I don't know why it has taken me so long to read my way through Wallace Stegner's fiction, and it feels odd to be giving a novel published in 1943 such high marks as a compelling narrative that captures some of the rougher times in American history so powerfully.
I'm sure all my praise for The Big Rock Candy Mountain has been offered before, but I'll offer it again. While the book starts slowly--Part I is the weakest part--it gathers strength as it unfurls the struggles of Harry "Bo" Mason, Elsa Mason, and their boys, Chet and Bruce. They are a family that lived, fictionally at least, from the early 1900s through the Depression and Prohibition in the upper midwest, the far west, and parts of Canada. There was no safety net for them as they farmed until they gave up farming for Bo's bootlegging, and there was no general consciousness or legal protection available to keep a woman and her children safe from the abuses of their husband and father. Some of these abuses were simply the dark sides of of Bo's emotional make-up. The force that gave him great energy was emotionally destructive as well as a source of resilience. But that combination was hard on Elsa, more or less deadly for Chet, and damaging for Bruce, who surprisingly manages to survive as the brightest and most determined of the story's main characters.
Elsa's stoicism and her romantic decision to stick with Bo when she knew she shouldn't gives the book a kind of moral north star. If you want to know what's right in life, look to her. If you want to know what's probably wrong, look to Bo, and to a lesser extent to the abused and defensive boys.
As a writer, Stegner is ambitious and dextrous. There are passages in this book that rival Willa Cather's beautiful accounts of the midwest. There are passages with the drive of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. And there are passages that presage William Kennedy's marvelous Albany tales of small-time hoodlums walking the plank between a bottle of whiskey and a bag full of cash.
This is a sad book. As many times as Bo gets knocked down, taking the family with him, he's certain to get back up...only to be knocked down again. The America of that period was rough on unschooled working men and women, farmers, common laborers, dreamers, and people who could not depend on, or get along with, their families.
Of course, it's still rough for many in this country, but not as rough as then, and yet paradoxically perhaps also not as exciting, physical, even sensual. There's essentially no God in Stegner's fictional world, but there are two factors that he handles and relies upon with true mastery. The first is the beauty of the natural world, the world of mountains, of hunting, of sun, wind, snow, hard rocks and sweet-smelling pines. The second is memory and memory's ability to provide some little incentive to keep on going, some fine moment that fills the worst moments with hope. These two elements move the Masons forward and sustain Bruce, transforming him from a fairly desperate, frightened little boy into a wary but self-reliant man. The rest don't make it; simple as that: they just don't make it. And that's why The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a sad book but a worthy book, unbelievably packed with the drama of the mundane on the edge of constant disaster.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund