Wallace Stegner (1987) – Crossing to Safety

I find this to be one of the saddest books I have ever read.  Sad, almost unbearably sad.  What’s sad is the inability of any of the characters to find serenity in life.  Charity can never find it.  Sid doesn’t seem to be looking any more.  Larry maybe has glimpses, mostly when he is writing.  Sally—I find I don’t have a sense of Sally as a real person.


Two marriages “based on addiction and dependence” (p.276).  A lifelong friendship based on … I don’t know what.  Are they having fun yet?  The tension is non-stop.  Even when it appears to have eased, it is simply lying in wait to pounce with pathological intensity.  Charity does not recognize that there is a difference between her and the external world or between her and her husband.  The world and Sid are recalcitrant incompetents to be shaped to her vision.  She reminds me of Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass. 


      “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
   “The question is, ” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
   “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”


Everyone agrees that the consequences of standing up to Charity’s nonsense are Too Horrible To Contemplate.  The agreement is tacit at first and explicit later on.  As the line in Star Wars goes, “Let the Wookie win.”  And look what happens.  The world stands up to Charity when Wisconsin lets Sid go, and Charity has a nervous breakdown.  And when it turns out that the “missing” tea was packed after all, Sid, in a spectacular act of codependence, burns the evidence that he was right all along.


One would think that a novel’s narrator would be its central character.  He certainly gets the majority of the lines, but whenever Charity appears, she bullies her way into the spotlight and will not relinquish it.  Must we believe that Sid is truly, desperately in need of career and life management as Charity assumes?  Does Larry believe it?  Sally?  Do we?  His time at Dartmouth is characterized ambiguously.  It seems he was successful enough (but not enough for Charity, for whom nothing could be enough because if something were enough, the need for her would have disappeared), but it also seems that Larry doesn’t really see it as an unalloyed triumph (I don’t have a page reference for this, you’ll have to find it). 


It would seem that Sid and Charity constitute a powerful mutual destruction society in which each becomes less and less a complete person capable of finding satisfaction and more and more crippled into what the other arguably desires (at least Freud would probably argue it, and I would, too).  It may be that Charity’s pathology runs so deep that there was never any hope for her—so she is portrayed; but Sid might have been contented to be a dilettante poet—he has enough money that he doesn’t have to work, so, why not?


Larry is the obsessive in the other couple.  It pays off for him and Sally, they manage to pay off their debts (or rather, he manages to pay of their debts), so who’s to criticize?  He seems to be borderline workaholic, but he always seems to keep on the human side of the border.  As a writer, there are no externally fixed working hours.  To write, one must decide to write and then find a way to make actions suit the decision.  There’s always something else that could be done instead of writing. 


The story is the story of my parents’ generation.  Women’s Liberation didn’t make the news until the late sixties and early seventies.  In that context, it is not strange that neither Charity nor Sally seems to have any career or work aspirations, but from our towering twenty-first century pinnacle, it’s easy enough to think that had the story begun in 1965, say, greater societal acceptance of working women would have changed considerably how the author’s characters had to behave and develop.  Of course, this is part of why the story is set when it is.  Checkmate.


To the text.  My favorite line in the whole book is Charity’s sister’s intervention (p.75) in

the argument between Sid and Charity about whether writing poetry is worthwhile:


“Charity,” Comfort said, “you argue like a corkscrew.”

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