Select Page

Angle of Repose


Wallace Stegner

While I was doing some New Year-inspired reorganizing of bookshelves, Angle of Repose (Penguin Books 1971), a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by William Stegner, rose up from among the stacks. Angle of Repose is an enthralling book based on the lives of East coast born Quaker writer and illustrator, Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938), and her pioneer, mining engineer husband, Arthur De Wint Foote (1849-1933). Stegner knew two members of the Foote family, and with permission from them, he used Mary Hallock Foote’s letters of the time spent in the rugged and unsettled West as the basis of his novel.

For Angle of Repose, Stegner changed the names of Mary and Arthur Foote to Susan Burling Ward and Oliver Ward. By doing this he effectively placed Mary’s true, historical memoirs within a fictional setting. Next, Stegner time-stamped his apocryphal tale in the 1970’s. With the modern time period in place, Stegner then created a fictional family whose patriarch Lyman Ward is a retired history professor and grandson of Susan and Oliver. Lyman, who is crippled, rancorous and stubbornly independent, lives in the last house his grandmother occupied before she died. Lyman Ward is also the person who guides the reader through Susan’s memoirs as he studies her letters and looks back at the fascinating and incredibly difficult history of his grandparents, Oliver and Susan Burling Ward.

It is helpful, I think, to have a definition of the engineering term which is the title of the book. “Angle of repose: The steepest angle at which a sloping surface formed of particular loose material is stable.” Oxford Dictionary. The Wikipedia Encyclopedia goes on to say, “At this angle, the material on the slope face is on the verge of sliding.”

Oliver Ward, a hard working, earnest man who takes his career as a mining engineer seriously, must deal with the ongoing necessity of finding suitable geographic locations for mining, then design and run a successful mining operation. The definition of “angle of repose” hints at the instability and constant change that accompanies such an occupation. “Angle of repose” also becomes a metaphor for the relationship between Oliver and Susan, as well as a description of the era of the 1970’s, which Lyman believes is responsible for a rift between himself and his son, Page.

Susan Burling Ward is a woman of genteel upbringing, a Quaker, artist and writer. She has many acquaintances in the East who are well known in literary and elite society circles, and one very close friend whose husband is the editor of high profile magazine. Against her close friend’s advice, Susan marries Oliver Ward. Almost immediately Susan has reason to think her friend may have been right, and that her choice of Oliver as a husband was not the wisest. The conflicts between Susan and Oliver remain a point of tension, and a place of tenderness, throughout Angle of Repose. These exposures of the heart also give the book a vital element of intimacy, which is important in a story where the vast distances between the East Coast and West Coast, the heights of the Rocky Mountains and the depths of mines are so prominent in the narrative.

Stegner is known as one of the great writers of the American West and Angle of Repose is certainly a tour-de-force of Stegner’s ability to describe natural physical settings. By word-crafting landscapes that the reader can almost stand in, Stegner fashions a geographic backdrop to Angle of Repose that is spectacularly beautiful, and uncompromisingly physically demanding. The vast scale of the terrain, which dominates the storyline, retains its power throughout book.

The following is an example of Stegner’s skillful pen. This excerpt from Angle of Repose tells about Oliver and Susan’s trip in a horse-drawn buggy high into the mountains on a narrow and steep trail to Leadville, Colorado, where they will soon set up housekeeping:

“He [Oliver] cocked his head, with his hand raised, for only a second, long enough for her to hear something, she [Susan] couldn’t tell what–perhaps only the empty roaring of the sky. He dropped his hand, he threw a look right, then left. The buggy sagged and rolled a half wheel backward as he leaped onto the step. At that instant appeared around the upper bend a pair of trotting horses, then another pair, then another, then the rocking cradle of the stage. She saw sparks clash from rock under the [iron] tires. To her horrified eyes it seemed a runaway, out of control.

“Oliver’s whip cracked on the rump of the black course, then the bay, the black again. Susan grabbed for the dash. They jerked wildly toward the cliff, among the blocks of stone. And there was not room, she knew it with a certainty that froze her mind.

“The sick horse, on the inside, floundered among the rocks and deep snow. Oliver lashed, lashed, lashed it–oh, how could he? She screamed and grabbed for his whip arm; he shook her off without even looking at her. The left wheels reared up, climbed, crashed down, climbed again; the buggy tilted so steeply that she hung on in frantic fear of sliding straight off under the hoofs and wheels. Oliver’s hand shot out and grabbed her. She screamed again, the air was full of sound like a high wind. There was a smoke of horse breath, a roar and rumble, the close, tense, voiceless rush, and the stage passed her so close that if she had had her arm extended it might have been torn off. Glaring up into the dangerous shadow as it thundered by, she saw a lean, hook-nosed face, a figure with feet braced against the dash, lines that hummed stiff as metal. And she saw the stage driver’s queer, small, gritted smile.

“Still hanging on to her arm, but leaning far inward toward the cliff like a sailor high-siding in a blow, Oliver guided the buggy up over a last rock to a bumpy landing in the road. The air still reeked with the hot smell of horses and the spark odor of iron tires on stone. The noise of the stage diminished behind and below them. They turned to watch it go.”

Angle of Repose is filled with marvelously descriptive tales of life in the old West. Stegner alternates between Susan and Oliver Ward’s story in the early 1900’s and Lyman Ward’s in the late 1900’s, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the lives and times of each. The plot in Angle of Repose is a masterful accomplishment; the beauty of the writing is undeniable. If you haven’t read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner yet, I encourage you to put this captivating book on your To-Be-Read list for 2016.