Wallace Stegner:
Dean and Mentor of Western American Writers

Angle of Repose
Crossing to Safety

Wallace Stegner is one of those secret pleasures and surprises of American literature. If you browse through the reader comments on his books at Amazon.com, often the first remark is "Why have I never heard of this guy?" Good question, considering that he's won the Pulitzer for fiction, and the National Book Award, and he's been nominated repeatedly for literary awards for more than thirty years. Environmentalist, writing teacher, premier novelist of the American West, he lived a life of scrupulous integrity and produced an astonishing body of work. He died tragically (in an automobile accident); he was still a productive writer though 84 years old.

It's a small world. Stegner was a student of Vardis Fisher, whose semi-autobiographical novels undoubtedly inspired Stegner to write his early works, and Stegner is the thread that connects the two great Old Irascibles of the West, Fisher and Stegner's creative writing student Edward Abbey. Stegner's own Wolf Willow is an obvious inspiration for another famous student's work, Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain, and his environmental concerns are carried to zealot extremes by Abbey.

Note: Highlighted book titles are linked to Amazon.com and can be purchased. The "open book" icon [Not this one...] is a link to a review of the neighboring title. Excuse the rushed tone of some notes. This list was prepared for a reading group studying Wolf Willow, which gives it a bit of a slant in places. It includes a number of books I have not yet read.


Big Rock Candy Mountain. Fictional retelling of Stegner's childhood and youth. This book has been regarded for many years as a classic bilungsroman (coming of age novel) for the region.

Dancing Badger

Recapitulation. Sequel to Big Rock Candy Mountain, set in Salt Lake City.

All the Little Live Things. Novel on the Hippie Scene. Stegner has had little patience with fads, and his lengthy tenure at Stanford gave him a close look at the San Francisco literary community. This novel takes on the glib moral posturing of the Hippie movement, putting it in a context of a character who is coming to terms with her own death.

The Spectator Bird. Novel about a literary agent who feels that he has lived his life vicariously. As in Angle of Repose, the protagonist takes a journey of self-examination by exploring his own writing. National Book Award in 1977.

Angle of Repose. Novel based on the life of Mary Hallock Foote. Pulitzer in 1971. Stegner's handling of history and fact sparked some controversy. The life of Foote is the inspiration and source for much of the book, but Susan Burling Ward is not Mary Hallock Foote. This brilliant book is about the nature of memory, the weight of history, the burden of our past, personal and collective.

Crossing to Safety, Stegner's last novel, about a lifelong friendship between two couples. A book in which, as Stegner might have commented ironically, "nothing happens." It traces the lives of four ordinary people who come to together, at last, to look at where they have been.

Joe Hill. 'Non-fiction novel' or fictional biography of Labor martyr Joe Hill.


Wolf Willow

My personal favorite of Stegner's work will always be Wolf Willow, his meditation on a childhood spent in the Northern Plains (Whitemud, Saskatchewan). This book folds memory, history, and fiction together into a memoir at once personal and universal. I've used it as a Freshman English text for decades; it is a prose model as well as model for self-realization.

Stegner wrote three classics of popular history. Two of them, Mormon Country and The Gathering of Zion, deal with the migration of the Mormons to Utah and the founding of the Great Basin states. The third, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian traces John Wesley Powell's expedition down the Colorado River.

Stegner was also a superb essayist and his non-fiction includes American Places, essays on American land in a coffee table book of landscape photographs. He also collected two sets of essays: The Sound of Mountain Water, essays on literature, history, and the environment, first published around 1970, and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. Stegner's son Page has edited a posthumous collection of his father's essays and occasional pieces, Marking the Sparrow's Fall: Wallace Stegner's American West.

Books About Stegner


I won't try a thorough bibliography here. If you are interested in Stegner, a biogrpahy is a good place to begin, and Jackson J. Benson's Wallace Stegner is excellent. It turns up in remainder bins in hardcover. Another logical place to begin is interviews with the author, and two books serve that need well, Richard Etulain's Stegner: Conversations on History and Literature, and James R. Hepworth's Stealing Glances: Three Interviews with Wallace Stegner.

