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Crossing to Safety

October 22, 2012
Ansel Adams

Wallace Stegner skillfully used words to portray nature and landscape, just as his friend Ansel Adams used photography. Trees with snow on branches, “Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite,” California. April 1933, Ansel Adams, US National Archives.

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety, 1987

“How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?” asks Larry, the narrator of Crossing to Safety. “Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish?’

Crossing to Safety is about quiet lives, but it is totally absorbing. Writer Charlotte Wood recently brought it to the ABC TV show First Tuesday Book Club, and I think it is the only episode in which Jennifer Byrne and the four panellists all agreed about a book. “It makes you feel a better person for having read it,” said Byrne.

The novel charts the friendship of two couples whose characters are exquisitely drawn, which makes the story powerful despite the lack of conventional drama. My partner and I frequently travel to Western Queensland, dodging wide and long loads on a road rapidly being destroyed by the resources boom. Listening to the audiobook of Crossing to Safety made the journey pass in no time, and we arrived full of deep pleasure from the company of these four people.

The novel is dominated by Charity, a micromanager of other people, especially her husband Sid, but she is also unconditionally generous, particularly towards their friends Larry and Sally. Larry sees Charity’s imperative for control as the snake in their Eden, a “bosom serpent” camouflaging itself “among a crowd of the warmest and most generous sentiments.” Despite remaining friends Larry and Charity resist each other throughout their lives.

Charlotte Wood said that the book explored “how to live a good life”, but I’m not so sure. In their youth, the four friends do dream of living a good life and making a contribution, but over time reality intrudes. From the perspective of old age, they have not achieved what they had dreamed of. Larry reflects that Charity and Sid are decent, gracious and compassionate, but “they have missed something, and show it. … Why? Because they are who they are. Why are they so helplessly who they are? Unanswered question, perhaps unanswerable. In nearly forty years, neither has been able to change the other by so much as a punctuation mark.” Larry and Sally are similarly constrained by who they are.

Yet the novel does suggest that how we respond to the intrusions of reality – in Larry’s words, our “desperate improvisations” – may leave us with what is of real value, such as the bonds of friendship. In that sense it is about living a good life. Wood said that it is also about how to die a good death, but that too might be determined by who we are. Like Charity, we may not be able to do anything, even dying, except in our own way.

This is a novel to reread, and I have now bought the paperback so that I can do exactly that.

Links: Jane Smiley; Fleur Diamond. Both articles are astute responses to the novel.

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