Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner (unabridged audio book read by Mark Bramhall)

When her widowed father marries her best friend Sarah, Elsa Norgaard, disgusted, moves from her Minnesota home to her uncle Carl's house in Hardanger, North Dakota. There she meets Harry "Bo" Mason, and they begin a life that covers the early years of the 20th century.

Author Wallace Stegner's novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain focuses on the couple in a connected series of vignettes, broken by gaps in time but told chronologically from the characters' points of view. At first, these are primarily Bo and Elsa. Then, when they get older, their sons Chester and Bruce take the stage.

Bo is a rolling stone with an itch to make it big whatever the risk and wherever he can find "the big rock candy mountain": the "land of milk and honey" where "rivers run gold" and gambles pay off in spades and not just frustration. (The book's title comes from a song describing a hobo's idea of heaven.) To that end, he runs a series of blind pigs (places that secretly sold liquor during Prohibition) and other projects that take him and the family to different locations.

Bo tries to find the balance between security and predictability, and having the wanderlust and a fiery temper. This has both immediate and long-ranging consequences for him and his family that culminate in the fallout of a tragic event near the end of the book. Stegner reportedly based The Big Rock Candy Mountain on his own family, and long, detailed digressions from the main story into family history lend the book the feel of a saga.

At the end of the book, Bruce (Stegner's representation of himself) tries to understand the motives of his father and the actions he took, and The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a testament to his success at this. Fictionalizing the characters allows for separation that lets him get deep into the thoughts of these people and creates a novel of lasting impact.

Blackstone Audio has recently produced a selection of Stegner audiobooks. Mark Bramhall reads The Big Rock Candy Mountain. With just a slight change of voice, he manages to capture each character's individuality and brings gravity to the narration. All of this results in a literary experience that I found unexpectedly engrossing, as I could not seem to spend much time away from these people and wanted to get back to them as soon as possible.

Even now, having completed the book, I find myself thinking about its characters now and again as if I actually knew them. The fact that this was Stegner's second novel, published when he was 34 (with portions written even earlier as short stories), makes it all the more impressive.

Wallace Stegner has written a novel that will please fans of literary fiction and historical fiction (including longer Westerns). And I think it would be especially well recommended to those who enjoyed the Little House on the Prairie series but would like something a little more grown-up. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is all of that and more.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I love Wallace Stegner, especially Angle of Repose and this one.

Evan Lewis said...

Cool. It happens I'm in the market for another audio book (from the library, of course).

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