“And so, by circuitous and unpredictable routes, we converge toward midcontinent and meet in Madison, and are at once drawn together, braided and plaited into a friendship. It is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking. It is therefore rare.”
Wallace Stegner gives the clearest definition of friendship I have ever seen written. This definition comes from Larry Morgan, protagonist of Crossing to Safety, the author’s last published novel. I read Stegner’s excellent The Spectator Bird last year and knew Crossing to Safety would be the next one in his oeuvre to read.
Crossing to Safety tells the story of two couples, the Morgans (Larry & Sally) and the Langs (Sid & Charity) who meet in Madison, Wisconsin, at the beginning of their academic careers during the Great Depression. The novel chronicles their lifelong friendships and marriages. Stegner does a wonderful job of creating four fully fleshed out characters and how the dynamic amongst each other changes over the years.
Larry is the writer of the group and has a sense of independence that I could relate to. Also, he is a devoted husband to Sally, as she suffers a disease that will alter the course of her life. Sid is the professor that comes from family wealth and feels he has not had a fulfilling life and his wife, Charity, is a determined, strong-willed woman that bends life to her wishes. Stegner provides an excellent landscape to make this reader ponder about friendship and marriage.
Crossing to Safety is a quiet novel. There are no affairs or betrayals of friendships to create the story’s conflict. Stegner shows how stable friendships and marriages can actually make interesting fiction. I could imagine if John Updike or John Irving had attempted to write this novel, it would have affairs between the couples and scandalous behavior that could have destroyed a career, marriage, or friendship. Stegner chooses a different route, and this reader is delighted with that choice.
It is refreshing to read a novel about the interworkings of human behavior in a genteel fashion. You don’t always need to go over-the-top to make a point about life. A stable and consistent approach can provide enough drama without having to become melodramatic.
Crossing to Safety will be one of my favorite reads of 2021 and I’m looking forward to reading more Wallace Stegner’s work. After reading The Spectator Bird and now this one, he is an astute observer of human nature and excellent writer of characters.