Big Rock Candy Mountain - Book Review
Wallace Stegner is perhaps one of the least-known successful American authors of the 20th century. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 for his work The Angle of Repose and founder of the creative writing program at Stanford, his name generally elicits shrugs when I mention it to other people. Nevertheless, Stegner wrote in a uniquely American voice. Most of his novels and historical works are based in the American West. His students at Stanford included Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, and Larry McMurtry.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a book set in the Mountain West and Canada in the first three decades of the 20th century. The title is in reference to a mythical place where to paraphrase ‘you can sleep all day by lemonade springs…and where the hens lay soft-boiled eggs.’ In fact, the hopeful song was sung in box cars and in roadside camps by vagrants and migrants escaping the twin horrors of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Two boys, Chester and Bruce, raised by an abusive father and an overly submissive, but loving mother, yearn to lead ‘normal’ lives. Their father, Bo Mason, tries to make his living in a variety of sordid professions, most notably as a bootlegger during the Prohibition years. When he isn’t philandering and walking out on their mother, he is busy moving the family from place to place as they grapple with financial solvency. Bo seeks the ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ in the still hard scrabble but disappearing American West. Stegner’s sweeping descriptions of Big Sky country as the backdrop to the saga of this struggling family are simply beautiful. Stegner gets the reader to identify (and even sympathize) with each of the characters, as the narration shifts among them. He also somehow manages to imbue the reader with hope through association with the beauty of the landscape, but ultimately, each family member finds only disappointment, or an untimely death. The novel ends as the youngest son Bruce, now in law school, travels to Utah and makes his final break with his father (his mother and brother have already died). After his father takes his own life, Bruce ponders the cruel fate dealt to his family, and how it was that he managed to survive.
Stegner admitted that this story was partially autobiographical, as he lived in eight different states and in Canada, moving twenty times during his childhood. The novel’s scenes of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 are chilling, especially given the current circumstances of COVID-19 one hundred years later.
Although his novel The Angle of Repose drew the widest acclaim (and it is well worth reading) what drew me to The Big Rock Candy Mountain were the themes of family, disruption, moral ambiguity, and the movement of people during times of tremendous turmoil. In this respect, this novel was an inspiring piece of literature in guiding me as I wrote my first novel Above the Water, which takes up similar themes.