Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and deservedly so. It is such a beautiful work, and uses a fascinating method of luring us into the West of the late 1800s and the early 1900s.
The narrator is a fairly well-known history professor, now retired, and now fighting a battle of some kind of degenerating bone disease, which is never given a name, but which has caused a severe freezing of his skeletal styructure, leading to a leg amputation, and he is confined to a motorized wheelchair. He cannot stand, and requires daily help getting him into a hot bath to relieve the pain, and being put to bed.
He is in gentle conflict with his son Rodman over the amount of perceived independence he has. He has moved alone to his grandmother’s house out in the boonies where he intends to write a novel based on the life of his grandmother, who lived to be 91. It covers about two decades before the turn of the twentieth century, when she meets a young man at a gathering in the Concord area of Massachussetts, where Transcendentalism, academia, and gentility are her life. She is acquainted with many of the big names of the day. In spite of the difference in their class, she remains friends with him, a mining engineer, even as he travels West to ply his trade. At some point, he returns and they marry. He leaves again to prepare a home in the mining town where he is employed. After five years, he sends for her to join him. There, as she makes her life following him from one rough camp or town to another, we see the conflict between the wilderness of the west and its inhabitants, and the gentility of the East, with its culture, education and learning.
Gentility is inherited through the female line like hemophilia, and is all but incurable.
It is a story about marriage, theirs, together through trials and difficult times, through the drowning death of their youngest daughter, through infidelity and danger. While the grandson, our narrator, has a marriage that disintegrated when his wife, shortly after learning of his growing disability, announced she was leaving him for another man.
The book weaves the past deftly through the present, the Old west with the new, ancestors with the youth of toay (the today of 1970), seeking that comfortable ‘angle of repose’, a technical term which means the angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling when piled, and as he says to the young woman helping him with transcribing his tapes,
…it was the angle at which a man or woman finally lies down. I suppose it is;
The book asks what it is that keeps a family together, and what tears them apart, what disturbs that 30 degree angle of repose.