I read Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose years ago and enjoyed both of them enough to zip out and collect many of Stegner's other works. All of these still languish on my shelves unread as so many other books have taken precedence, whether as a result of review commitments or just whim. And so when I took this one off the shelf, I expected to have a wonderful experience, already knowing what an outstanding writer Stegner is. But for some reason, it just didn't capture me and it took me many, many months to actually work my way through the book to the conclusion.
Based in part on Stegner's family history, this is the story of Bo Mason, his wife Elsa, and their two very different sons. When the story opens, Elsa has left home to keep house for her uncle after her own father married her best friend. But Elsa won't live long with her uncle, falling under the spell of the charming Bo Mason and his dreams for a bigger, brighter future. Unfortunately Bo is not only always in the wrong place at the wrong time, he doesn't have the patience to see through to fruition any of his more legitimate plans. And so he and Elsa and their children drift around the West looking for opportunity.
While Bo gambles, runs rum (during the Prohbition), and generally tiptoes back and forth over the legal line, Elsa holds the family together and builds a life for her boys. She is truly the center of the home, wherever that home is. As their children grow, they see one sided portraits of their parents and both boys come to despise Bo and Elsa.
This is a terribly depressing and heavy novel with no redemption offered to the reader. The terrible and sad ends of the characters are completely expected given their lives but no less affecting for the hardscrabble, defeated lives they have led. As is typical of Stegner, he has captured beautifully the time and places in the novel and has fleshed out characters who could walk off the page into your living room (not that you'd want that really). Given that this is semi-autobiographical, it makes you wonder how a person can really rise above an upbringing like the one in the novel and become such a masterpiece of an author.
Do not read this is you want to have a happy ending. Do not read this if you are looking for an easy read. This is a long slow descent into sadness and despair but it is well-done for all of that. And it is an amazing portrait of an historical time. All that said, I did not enjoy reading this, maybe because I didn't devote enough of a stretch of time solely to it and it will probably be some time before I tackle the remaining Stegners on my shelves.