For books about Stegner's writing, try the University of Nevada's collection of Jackson Benson's essays on Stegner, Down by the Lemonade Springs. Another comprehensive and useful book, though out-of-print, if Forrest Robinson's Twayne study of Stegner, sometimes available used at Amazon.com, and certainly in most major city and campus libraries. The Western Literature Association publishes an annual bibligraphy of work on Western writers, including Stegner in their journal, Western Aemrican Literature.

Other Books Like Wolf Willow

Wolf Willow is unusual in that it combines scholarship with personal memoir. Thinking of other books to recommend to a reader who enjoys this blend, three come to mind. John McPhee's Basin and Range is similar. McPhee writes about geography and place from a perspective similar to Stegner's, populist but scientifically informed. Frank Waters' essay on the Colorado River (The Colorado) lacks the immediacy of Stegner's close biographical connection to his subject, but it offers the same rounded, personalized view of the Colorado River basin as Stegner's of the northern plains. A book not merely similar but rather obviously endebted to Wolf Willow is Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain. One of Stegner's students, Momaday has written a little gem of a memoir about the Kiowa people very similiar to Wolf Willow.

Other Books Like Angle of Repose

First and foremost, there is Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, which shares with Angle of Repose a broad historical range grounded in a personal vision, with a narrative voice that is both rich and suspect and a plot twist that brings the whole experience to a stunning climax.

On Related Topics


Indians of the the Northern Plains

James Welch, Winter in the Blood, The Death of Jim Loney, Fools Crow, The Indian Lawyer, and The Heartsong of Charging Elk. Welch is not to be missed, the reliable draft horse of his genre and an under-appreciated American novelist. HIs first two novels were depressingly nihilist exercises but filled with wit and true to his subject matter, contemporary American Indian life. The third novel, Fools Crow, is unique in the field, a magic realist historical novel on the events leading up to the Marias River Massacre that broke the spirit of Blackfeet resistance. The fourth novel takes yet another new direction, a mainstream novel in which the protagonist happens to be an American Indian, and his most recent book, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, returns to the previous century to chronicle a story of alienation and dissociation.

Medicine River, by Thomas King

Thomas King, Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water. A Cherokee writer, but with a stint in Lethbridge behind him (He's in Minnesota these days), he's written two very funny books about being Indian in Canada.

W. P. Kinsella, Dance Me Outside, The Moccasin Telegraph, Brother Frank's Gospel Hour, The Fencepost Chronicles, Born Indian. Kinsella is white, but you'd never guess. He writes hysterically funny and painfully true short stories set in the Canadian western reserves (reservations), narrated by Silas Ermineskin and Frank Fencepost. Recommending his books is politically incorrect (as if I cared), and he is regarded as a poacher and exploiter by some American Indians (which bothers me). I think a person should write what he knows, and the result should be judged on its merits. The books are good, and Kinsella doesn't sell them by pretending to be Indian. If he were Indian, all the better. Kinsella also writes about baseball; he wrote the novel that Field of Dreams is based on.

Howard Norman, Where the Chill Came From. Excellent collection of Cree Windigo folk tales. The windigo, a cannibal who preys on humans in the winter, is the spirit of the north. Norman, a respected Canadian novelist, has collected a number of good books of Canadian Indian folk tales, including some children's books: The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese and Trickster and the Fainting Birds (with illustrations by Tom Pohrt.

The Fur Trade and Explorers

Vardis Fisher's Pemmican describes the Canadian fur trade from the point of view of a contemporary of Alexander MacKenzie. Canadian historian Peter C. Newman has written a three-volume history of the Canadian fur trade and a history of the Hudson's Bay Company, which survives today as "The Bay," the Sears Roebuck of Canada. Butler's The Great Lone Land, which figures prominently in Wolf Willow, is out of print, as are most of the other titles that Stegner cites there. An interesting take on the Lewis ands Clark Expedition is Sign Talker, by James Alexander Thom. He tells the story from the point of view of George Drouillard, the Shawnee interpreter for the expedition. This may be the best fictionalized version of the story.

