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Wallace Stegner’s West

Wallace Stegner has been getting a lot of attention recently. About two weeks ago in Point Reyes, CA a Wallace Stegner conference entitled “The Geography of Hope” was held, in conjunction with what would have been the author’s 99th birthday (he died in 1993). It featured such environmentally-minded writers as Barry Lopez, Robert Hass and Rebecca Solnit. There also have been a few high-profile publications about his life in the past few months: a new biography and a collection of his letters. With all of the recent hubbub, and as Stegner is the namesake of the fellowship I have at the moment (a very benevolent-looking photograph of the man is prominently displayed in the too-small room in which we have workshop), I figured I owed him my attention. So I borrowed and read my wife’s copy of one of Stegner’s well-known books, Wolf Willow.

The book is a hybrid of prose genres, from autobiography to short story to novella to nonfiction. I found it interesting that just as Stegner expresses an uncertainty about where he is from (growing up he lived in both western Canada and the western U.S.), what his heritage is, this book seems to be uncertain of what exactly it is. I mean that in a good way, because I like this sort of mish mash of genres. It’s interesting how in some ways form mirrors content in this book, or maybe it’s more a matter of content mirroring self–the fractured sense of self that Stegner feels is revealed through the fracturing and amalgamation of genres in Wolf Willow.

The impulse to include a novella and short story in the middle of an otherwise non-fictional book was really intriguing to me. Clearly, some impetus (if not the major impetus) behind this book is the desire to learn about and come to terms with a history and heritage that, as a child, Stegner felt was lacking in his life. And despite all the historical information that Stegner pulls up and relates in the second section of the book, the history of this place, the nuts and bolts of what it was like to live in this particular part of the world at this particular moment in time, didn’t really come alive for me until I read the fictional parts of the book. Although it initially seemed strange to mix fact and fiction in such a way in one book, looking back, I think the book would have felt a little flat and dry without that third section. And for me, the novella and short story acted as an interesting intersection between the history of this place (particularly the information in the second section of the book) and Stegner’s own experience of it and of the sort of people who lived there.

I must admit that I skimmed a bit of the history section, but I think this might be due to personal preference rather than an objective problem with the book. In general, or at least when I read memoirs, I’m much more interested in really digging into one person’s life and experiences and thoughts rather than skimming over the history of a place. I did find Stegner’s persona throughout the book to be incredibly engaging and interesting. I loved his recollections and his musings on his own childhood, on what this place meant, and still means, to him. And I felt as though that persona fell away a bit in the second section of the book. We are still given some insight into what Stegner himself thinks about the information he’s relaying, and we know how he interprets this historical information to a certain extent, but there’s something impersonal about that section. One thing I loved in the first section of this book (as well as the third and fourth sections) was Stegner’s lyricism, particularly his use of metaphor and personification–he personifies everything from the wind and the sky to his own memory–and those lyrical flourishes which brought this person and this place to life for me in the rest of the book were somewhat absent in that second section. That said, without that particular section, I don’t think I could have fully appreciated the rest of the book, particularly the novella and short story that I loved so much. And I think the fact that each section of Wolf Willow seemed integral to my full understanding and appreciation of every other section says a lot about how well, overall, this somewhat odd structure and mixture of genres works for this particular book.