Saturday, July 6, 2013

Book Review

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

by Wallace Stegner

This book moved me to tears.  Perhaps that is because I am in my seventies and have lived and witnessed much of what Wallace Stegner writes about.  Perhaps it is because I have come to understand how complex human beings are and how easily they can bring injury and hardship upon the people they love.
The novel begins in the year 1905 in Minnesota and ends in Utah in the 1930s.  Its central character is Harry “Bo” Mason, a physically powerful, aggressive person who left his parents’ home at the age of fourteen, survived working hard-labor odd jobs, is self-reliant, fiercely stubborn, and, given to “chasing dreams of acquiring quick wealth,” unrealistically ambitious.  According to his son Bruce he is “a self-centered and dominating egotist who insists on submission from his family and yet at the same time is completely dependent on his wife.”  He is conscious of the great injury he inflicts on them and suffers much remorse, but he does not change. 
Early in the story Bo’s decision to become a bootlegger is challenged by his wife Elsa.  “For a moment he stood, almost hating her, hating the way she and the kids hung on him and held him back, loaded him with responsibilities and then hamstrung him when he tried to do anything.” 
“I made up my mind that I was your wife and I’d stay your wife, no matter what,” Elsa responds.  “I never asked for more than we had.  I’d have been satisfied with just a bare living, if we could only keep what we’ve had up here.  So don’t ever say you did this for me or them.”
Seemingly strong, Elsa is soft in that she is unselfish, loving, and accepting.  Late in the novel she counsels Bruce.  “Some day you’ll learn that you can’t have people exactly the way you want them and that a little understanding is all you need to make most people seem halfway decent.”  In many ways Bo is a sympathetic character.  I wanted him to succeed in each of his risky endeavors.  Nevertheless, Elsa is whom I cherished and respected.
Essential to the story is how Chet and Bruce, the two sons, affected by the characteristics and actions of their parents, develop.
I was fascinated with what Stegner does with the theme of risk-taking and reward, an issue every person is confronted with as an adult.  How much is a person willing to risk to achieve an ambitious goal?  How much less is that person willing to accept?  What makes a person happy?  Stegner explores as well the importance of heredity: how much a person is shaped by past generations.  Reflecting upon his parents and then himself, Bruce decides: “Perhaps it took several generations to make a man, … several combinations and re-creations of his mother’s gentleness and resilience, his father’s enormous energy and appetite for the new, a subtle blending of masculine and feminine, selfish and selfless, stubborn and yielding, before a proper man could be fashioned.”
“The Big Rock Candy Mountain” is a remarkable book.