Fifty-eight year old Lyman Ward, the narrator of the story, is a retired historian, wheel chair bound with a painful bone disease. Estranged from his wife and bitter about his life, he makes a decision to return to his family home in Grass Valley, California, and write a biography about his grandmother, Susan Ward, who made her own trip west in the 1800s.
Lyman first introduces his grandfather, Oliver Ward, as an honest man searching for a place to focus on his life’s work. A mining engineer, he believed the West held unexplored opportunities, and he moves his family to different areas there in search of a good life as he tries to succeed in a rough environment.
Susan Ward left a promising future in New York to follow her husband, fully expecting to someday return to the East and resume her art career. In the course of her journey, she and her family confront challenges and endure many hardships, as she becomes more and more disappointed with her life. The couple stays together for sixty years, although not always joyfully. Writing and re-living his grandparents’ lives helps Lyman face his own health and marital problems.
Angle of Repose is an exceptional novel that exposes through a well plotted story the early myth of America’s West as a land of opportunity and glamorous cowboys. This 1972 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is based on historical letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a little known 19th century writer. By using the facts found in these letters, Stegner sets his novel in the 19th century while also having his characters spend time in the 1970s. He creates convincing, complex characters who are a meld of America’s past and present.
The title of the book comes from a geological term for the diminished incline that will halt a movement; the steepest angle at which a sloping surface formed of loose material is stabilized. The author’s characters try valiantly to find their own angle of repose. Not all succeed.
William Stegner said of his epic novel, “It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, this is my story.” Through his rich prose, in Angle of Repose he shares his love of the land and impresses on the reader his extraordinary insight into human nature.
Reviewed by Mercedes Horton (OLLI Member)