There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.
I was worried after I’d started Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. The first chapter – present tense in the present day, 1972, of the narrator, writer Larry Morgan – was so mesmerising and beautiful, at once vivid, meditative and enticing, that I started to believe it was impossible for the whole book to live up to it. I needn’t have worried.
Crossing to Safety is the story of two couples, Sally & Larry Morgan and Charity & Sid Lang, and their long friendship spanning the 1930s to the 1970s, their 20s to their 60s. It’s about friendship, aging and failure, about lost promise and nostalgia, about hard work and luck and disappointment, about illness, and about doing the very best you can with what you’re given. It’s a book about that generation who came of age in the depression and seem to have spent the rest of their lives running to catch up with themselves. It’s a book about writing, about place, about money, about long marriage, about second chances, and about the things we seem unable to change in ourselves. It’s a book about birth and about death. In short, it’s a book about life. A book that, at some points, I found myself marking up as though it were some long-lost instruction manual for living.
It’s a writerly book, one that puts a writer at its centre and continually draws attention to itself as something written: “How,” asks the writer-narrator Larry Morgan, “do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect?” It’s a strategy that might have failed in lesser hands. But with Wallace Stegner it feels hard-earned and true. He was 78 when Crossing to Safety came out in 1987. It was his last novel. His first novel was published in 1937. The wisdom and sensibility of Larry Morgan is hard not to conflate with Stegner himself. Aging, and often looking back on days long past, Larry is able to take the long-view of the lives of the two couples, with all their ups and downs: “If we could have forseen the future during those good days in Madison where this all began, we might not have had the nerve to venture into it.” I sometimes wonder how any of us has the nerve to go on, when we know that, at any moment, we stand to lose those we love or the life we know. In fact, losing those we love and losing, at least to some extent, our youthful vigor are inevitable corollaries of a living a long life oneself.
When I finished Crossing to Safety all I wanted, really, was to turn back to the start. Instead I pressed it into B’s hands. Three days in he was already talking about how much he was enjoying it when – disaster! – it was recalled to the library, reserved by another borrower. So, for the last three weeks, my mission has been to find a copy with the exact same cover. Since I couldn’t find it in a bookshop regardless of cover, I ordered it online (secondhand to get the right cover). And then, while proving that the Biscuit and I should never, ever be allowed into the Oxfam Bookshop together, I found the one above. The ordered copy hadn’t arrived so, keen to press it into as many hands as possible, I added it to our teetering stack. As soon as we got home the postman knocked. I’m now the proud owner of two copies of Crossing to Safety. Yes, so good I bought it twice.
This is a perfect example of how much I love bookish blogs. I don’t know where I read about it first, but Crossing to Safety was only on my radar because of reviews and mentions like this and this and this. How wonderful to be able to spread the word about books worth reading. Thank you!
And, finally, that extra special cover. The photograph is by Lisa Larsen, and it sounds like she was an extraordinary woman. More here.