The Big Rock Candy Mountain is the story of a family, struggling to make a life in the early days of the twentieth century and bouncing around the American West.
Elsa Norgaard is eighteen years old when she leaves her family’s farm in Minnesota to head west, offended that her father and her best friend plan to wed. She takes the train to her uncle’s grocery in a pioneer town in North Dakota, a journey that makes her feel free but also makes her physically ill. In Hardanger, she meets the charismatic Bo Mason, who runs a blind pig (illegal whiskey joint) and is seemingly talented at everything: baseball, shooting, style. His wild nature and occasional violence frighten her, but she is drawn to his charm and his dreams and promises. They marry, and move.
Bo and Elsa have two sons, Chester (Chet) and Bruce, before we see them next. Already a pattern has been established: Bo, the eternal optimist and occasional romantic, chases his fortune. He pursues chances to get rich quick, to settle his family in the good life they deserve. He believes the developing West offers enormous opportunities for the brave and restless. The title The Big Rock Candy Mountain refers to a hobo folk song of the 1920’s which describes a paradise, where “there’s a lake of stew and of whiskey too” and “the jails are made of tin.” (Stegner refers to the song elsewhere, as in the title of an essay collection, Where the Blue Sings to the Lemonade Springs). One of Bo’s tragic flaws is his stubborn belief in the truth of that paradise, if he could just uproot his family one more time and find it.
He has others. He falters in his sense of responsibility to family, leans perhaps too hard on his constant wife Elsa, and is abusive toward his sons – particularly Bruce, the younger, who is a sensitive boy. A violent event related to Bruce’s toilet training sends Bo away, for years. But Elsa brings her sons back to him when he homesteads in Saskatchewan. Over the years Bo runs a hotel; a cafe; another blind pig; tries farming wheat, bootlegs whiskey on the back roads, and opens a casino. He and his family live in small towns in the Dakotas and Washington, in Canada, for a spell back in Elsa’s hometown of Indian Falls, Minnesota, and later in Salt Lake City, Reno, Tahoe. As an adult, Bruce will reflect,
Since I was born we’ve lived in two nations, ten states, fifty different houses. Sooner or later we’re going to have to take out naturalization papers.
The story is told from all four perspectives – Bo’s, Elsa’s, Chet’s and Bruce’s – at different points, and spans some thirty years. It’s a big story, a saga even, and runs nearly 600 pages. I have been sticking to shorter books than this lately, but I nevertheless found this a relatively quick read, because it has such momentum. Each of these characters is complex and compelling, and the expansive drama of their family life is engrossing, and keeps the pages turning. It references a larger story, of the development of the United States: Prohibition and expansion, cultural evolution.
I read this book in a few days, as I also neared the end of listening to Annie Dillard’s The Living (almost as long, over 400 pages). The latter took me much, much longer, and that review will come up soon; but it made for an interesting parallel. Both cover the frontier days of similar locations (The Living is concentrated on northwest Washington state, which is a small part of the larger setting of Big Rock Candy), and span decades of family life. I shan’t review Dillard here, but I will say that Stegner came out ahead, in terms of sympathetic, engaging characters and story. I found The Living more effortful.
Stegner is a fine storyteller. This novel evokes the mountains and the plains, the droughts and sun and rain and blizzards that the Masons live through, and the cultural challenges; but I think most of all it evokes character, the complicated nature of men and women doing their best, trying and failing and occasionally succeeding at business and relationships. It is an autobiographical novel, I have read, with Bruce as Stegner and Bo as Stegner’s difficult father. Indeed, Bruce’s reflections as a young adult upon his family and the hardship of almost entirely hating his father, the question of where home lies for an itinerant man, family, nation, are some of the best, most eloquent, and memorable parts of the book. The narrative of the Mason family story is an outstanding yarn, a tragedy and a tale of adventure, among other things. I loved the whole thing, but Bruce’s ruminations were my favorite part.
Rating: 8 cases of whiskey.
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