The most fascinating thing about this book was the narrative structure: Stegner the author, Lyman Ward the narrator searching out his grandmother’s history, and the grandmother telling some of her parts. These three layers accomplish much. They allow Stegner to “have it both ways.” For example he can comment on Grandmother’s being of the local color era and thus have more description than a 20th Century writer otherwise might have when he is “quoting” her. He can have a Victorian reticence in talking about sex while critiquing it in the 20th century narrative.
Such a strategy always has me wondering at the start whose story it really is, the narrator’s or the subjects, in this case, Lyman Ward’s or Susan Burling Ward’s. And that question is not answered till very late in the novel, and I’ll say no more or it would be a spoiler.
Important though the description was, there were times when it got to be too much and the book bogged down. But before I put it aside, the pace would pick up again and with it my interest.
Lyman Ward is in a wheel chair. Stegner slips into some ablist assumptions about disability, emphasizing being trapped in the chair instead of emphasizing it as a mobility device. But he avoids making disability, adjusting to it, accepting it the main conflict of the novel. He does not do so well on the gender/class differences. Susan’s criticisms of her working class husband show some stereotypical views of controlling woman, snobby woman, woman as the civilizing influence. On the other hand, Stegner allows her to break stereotype by doing art and writing for pay and at times supporting the family. And Stegner puts to rest the stereotype of the self made western individualist, showing how much they were indebted to and owned by Eastern money.
In the beginning there was an interesting commentary on time and change; I expected more to be made of it throughout the novel than was (or maybe I just missed it–a rereading would tell). But this statement is worth quoting: “Before I can say I am, I was.” (p. 3)