which host his protagonists, each one following the last. This illustrates the fact that one of Stegner’s main interests was the history of the West as it unfolded in the 19th century, as his own parents took part in that history.

He has divided his novel into 9 parts. The first and sixth take part in the East; the last is rooted in the Zodiac cottage of the narrator’s grandparents.

The other parts parallel (loosely) those places where Mary Hallock Foote moved to in her journey across this part of the earth.

The titles of these parts of the novel are:

Part II. New Almaden (in the mountains east of San Francisco)
Part III. Santa Cruz [Chapter 2 of this part is masterful, a telling of the scenery, the conversations of his protagonists, which reveal the different perspectives have of the locale, the people that surround them, and the place they are in on their journey.]
Part IV. Leadville (Colorado)
Part V. Michoacan (Mexico)
Part VII. The Canyon (Boise Idaho)
Part VIII. The Mesa (not fron from Boise)

Wiki tells us that Mary Hallock Foote, in her movements across that West with her husband Arthur Foote, lived at ”the New Almaden mine near San Jose, California; … Leadville, Colorado; Deadwood, South Dakota; Boise, Idaho; … Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico; finally Grass Valley, California, where Arthur advanced to managing the North Star mine." Not exactly the same geographic path as Susan Ward, but quite similar.

But it isn’t the trail of stations pulled into by Susan Ward that is so evocative of place. It is Stegner’s description of these places that was so deeply moving to me.

(New Almaden) Unending summer. It was hotter at the end of September than it had been in July. But the heat was more seen than felt, more hallucination than discomfort. It turned illusory even the things on which she had fixed in the attempt to make the strange world real. From her temperate veranda she now saw only void where the valley used to be – a gray, smoky void into which she peered, hunting distance and relief from the mirage of mountains that quivered around her with visible heat.

(Santa Cruz) … the casement opened on fog s white and blind as sleep. Beyond the wet shingles whose edge was overflowed by the ghost of a climbing rose, there were no shapes, solidities, directions, or distances… There was a slow, dignified dripping… “I love it,” Susan said. “In a way, I love it. It scares me a little. It’s as if every morning the world had to create itself all new. Everything’s still to do, the word isn’t yet spoken…”

(Leadville) She was at the edge of a meadow miles long, not a tree in it except for the wiggling line that marked the course of the Lake Fork. Stirrup-high grass flowed and flawed in the wind, and its motion revealed and hid and revealed again streaks and splashes of flowers – rust of paintbrush, blue of pentstemon, yellow of buttercups, scarlet of gilia, blue-tinged white of columbines… The air was that high blue mountain kind that fizzes in the lungs. Rising in her stirrup to get her face and chest full of it, she gave, as it were, a standing ovation to the rim cut out against the blue. From a thousand places in the grass little gems of unevaporated water winked back the sun.

(Michoacan) Nothing could have appealed to Grandmother’s romantic medievalism more than those houses. They arrived like knights errant, a seneschal swung open the gates, at the inner gate the lord met them … Vassals led away the lady’s palfrey and unbuckled the knight’s spurs … They dined at feudal boards with retainers clustered below the salt, while outside in courts lighted by torches there was minstrelsy on the guitar.
Fairyland, a storybook country of antique courtesy and feudal grandeur, with a passionate concentration of the picturesque on which Susan Ward throve. She left every great house with reluctance. As they jingled and shuffled along a road through some sun-baked high valley … she may have thought… that if Oliver’s report were only going to be different, they might still become part of that world.

(The Canyon) When they moved to the canyon camp, they expected to stay only through the summer. They stayed five years…
While they lived there it was hopeful struggle, not lost cause, and for a while it was a little corner of Eden.
Eden had three stories. The upper one ran from the canyon rim up high sage slopes toward the aspen groves, pines, mountain meadows, and cold lakes and streams of the high country. The middle story was the rounding flat in the side gulch where a spring broke out and where their buildings and garden were. The lowest story was the river beach… Even in low water the rapid below was a steady rush and mutter on the air.

