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Today we held our staff reader’s advisory book discussion and the topic was United States regional or Western literature.  Because I was the book discussion leader, I decided to select a writer with a slight connection to Wisconsin (he taught at the University for awhile), Wallace Stegner. 

The book I selected was Angle of Repose, published in 1971 and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for best fiction.  When Joyce Saricks trains librarians on reader’s advisory, she talks about whether a book is densely written or not.

This one is.

To recommend this to a book club, you should be aware that it is nearly six hundred pages of densely written prose produced with a fine print.  One of my staff members proclaimed, “…and then it got smaller.”  This was because a number of the tales told in this novel are through letters which are indeed reproduced in even tinier print than the rest of the text. 

What is the payoff:  a tremendous novel that deals with many thematic issues including how the civilized traditions of the Eastern part of the United States in the 1870s were in conflict with the West as it was conquered by migrating elements;  the developing relationships between men and women especially as women became more self-aware;  the pain of the sins of the fathers on the next generation or two;  the connections between art and life;  and, the incestuous bond between big business and government.

The basic idea behind Angle of Repose is that Lyman Ward, a damaged history professor is spending his new found confined days writing a work of fiction based on the letters of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward. 

Stegner based his fictional character on writer and illustrator, Mary Hallock Foote.  Her history, embellished by Stegner, is the foundation of the novel with Lyman Ward’s personal and present day story told in occasional chapters.  The question becomes how much Stegner has distorted the real story of Foote to make up the life of Susan.  We can go one step further as the irony is that Ward is the fictional Susan’s grandson writing a possible distorted history of Susan’s life, shading his story with his own perspectives. 

So, what is the truth of this novel?

This is a master novelist at work as there are so many other nuisances to discuss.  It is a grand historical novel, full of passion and intrigue, while also a compelling love story that questions the meaning of love. 

There is a reader’s guide at  Give your group enough time to read this title and they will be well rewarded.  And, if you are ever in Boise, you can visit the public library where there is a permanent collection of prints of my Foote ( 



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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