The Métis

Maria Campbell, Halfbreed is the biography of a Métis woman who rehabiliated and educated herself after a childhood of deprivation and racial discrimination. Joseph K. Howard's Strange Empire is a history of the Red River Rebellion and the best single book on the Métis. Thomas Flanagan has written an academic biography of Louis 'David' Riel. Alfred Silver has written a series of novels on the Métis experience during the Riel period: Lord of the Plains, Red River Story, and Where the Ghost Horse Runs. The main character of the first novel is Stegner's Gabriel Dumont.

Ranching on the Northern Plains

Cowboy literature is endless. Lonesome Dove, for starters, ends in northern Wyoming. Frederick Manfred's Riders of Judgment and Jack Schaefer's Shane are both set in roughly the same area and in print, though Manfred's novel is hard to find. Andy Adams' Log of a Cowboy is generally regarded as the best first-person account of cowpunching in the 1880-1900 era.

A. B. Guthrie's These Thousand Hills is a novel on the Montana cattle business by the author of The Big Sky and The Way West. Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall is popular but not to my taste. After trying three times, I find that I don't care for Harrison's jock-itch soap operas, myself. Teddy Blue's We Pointed Them Northis a memoir of a Montana cowboy that, along with the lower states' Andy Adams' The Log of a Cowboy has contributed so essential details to many a great Western novel, including Lonesome Dove. Blue himself is a key figure in Larry McMurtry's Buffalo Girls.

Homesteading and Towns


The classic homesteader novel is Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth, about Scandinavian homesteading in the Dakotas. Look at Frederick Manfred's farm fiction: Green Earth, The Golden Bowl, and This Is the Year. Manfred grew up a generation after Stegner, in Iowa, and these three books deal with farming the upper midwest during the Dust Bowl. Hard to find, but worth the effort, especially Green Earth, an undiscovered classic.

Marilyn Robinson, Housekeeping. This peculiar novel, part psychological study, part magic realism, has a devoted following. I found it interesting, but over-hyped. It depicts the lives of an eccentric family in the Northern Plains region. Lois Philip Hudson, from North Dakota, is the author of Bones of Plenty, a one-shot novel set in the Dust Bowl on the Northern Plains. Good book; she only wrote two.

Two odd items you might not run across if not mentioned: Thomas McGrath's Letters to an Imaginary Friend, an "epic poem" on North Dakota by a native son, blacklisted Communist, and sometime Beat poet, and the long out-of-print novels on homesteading in Idaho around 1900-1920, by Vardis Fisher: In Tragic Life, Dark Bridwell, Toilers of the Hills.

Films on the Northern Plains

Heaven's Gate. Endless film on the conflict between cattlemen and emigrants in southern Montana. Authentic, anyway.

The Missouri Breaks. Arthur Penn's quirky take on horse rustling and so forth on the Montana border. Tiresome scenery chewing by Marlon Brando as a lardy eccentric gun for hire modelled on Tom Horn (for a good Tom Horn story, see the Steve McQueen film), offset by an engaging crowd of bad guys that includes Jack Nicholson, John Marley, Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton, and Frederick Forrest. They try to steal horses from the 'fawncy' Mounties....

Dance Me Outside. Film version of Kinsella's extraordinary story of murder and revenge on the Ermineskin reserve. Gets mixed reviews; I haven't seen it.

The Stone Boy. Robert Duvall & Glenn Close in a sharp little film about a boy who accidentally shoots and kills his brother, roughly contemporary with Stegner's childhood, set in the Northern Plains.

Heartland. Award-winner on homesteading the Northern Plains.

Housekeeping. Respected film version of Robinson's novel.

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