(The Mesa) She let her weight down, heavy and tired, into the hammock. Bats wove back and forth, utterly soundless, across the openings between the piazza pillars. At first she could see them against the sky, erratic and flickering and swift; then she couldn’t be sure whether she still saw them or whether she only sensed them as movement across the dusk. The house behind her was as dark and empty as herself. Her eyes were fixed on the framed view of mesa, black hills, saffron sky. The last brightness of already-gone day burned darkly on a cloud that went slate-color as she watched. She saw a star, then another.
Utterly cut off, sunk into the West, cut off behind arid hills, she lay thinking backward to another piazza and the smell of other roses.

I’m indebted to my salt-shaker spilling friend who introduced me to this Pulitzer prize winning novel. A very dense novel, a masterpiece. Now that I’ve finally fulfilled a five-year attempt at reviewing it, I’m ready to read it again.

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Profile Image for Bianca.
1,047 reviews902 followers
October 11, 2021
How does a mere mortal with no talent or skill for writing review a book written by Wallace Stegner?
I will only write a few thoughts about this 1971 Pulitzer winner novel, which was called a Western epic. I am not generally drawn to Western pioneer stories, but this was written by Stegner, some say it's his best novel, so, of course, I had to read it. The copy I bought has a very small print, so I opted to listen to the audiobook, which was splendidly narrated by Mark Bramhall.

The truth is that Wallace Stegner's writing beguiles me and keeps me in a constant state of awe. Each sentence is crafted to perfection. There's playfulness and musicality to his sentence structure. And the descriptions, oh, the descriptions ... Sure, his writing, especially by today's standards, could be accused of being too writerly (is that a word?) I don't care, I love it.
I also thought the novel's focus and its structure were brilliant.

Lyam Ward, a retired history professor, confined to a wheelchair due to crippling bone disease, decides to write his grandmother's biography. Susan Burling Ward was a writer and an artist. Her five-decade-long correspondence with her best friend, Augusta Hudson, provides a good picture of who his grandmother was. Of course, there's more to a person than it transpires from letters. Lyam Ward is given to imagining and wondering and filling in the gaps. I loved how unjudgemental and understanding he was, it's as if he understood women, amazing, right? :-)

Ward's recent divorce, which took him by surprise, makes him wonder about his grandmother's marriage to Oliver Ward, the very kind, determined, unsophisticated and laconic engineer, who brought her to live in the West, where she had to do without the luxuries and the type of company she was used to in New York.

This tome didn't feel long, I didn't want it to end.

I think even the title is perfect. The angle of repose refers to the angle at which granular materials can be piled without slumping. It means that in this novel, but also so much more.
Profile Image for Cherisa B.
501 reviews41 followers
December 9, 2022
Amazed at the depth and breadth of the writing and plotting. The biographer within the story “unwittingly” tells as much of himself as his subjects (his grandparents), and the reader cares as much about discovering the arc of his life as we do of theirs.

I love the reminder of the kind of big dreams that made America great—big infrastructure projects such as the transcontinental railway and the damming of rivers to bring water to arid but fertile lands.

Stegner is a great writer I did not know of.
Profile Image for Scott Axsom.
47 reviews141 followers
February 27, 2020
Fiction moves me most when it’s most piercingly honest – when it reveals to me places in my heart that I’ve been afraid to recognize. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose examines the part of us that's reluctant to forgive and that cannot seem to learn how to forget. The book is hauntingly true and ruthlessly introspective and it left me, at times, gasping for breath at the beauty of its lyricism - it could serve well as a master class in honest writing.

Stegner writes from the perspective of a not-so-old man who has become recently severely disabled and, in turn, divorced. This wounded soul is spending time at his grandparents’ farmstead, among his grandmother Susan’s copious letters to her best friend, Augusta, who represents everything Susan left behind to come west for her husband’s career as a mining engineer in the 1860’s. Though Susan achieves an esteemed career herself, this is a chronicle of the longings and regrets she can’t seem to leave behind.

