In Wallace Stegner’s, Angel of Repose (winner, 1972), a 58-year-old amputee, Lyman Ward, suffers from fibrodysplasia ossification’s progressiva (FOP) or “Stone Man” syndrome, a disease also known as the “petrification disease,” because its victims become encased in a second, exterior skeleton over time. Already losing his mobility if not his stubborn streak, he moves into his grandparent’s old home to write a biography of his grandmother based on her letters. His grandmother, Susan, raised in Victorian, Quaker, and East Coast mores, chose for a husband one Oliver Ward; a mining engineer in the early days of the Western frontier. Though he loved her, the ways in which she saw him as coarse and her plight as deprived led to a terrible tragedy that claimed two lives. A tragedy her grandson never knew of until he began going through her letters and journals, that even then he had to piece together.
While less common in literature and entertainment, the kind of woman who uses the verbal acuity of the fairer sex to subtlety, or even directly put down her man is all too familiar in daily life. Sue’s yearning for an eloquent man, a man of letters, of taste and style, and her striving to “keep up” with the high society friends she has left behind lead to behavior, mostly verbal, that pushes her husband further and further away. It seems odd that a small series of contrivances, condescension, and judgment-the types of flaws we deem minor, and hence “forgivable,” could have such serious consequences as not one, but two fatalities. But these little sins pile up until she becomes a woman who may, or may not, have been more fully given to vice than virtue. From the impassive gaze of the future, her grandson struggles as much to reveal as to conceal his family’s truth.
Wallace Stegner writes with a historian’s eye for detail, and this story will not only keep you wondering if Sue and Ollie will ever be happy, but teach you a lot about the early days of the mining industry in California. According to Wikipedia, “the internal angle between the surface of the pile and the horizontal surface is known as the angle of repose and is related to the density, surface area and shapes of the particles, and the coefficient of friction of the material.” Lyman uses the term to describe the unhappily married life his grandparents settled into, after his grandmother broke his grandfather’s heart in the cruelest way possible. The term, for Lyman Ward, describes exactly how much one man can take. This is the kind of book you should read when you want to put your own troubles aside. Maybe when you return, compared to the rough choices and sacrifices our pioneer ancestors made, they won’t seem so difficult after all.
The Hollywood Sentinel, (c) 2012, all rights reserved.