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May 11, 2011

Mini Review: All the Little Living Things by Wallace Stegner

I was so conscious of the fiction’s construction in Wallace Stegner’s All the Little Live Things, but only because I was so amazed that Stegner had constructed something so realized. How had he done it? And it’s not often a reader can ask these kinds of questions and not be pulled out of the story, but the spell was never broken here. Stegner pulls of other impossibilities: a story about the land and environment as a symbol, but the literal facts of the land (and those who inhabit it) are never minimized for this; a sad, sad story so invested with hope, and love; a masculine book full of senses and emotion; a book firmly set in its time but which does not feel remotely dated fifty years later.

All the Little Live Things is the story of the Allstons, a couple who, after the death of their son, escapes the world by building their own little Eden, a paradise in the California wilderness, though the world creeps in– poison oak, gophers, snakes and rotten neighbours. A young man begins camping out on their property, embodying the spirit of 1960s’ youth rebellion (and having a passing resemblance to the couple’s late son). The Allstons befriend a neighbouring woman who they discover is both pregnant and dying of cancer, the competing forces within her body a microcosm for forces at play in the community, and society at large.

It’s a heavy book, but a brilliant, absorbing read, with wonderful moments of humour and insight. Wonderfully plot-driven as well– Stegner certainly does a fantastic ominous. He’s was a masterful writer who doesn’t receive a lot of credit these days, and I’m so grateful to have discovered him.

7 thoughts on “Mini Review: All the Little Living Things by Wallace Stegner”

  1. m says:

    I stayed at the Wallace Stegner House last summer, not knowing anything about him. They had a couple of documentaries in house on him that I watched and they were really good. Fascinating man, fascinating life. Both docs implied that because he was of the West and wrote of the West, he was ignored. Made me want to read him. To date, I’ve only read Wolf Willow, partly because I wanted to find references to the house I was staying in.

    I really should read his fiction. It’s always described glowingly. Thanks for the reminder. Are you going to pick up more of his work?

    1. Kerry says:

      I definitely will. Am interested in Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer in 1972.

      1. Kerry says:

        Also, for me the idea of “Western Writing” was cemented when I read Joan Didion’s Where I Was From and Sharon Butala’s Lilac Moon at the same time. Which means that for me, there is something fundamentally *feminine* about Western writing. And however he is masculine, Stegner fit into that (and perhaps it means that such distinctions are not entirely what I mean…).

  2. m says:

    I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on “Western Writing”. In the docs, they talked about how he was largely ignored until the Pulitzer because he wrote about the West, but that he was really the first to write about the West in a way that wasn’t romantic. He hated the romanticized version of the West that was found in movies and Zane Grey novels, because they were so different from what he saw as the reality.

    When you decide to read Angle of Repose, will you let me know? I wouldn’t mind a read-along buddy.

  3. Julia says:

    Kerry, you’ll LOVE Angle of Repose — I couldn’t put it down! Crossing to Safety and Spectator Bird (the prequel to All the little live things) are also amazing reads.

  4. Kristin says:

    Stegner is one of my all time favorites! Absolutely wonderful. You should definitely read Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose, but my favorite is The Big Rock Candy Mountain. I read it one summer after college when I was a nanny. Every day when the kid took a nap I laid on their couch on the sunporch and read from it for an hour. It’s a huge, dense book, so it took me most of the summer. I also really like his short stories. Two of them in particular have stuck with me in great detail despite only having read them once many years ago. I’m so glad that you discovered him!

  5. theresa says:

    I agree — Angle of Repose is stunning. And the Spectator Bird has something of the magic of All the Little Living Things. Stegner had a remarkable sense of place — the California of the latter two novels as well as the mountains of Angle of Repose. Books to lose yourself in.

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