Angle of Repose shines a light into a void that exists, to one degree or another, within all but the most enlightened among us and Stegner unburdens his literary soul within these pages in a way that lesser writers fear. He reminds us that we shall all be in need of forgiveness at some time in our lives and that we’re well-served to bear this in mind whenever we find ourselves searching our own hearts for the place within them where forgiveness dwells. Angle of Repose is, at present, the best novel I’ve read, displacing The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby, which shared that place in my thinking until now. I don't always understand why certain books won the Pulitzer but this novel leaves no room for doubt. It is a literary treasure.
Profile Image for Lorna.
683 reviews366 followers
October 14, 2019
Angle of Repose is the Pulitzer-prize winning fictional work by Wallace Stegner awarded in 1972 that has become a contemporary classic. It was considered by Stegner to be the masterpiece of his literary career and substantial body of work. The narrator is Lyman Ward, a retired history professor afflicted with a chronic debilitating condition that has left him in a wheelchair subsequent to the amputation of one leg. His wife has left him and he is resisting his son's suggestion to put him in an assisted-living facility. It is at this point, that Lyman Ward decides to go to the home of his grandparents and research their interesting history, as they were pioneers in the burgeoning west, and perhaps find himself in the process. His grandfather Oliver was an engineer specializing in mining, canal and water projects, while his grandmother Susan was writer and artist, often having to support the family. With his grandfather's engineering projects, the family lived in remote areas in California, Colorado, Idaho, South Dakota and Mexico. It is a multi-generational saga with very complex and interesting characters giving much insight into families and relationships weaving together all of these stories. It should be noted that the fictional Susan Burling Ward is based on the life and writings of Mary Hallock Foote, a nineteenth-century writer and illustrator. This timeless classic is not to be missed.

"Remember the one who wanted to know where you'd learned so casually a technical term like 'angle of repose'? . . . But you were too alert to the figurative possibilities of words not to see the phrase as descriptive of human as well as detrital rest. As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself, and I don't mean the rigid angle at which I rest in this chair. I wonder if you ever reached it."

"What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That's where the interest is. That's where the meaning will be if I find any."
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,738 reviews1,469 followers
December 25, 2019
First of all, I love Wallace Stegner’s prose.

Second of all, he knows what to tell, what to hold back and how to tie up a story. Even the title has meaning.

Stegner was given access to Mary Hallock Foote's letters and information about her life. It was first thought he would write a biography. He sought to get under her skin; he sought to understand who she really was and why she did what she did. What does one do when portions of what you are searching for are missing? You analyze and think deeply about what you have. From what is known you must then make educated guesses. It is so Stegner fills in the holes. He turns what is known into probable, believable, beautifully written, thought provoking mix of fact and fiction. He does this with the hand of an artist.

The narrator of Stegner’s book is a grandson, going by the name of Lyman Ward. He is in his fifties, at odds with his wife and very ill. Lyman’s son wants his father to be placed in a care home; the son deems his father can be better looked after there. Lyman doesn’t agree.

Lyman is studying his grandparent’s lives. It is Lyman’s grandparents that are based on two real people--Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) and her husband Arthur de Wint Foote (1849-1933). He was a mining engineer. She was of Quaker lineage and schooled in art and literature, with strong ties to her home and life and friends in New England. Married to a man drawn to the West she became an author and illustrator depicting life in the early mining communities of the American West.

Stegner’s story is a study of Lyman’s grandparents, a husband and wife that loved each other deeply but were drawn by different needs and desires. It is a study of a marriage of opposites. Lyman asks himself what his grandparents’ lives say to him. What can he learn from their lives? What do their lives teach him? Stegner has started with two real person’s lives and created a marvelous book of fiction centered around a couple that love each other deeply but are opposites. Ultimately, he is asking what their lives say about how one should live life.

