Will’s letter to the book club:
I’m tremendously excited to know that you are about to have your first meeting — and very jealous. I wish I could be there with you, and I wish I could be reading CROSSING TO SAFETY by Wallace Stegner for the first time. I’m sure you all know that feeling of falling in love with a book, and being a little sad that you’ll never be able to read it for the first time again. And I feel that particularly keenly with this book, because Mom and I read it and fell in love with it for the first time together.
It wasn’t until six months before my mother’s death that we realized we were, in essence, in a book club; a very select club with only two members: a woman dying of pancreatic cancer and her son. But once we figured that out, we thought back to all the books we read together over the course of Mom’s illness. CROSSING TO SAFETY was both the first book, and, in many ways, the most important. We both loved it fiercely and were shocked by it. How could we both have never read this book?
I think one of the things that made it so special for us was that it spoke to the subject of friendship, the lifelong bond, in this case, between two couples: Charity and Sid, Sally and Larry. Friendship is a remarkably hard subject for novelists; marriage another tough one; the friendship between two married couples even more difficult. It’s the wisest novel on this subject that Mom and I had ever encountered.
Both Mom and I had heard many people praise Wallace Stegner, but neither of us had read a word he’d written. We hadn’t known what to expect. We were bowled over. That one of the characters is dying of cancer gave us a way of discussing Mom’s own mortality; that this character’s husband needs to figure out how to go on gave us a way to talk, obliquely, about my father, and what he would do with his life when Mom was gone. But more than anything, we just talked about the characters, and most often about Charity — a woman who was not “going to be shushed, not even by cancer.” Stegner writes, in Larry’s voice: “She will burn bright until she goes out, she will go on standing on tiptoe till she falls.” He continues, “Time has not dimmed her, sickness has only increased her wattage.” Mom was not at all like Charity — but sickness did increase her wattage.
There are storms in this novel; illnesses that strike suddenly and capriciously; tensions that arise in the friendships and marriages. But there’s a grace too — not just in Stegner’s elegant prose, but in the way the characters deal with the cards they are dealt and the way their friendship endures.
When we read the book, we weren’t a mother and a son, and Mom wasn’t a woman dying of cancer. We were two readers, exploring a new author and a new world. And so what if we were confined to a hospital treatment room while doing so? This book, and so many others, would take us out of that room.
I hope this book moves you as it did us. And I hope you fall in love with Sid and Charity, Larry and Sally, as we did. It’s not a book about death; it’s a book about survival. The most important word in the book comes at the end and the word is “Yes.”
Whenever anyone asks me what to read, I ask if they’ve read this book, and if they haven’t, I make them. Do let me know what you think! And if you love it, make others read it, too.