Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Stegner & Setting

"You stick by the things you love. Nobody can hurt you if you stick with what you know is right. They can't hurt what's inside you." ch. 3

My fiction foray for the week is The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner. I have a tendency to read series out of order (I've only read book 3 of Harry Potter and book 7 of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I started with the quasi-sequel, Recapitulation. Over on Goodreads you can see the notes for a presentation I gave on "reading" Salt Lake City with Stegner

I don't feel the story is spoiled for me, though; besides, "story," as in plot, is not what makes a Stegner novel so rich. It's setting.

Stegner led an inherently interesting, nomadic life. What really drew me into his work was his shared history: we both grew up on the east side of Salt Lake City, and both found ourselves moving to Madison for work.

I created this map to give an idea of where Stegner moved throughout his life.

View Wallace Stegner in a larger map

One technique that really helps evoke the Western setting of his books is dialect. In this and other classes, I've been subjected to a lot of Southern twang. The Salt Lake dialect is my native tongue—the default—and it feels so readable!

My hour and a half train ride goes a lot faster reading about Elsa's train ride.

To take just one passage where the setting leaps off the page:

Something in the bustle of migration stirred a pulse in Bo Mason. ... Here in Dakota, there was something else. Here everybody was his own boss, here was a wide open and unskimmed country where a man could hew his own line and not suffer for his independence. Obstacles raised by nature—cold, heat, drouth, the solid resistance of great trees, he could slog through with almost fierce joy, but obstacles raised by institutions and the habits of a civilized community left him prowling and baffled.

How can a fiction author evoke setting? Anyone else drawn to Western novelists?


  1. I completely agree with you that sometimes the setting of a piece of literature is what draws us in. I can see how this particular setting is comfortable and peaceful and especially relatable to you. Thanks!

  2. Having lived in Montana for fifteen years and Wyoming for six, I have read some great Western literature. You've inspired me to read Stegner's "Wolf Willow" just to get back that Big Sky feeling I loved and now miss. Somehow, life just seems more real there. Perhaps because survival has historically been an issue. Thanks for your great posts!

  3. @Dawn I was born in Wyoming! There's nothing like Western literature. I feel like I could learn a lot about setting (through third person omniscient description) by expanding my repertoire Any suggestions?