The book is beautifully written and thought provoking. It gives much more than just a correct rendering of what is known about a couple that did exist because it shows us what can be learned from their lives. The philosophical message cannot be set forth as fact. I value Stegner’s integrity in drawing Arthur and Mary Foote’s lives as he saw them, warts and all, strengths and weaknesses. I value his creative genius, his ability to give us more than just the bare facts.

The audiobook is narrated wonderfully by Mark Bramhall. Perfect speed, easy to follow and intoned to perfectly capture each character’s personality.

Mary Hallock Foote's non-fiction, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote, was published in 1972 a year after Stegner published Angle of Repose, for which he received the Pulitzer in 1972. I actually believe that Stegner’s fictional version of the Footes’ lives may be the more rewarding.


Angle of Repose 5 stars
All the Little Live Things 5 stars
Remembering Laughter 4 stars
Crossing to Safety 4 stars
The Spectator Bird 4 stars
The Big Rock Candy Mountain 2 stars
A Shooting Star 1 star

Recapitulation TBR
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West TBR
Profile Image for Betsy Robinson.
Author 9 books1,041 followers
September 9, 2019
Until the last two chapters, I found this history of the dissolution of a love and marriage written by a writer in 1970 about his grandmother in the 1800s to be as slow as real time and as agonizing as the real events. The writing was wonderful, but rather than enjoy it, I found myself wanting to "have read it" more than I wanted to be reading it. And about three-quarters of the way through, the 1970s writer bemoans the same agony I was feeling:
About this time I need some Mister Bones to say to me, "Doesn't this story have anything in it but hard luck and waiting? Isn't the man ever going to get that ditch dug?" Then I can reply in summary fashion, and get by this dead time. For it bothers me to wait it out with them. (475)

I was more interested in the 1970s writer than the people of the past (who took of up the majority of the story), but the interweaving and transitions between the two stories was so masterful and the writing was so authentic that I couldn't stop reading. And then came the last two chapters. Like the ending to All the Little Live Things, which had conditioned me to trust that Stegner was taking me somewhere, the last two chapters were superb, Shakespearean, worth waiting for. I could barely breathe. They were the reason for this book.

Do not read the Jackson J. Benson introduction (to the 2000 edition) before reading this novel. I usually don't read introductions because I expect there will be spoilers, but halfway through, when I read a reference to accusations of plagiarism in regard to this book, I made the mistake of reading it. As far as plagiarism is concerned, I'm satisfied with Benson's detailed history of how Wallace Stegner was given permission (in writing) by an heir of illustrator Mary Hallock Foote to use her letters however he wanted, but on condition that he keep the name of the source a secret. He double-checked this before publishing, offered the heir a copy of the fictionalized manuscript for review and the heir declined to read it and again assured him he had carte blanche but must not name sources. After the book was published and won the Pulitzer, and after other family members had formally published Foote's letters, there was a brouhaha about ownership. In my opinion, Stegner kept his promise, used Foote's letters (which were the least interesting thing in this book), fictionalized the plot, and named the source only as initials in a dedication/attribution. And in finding all this out, I ran right smack into a massive spoiler. I hate that!

I also hate that there is a controversy still when the man was given explicit permission. This is personal for me, as my mother Edna Robinson, who was my writing partner for two film scripts, left her writing to me. Before I published her novel, The Trouble with the Truth , my agent asked me to produce proof of ownership, which I did. Edna and I had discussed this, and she left it in writing that I own all her work—to use it however I choose. I have since used a revised excerpt of one of her unfinished, unpublished articles in a section of a new novel in which I have also used her protagonist from The Trouble with the Truth in an adult form, created by me. I credit Edna with the birth of this material in an acknowledgement, and if I ever manage to sell this novel, I would hate to have it sullied by people with some kind of political beef I cannot even imagine.

