I live once again in the western United States. I have shortly lived elsewhere, two years in Brazil, two years in Maryland, but the west is home. I knew this for certain crossing the plains by car last fall. Around the same time, I read Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain. “He was a westerner, whatever that was,” Stegner wrote, at once describing something similar to what I feel and Harry Mason’s thoughts as he journeyed toward Utah from Minnesota. “The moment he crossed the Big Sioux and got into the brown country where the raw earth showed, the minute the grass got sparser and the air dryer and the service stations less grandiose and the towns rattier, the moment he saw his first lonesome shack on the baking flats with a tipsy windmill creaking away at the reluctant underground water, he knew approximately where he belonged.”
Stegner is not Mormon literature (he was raised for a time among Mormons, he clearly had affection for Mormons, and Mormons were his occasional subject: see particularly Big Rock Candy Mountain and Recapitulation and his light early Mormon histories). But he is a neighbor and a potential model. First, he wrote the West in a compelling and acutely perceptive way. To the extent that Mormon literature takes as its setting the western United States (certainly this is not necessary–the possible settings for Mormon literature obviously expand along with the church), Stegner is an influence to be reckoned with and hopefully exceeded.
But there is something else in Stegner, something more universal, that I with my Mormon view of the world find deeply stirring: his portrayal of relationships over long periods of time. I would like to draft an extended essay using various examples (I would pull them from Remembering Laughter, Angle of Repose, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Recapitulation, and perhaps Crossing to Safety). But other commitments compel me to do much less: I offer only my impression of Stegner’s portrayal of the central relationships in these books. Stegner portrays people–husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, and so on–injuring each other, sacrificing, coping with differences, and (sometimes) forgiving and encountering something like joy or stillness together.
In portraying these relationships, Stegner rarely employs brilliant gimmicks. I do not come away from reading one of his novels with the feeling that he is a freak with an enormous brain and few friends (yes, from some authors I do get that vibe). On the contrary, I come away with the feeling that Stegner has an enormous heart and a keen eye–immense sympathy for and understanding of people and the skill to match.
The suffering Stegner illuminates in his characters’ relationships means something. He does not cast it in spiritual terms, but I can’t resist seeing something holy there: consecration. Indeed, although there is nothing expressly Mormon in Stegner’s fictional relationships, they touch me in places where Joseph Smith shined a bright light of revelation: the eternal family and the centrality in the gospel of friendship. In short, Stegner has a lot to teach us about telling stories that capture the spiritual significance of our families and friends.