Despite proclaiming myself an avid reader, there are still many authors out there who are well-known and read by tons of people that I have not heard of, or if I have heard of them, I’ve never read anything by them. It is especially embarrassing when such authors happen to be one of the best writers whose works found their place on the list of classics. Such was the case with Wallace Stegner. I had heard of him before my book club chose The Big Rock Candy Mountain as a September read, but until then I wasn’t even aware of what precisely he wrote or when. Now, I can officially state that The Big Rock Candy Mountain will not be my last book by Wallace Stegner.
In early 20th century America, eighteen-year-old Elsa runs away from her family after her mother dies and her father marries another woman, who happens to be Elsa’s best friend. Elsa comes to stay with her uncle and there she meets and falls in love with wild Bo Mason. Thinking that this is where her happiness begins, she has no idea what really lies ahead of her. Bo is a man always in search for a fortune, on the lookout for the get-rich-quick schemes. Whether it’s their bad luck or Bo’s bad decision, one thing is clear, even with two boys the Mason family cannot find their home in one place and instead lead lives of ‘rolling stones’, moving from state to state all across Northwest and West America in hopes that their poverty will one day dissipate and they will find Bo’s Big Rock Candy Mountain.
I will tell you that this book is probably one of the saddest books I have ever read. Yes, you read right, EVER. It’s not a tear-jerker that they made movies based on for Lifetime channel. But the Masons’ lives and their quest to for American Dream, Bo’s desire to make himself and his family rich are simply so real, so universal to all families out there that are poor, that are trying to make something out of nothing and that just never seem to get a break, that I just couldn’t feel detached and indifferent. Bo and Elsa are tragic characters but very richly drawn. I have come to care for Elsa as if she was my own sister in so many ways. I admired her love for Bo, her strength and determination to be with him no matter what. Again, it became personal because I kept thinking that I could never do what she was doing, I could never be so devoted to the one person who hurt her so and never really gave her what she wanted.
Stegner’s writing is also what made The Big Rock Candy Mountain so sad and really heart-breaking, His observations, his descriptions are very clear and on-point without spinning impossible tales. I identified with Elsa’s and her younger son’s search for home and stability almost too much. I guess when a book hits too close to home, it makes it so much harder to just read through it and forget it. Many times I actually considered stopping because a passage here and there would make me depressed. I am glad I didn’t. The ending passages were worth every tear and sorrow of mine.
But The Big Rock Candy Mountain wasn’t all sadness. Not that there were many happy moments but I was glad to read about the West, the prohibition and the hard lives majority of people lived. The early 1900s were tough years and it was interesting to read how people managed despite the hardships. Also the landscape of the Northwest was described wonderfully and so vividly that it made me want to go there and see for myself.
As you can see, Stegner’s book is probably not for everyone and it’s definitely not a beach-read. But if you stick with it, give it a chance, I believe you will be rewarded in the end. This is what I call literature, not just a genre fiction.