Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose


 “What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward, the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.”

                                                                                                                                 ―Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose


When we are faced with the need to make changes in our lives, either by chance or by choice, where and how do we find equilibrium amid the flux? Can we achieve a new place of rest or do we always remain poised in precarious balance among irreconcilable forces?

In this beautiful novel set in the American West, Wallace Stegner explores the challenge—and the art—of making changes, through the dual stories of Lyman Ward and his grandmother Susan Burling Ward. At 58 years-old, confined to a wheelchair by a debilitating bone disease, and dependent on others for his most basic needs, retired historian Lyman Ward looks back to the lives of his grandparents in an attempt to make sense of the profound changes he is experiencing in his marriage and family, his own identity and the culture of the late 1960s. A century earlier, his grandmother Susan Burling, a talented writer and artist, had left an East Coast life of refinement and gentility to follow her mining-engineer husband Oliver Ward as he set out to make a name for himself in the newly-opened American West.

Through Susan’s letters, drawings and published writings, Lyman pieces together the story of his grandparents’ life and marriage. It is a tension of opposites, each with differing expectations. Susan Ward, especially, struggles to adapt herself to the dust, dirt and lack of culture of the cities and towns of the West.  Throughout her married life she defines herself through her east coast roots, debating Oliver\’s worthiness as a husband and provider, and assessing what she has given up in exchange for a life of adventure and uncertainty.

Yet, by the time Lyman knows his grandparents late in their lives, they seem to have found some point of “repose,” a place where the tensions have eased, or at least balanced themselves out. Stegner’s searching and insightful novel offers us a profound meditation on relationships, marriage, and the ways that time, place, and human interaction impose themselves and shape our characters, identities, dreams and desires.



  • Five meeting study
  • Recommended edition: Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, introduction by Jackson Benson; Penguin Classics edition (30 Mar. 2006); ISBN-13: 978-0141188003

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Posted on

January 7, 2018