For many of us in Boise, Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Angle of Repose” has special meaning.
The book about a fictional wife of a western mining and irrigation engineer is based, sometimes word for word, on the life of Boise author Mary Hallock Foote. Much of Stegner’s book takes place in our place.
In 2004 it was chosen for “If Everybody Read the Same Book” in Boise, which was started here by my colleague Dan Popkey. But since then, there has been little attention paid to the 1971 book that famously was ignored at the time by reviewers and East Coast elites.
If you are new to the area and haven’t read it yet, it is one of my recommendations for helping you to make the transition to Idahoan.
Stegner, who lived all over the West, used his own experiences along with Foote’s letters and journals to tell a different kind of story about how the West was developed than had been previously told in fiction. Instead of the myth of the rugged individual who single-handedly carved out a piece of civilization, Stegner’s story showed how it was a cooperative effort of capitalists, miners, farmers, families and even the federal government that settled the West.
A relatively new audio version of the book has captured the attention of Salon and offers an opportunity for a new generation to discover a classic in the mold of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” What made the book unique in 1971 is its narrator, aging historian Lyman Ward, grandson of the main character, Susan Burling Ward. He tells us her story while also revealing his own at a time when his world was changing fast in the counterculture 1960s.
Instead of just reading this classic, Mark Bramhall performs it, taking on the role of the crotchety old man as if he is telling you the story personally. This gives those of us who have read “Angle of Repose” more than one reason to listen again.
Laura Miller, a senior writer for Salon, offered a great review. She goes all-in for the new audio version.
“There are some books you finish in a kind of hush, as if holding your breath to avoid disturbing the beauty of each successive moment ...” she wrote. “They carry you with them as they penetrate to the core of life and leave you overcome ... not by their perfection, but with the sense that you’re in the presence of greatness.
“There are very, very few novels that can deliver this sensation. ‘Angle of Repose’ is one of them.”
There is real history weaved into its narrative. Arthur Foote, the husband of Mary, is the model for Susan’s husband, Oliver. Our Valley’s irrigation system was first envisioned by Foote. He laid out the plans for Diversion Dam and even chose the site for Arrowrock Dam. But it was only when the federal government stepped in with the new Bureau of Reclamation that these cornerstones of Southwest Idaho’s economic development were finally built.
“Dreamers we are and dreamers we will always be, and what is folly … to some people is the stuff our daily lives are made of,” Mary Hallock Foote wrote. “And there are thousands like us! If there had never been, there would be no great West.”
Stegner understood those dreamers as well as any author.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484