Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

The Big Rock Candy Mountain
© 1943 Wallace Stegner
563 pages

"The frontier is closed", declared the US census board in 1890. The boundless west has been fenced in and taken, but Bo Mason isn't satisfied to believe it. There must be opportunities for the seizing, rich and virgin soil still yet unplowed. Somewhere, there must be a place where a man of strength and wiles such as himself can get in on the ground floor and make a killing. Driven by this insatiable lust for quick prosperity, Bo roams North America for thirty years pursuing the dream and dragging his family along behind him through peril and poverty. The result is a magnificent, emotionally-demanding character drama and a glorious portrait of the wild, untamed west. Like Grapes of Wrath, it won't leave anyone with a case of the warm fuzzies -- but it's as real and visceral a human story as I've ever read.

The dominating character of Big Rock Candy Mountain is the ever-intense Bo Mason, a man who radiates with energy. His soul forged by an abusive childhood, he distrusts others and refuses to be bound by any other man's chains: strong and intelligent, he seeks to create his own bounty. His forceful personality means that he consumes the book without being its main character. This is a story told mostly by Bo's wife, Elsa, and later his son Bruce -- but despite their own strengths as characters,  Bo looms large over their lives.  At first, his wild individuality makes him a sympathetic character, but as the decades pass that youthful rootlessness and his temper become more damaging than inspiring -- and they affect not only him, but his family as well.  The novel's tension comes from Elsa and Bruce's attempts to grapple with Bo's influence in their lives: Elsa is utterly selfless and longsuffering, seeing through Bo's childishness to the man inside, while Bruce struggles with hatred toward his father, a man who can't seem to grow up and learn the value of endurance.

While the struggle between these characters makes for a fantastic read all on its own, the environment and prose are also outstanding. Stegner has a rare authenticity, and his descriptions of the American west and Canadian wilderness made me long for a home near the mountains -- to look out the window of a big ranch house and see wind-swept fields, a bright, bubbling brook, and stern green trees set against a dazzling blue sky. There's such a vividness to his descriptions. and the environment isn't so much as a piece of background scenery as almost a character itself, something the Masons live with and must often persevere over.

Big Rock Candy Mountain isn't a happy story, and the ending chapters are heart-wrenching to anyone who develops a concern for the character. It forces the reader to deal with Bo, just as Elsa and Bruce do: is he a wretch? What does he deserve, our wrath or our pity? I still don't know.  This was such an intense novel that two weeks later, its questions still hang over my head.

Do experience this if you can.

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