Wallace Stegner is a magnificent writer and he wrote this book, using source material that was given to him for that purpose.

End of diatribe.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews593 followers
June 30, 2019
I came to feel like the contour bird. I wanted to fly around the Sierra foothills backward, just looking. If there was no longer any sense in pretending to be interested in where I was going, I could consult where I've been.

From my angle of repose, this book grew on me slowly, a sprawl of words initiated from a cinch slate of exposition that grew and expanded into layered lushness, much like the frontier-era American West Stegner writes about. Swollen with depth and complexity, the story of Susan and Oliver is told from the perspective of their grandson, Lyman, a fifty-eight-year-old retired historian bound to a wheelchair, unable to move his body because of bone disease. Lyman's wife has deserted him for his doctor. Studying his grandmother's letters and recreating their family history and legacy, affords Lyman a daily routine and something to look forward to each day, something to keep his mind off the pain. And Susan Ward, his grandmother, is an illuminating character. A successful artist and art lover, she finds herself in the middle of the uncivilized West with her engineer husband, Oliver, who will start and lose many jobs on his quest to becoming successful. They will fall in love, raise a family in shacks across the country, lose optimism along the way, and still maintain a 60-year marriage, despite setbacks. Years later, their grandson would trace the history of their love, life and travels through letters that his grandmother wrote to her best friend.

What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That's where the interest is. That's where the meaning will be if I find any.

This novel, whose excerpts are taken directly from Mary Hallock Foote's real letters, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. How befitting that the father of Stanford Writing Program writes so beautifully and profoundly of his deeply loved western center of America. As usual when I read his novels, I find a piece of myself within one of his characters. Like Virginia Woolf in Night and Day, he reminds me that feeling simpatico with a character transcends race, culture and place. In fact, transcendence of time is what this novel does well. Susan and Oliver strive for a dream that would outlive them and find itself in their legacy, in their offspring and the offsprings of those who make a living through them. They traverse the West, taking risks that not too many couples have and despite their heartbreaks and turmoil, they create a historical legacy that leaves a mark in places they've been, a legacy which through their grandson, becomes transcendent. Their love, their relationship, transcends time.
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books357 followers
June 17, 2022
Researched and documented in detail, how Stegner's plagiarism was flat out theft. Non-writers don't seem to get it. What if you came home from vacation to find your house, cars, and everything gone? But plagiarism is even worse because the writing is the artist's personal creation and someone with a lack of ideas and no talent is taking it as their own.



Definition of plagiarism. Given what's explained above, three out of the four bullet points would apply.



"I respected (Uncle) John Steinbeck for never jumping through all the hoops at Stanford, even if he kept going back and letting people like Wallace Stegner tell him what The Great American Novel ought to be. Uncle John could write rings around any of them."

-Ursula Le Guin


A more detailed account of how Stegner went about it. Makes me despise him even more. Total fraud.



Another fraud, disgusting....

Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,894 reviews1,927 followers
July 15, 2018
No point reviewing something I read 40 years ago unless I decide to re-read it one day. And at $1.99 on Kindle today, 15 July 2018, that sounds like a tempting idea.

For anyone innocent of Stegner's gorgeous word-edifices, this is an excellent place to become acquainted with him. There is a piffling controversy surrounding this book's use of a Victorian historian's actual letters in a fictional context, but seriously people! Is there some copyright violation implied in this absurd kerfuffle? NO! The lady died many years before Stegner was born, and he doesn't ever even imply that the words are his own.


So anyway, back to why you should read this book: Right there in the title is the key to understanding and appreciating Stegner as a writer. The poetic-sounding title refers to an engineering concept. The angle of repose refers to the last stable point a granular substance achieves before a cascading failure occurs. That's the most perfect title for this book I can imagine.

(And if you're an engineer, please feel free to correct my misunderstanding of the term. Otherwise belt up.)
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