In the fine tradition of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Of Mice and Men, Crossing to Safety borrows its title from poetry – in this case, Robert Frost. I find this an interesting tradition; it does not always necessarily yield greater meaning, at least not for me (perhaps if I were better with poetry!), but I’m sure it does say something about the author and his tastes, and maybe about the book itself as well.
Crossing to Safety is a novel of four people, told in first person by one of them. At the beginning, our narrator Larry Morgan and his wife Sally have just traveled to Vermont to visit old friends; it becomes clear fairly quickly that Charity Lang is dying, attended by her husband Sid. These four have been best friends for decades, although they haven’t always been as close (especially geographically) as they’d like. Before spending much time in the Vermont of the present, Larry begins remembering their youth together.
Larry and Sally were newlyweds and new graduates during the Depression, when Larry got a one-year post teaching English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It’s not much – not much money, and not much security for the future; but they’re young, Sally is pregnant, and this is the Depression; they will take whatever they can get. Larry is determined to produce as much writing as possible. He wrings every moment out of every day: eating, sleeping, teaching, prepping for his classes, and writing. They meet another young couple, the Langs, and are impressed with Charity’s warmth and 1000-watt smile, Sid’s open heart and intellect, and not least, their money. Both Sid and Charity come from backgrounds entirely different from Larry’s and Sally’s; but despite being very wealthy, Charity’s ambition for Sid’s academic career makes the Langs no less dependent upon the university’s approval than the Morgans are. Strangely, despite vastly different financial circumstances (and during the Great Depression, when these things matter possibly more than ever), the foursome is able to form a singular bond. The Langs are generous without seeming to be; they honestly take pleasure in sharing, or need to share, and the Morgans receive gracefully and understand that they are giving a service, as well.
In fact, one of the main messages of this novel is that of this uniquely strong and loving friendship, which while it does contain some jealousies and insecurities, handles them with such grace that they don’t seem to matter; but another of its main messages, for me, was about class. It’s every bit as rare and surprising to me that such a wealthy couple and one that needs to work so hard for its money could be so close, and I think that’s at least as powerful a point as the first one.
Crossing to Safety is a quiet novel, in terms of having relatively little action. Arguably the greatest challenge faced by our foursome – certainly, by the Morgans – is Sally’s near-death from polio, which cripples her permanently; and yet this action takes place off-screen, as it were. Where many of the past memories are presented in flashback form, Sally’s experience is merely referred to. In other words, while there are certainly evocative, moving events in the lives of the Langs and Morgans, Crossing to Safety is overwhelmingly contemplative and rearward-facing: quiet, more than anything.
And yet, as Terry Tempest Williams quotes in her introductory piece to my edition, and as Stegner writes as Larry Morgan, this story is not dramatic in the sense of big reveals, cheating spouses, or large conflicts. And that’s okay – it’s beautiful, in fact, as a celebration of friendship (even while acknowledging flaws and hiccups) and life itself. The latter part of the book deals with end-of-life issues, and perhaps because I work in a hospital for a living, I found this section particularly thought-provoking. Here, as throughout, none of our foursome handles things perfectly, but we can still love them all.
Crossing to Safety is quiet and loving and lovely as a representation of marriage, friendship, ambition, contentment, and end of life. Stegner is a beautiful writer; I’m won over.
Rating: 9 picnics.
Filed under: book reviews | Tagged: domestic fiction | 2 Comments »