What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That's where the interest is. That's where the meaning will be if I find any. (p. 211)
Lyman Ward is writing a family history. More specifically, it's the story of a marriage between his grandmother (Susan Burling Ward) and grandfather (Oliver Ward) who lived in the American West in the late 1800s. Day after day, Lyman pores over family records, news clippings, and letters, and records his thoughts on cassette tapes. Lyman lives alone, is out of touch with his family, and severely disabled due to a bone disease. He gets around in a wheelchair, and uses only a few rooms of his house. Every evening a neighbor woman stops in to check on Lyman and give him his bath, and they have a nightcap together. The story of Susan and Oliver Ward begins around 1870, when Susan was a budding artist in New York. She moves in artsy social circles, and spends nearly every minute with a very dear friend, Augusta. When Augusta decides to marry Susan sees their relationship beginning to change, and she sets her sights on Oliver, a mining engineer. While they agree to marry, the union is put off for several years while Oliver establishes his career and readies a home for himself and Susan.
When frontier historians theorize about the uprooted, the lawless, the purseless, and the socially cut-off who settled the West, they are not talking about people like my grandmother. So much that was cherished and loved, women like her had to give up; and the more they gave it up, the more they carried it helplessly with them. It was a process like ionization: what was subtracted from one pole was added to the other. (p. 277)
In moving west, Susan sacrificed all she knew and held dear. Accustomed to moving in cultured, literate circles, she initially threw herself into mining camp life with gusto. But she brought her art supplies with her, and continued to draw. Augusta's husband Thomas, now a successful magazine editor, commissioned several pieces and relied on Susan for her interesting portraits of life in the far-off west. Susan also enjoyed evenings by the fire with two of Oliver's colleagues, Frank Sargent and Ian Price. In them she found others who loved literature and stimulating conversation; it fed her soul.
I know that Grandfather was trying to do, by personal initiative and with the financial resources of a small and struggling corporation, what only the immense power of the federal government ultimately proved able to do. That does not mean he was foolish or mistaken. He was premature. His clock was set on pioneer time. He met trains that had not yet arrived, he waited on platforms that hadn't yet been built, beside tracks that might never be laid .... Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality. (p. 382)
Oliver was a successful engineer, rewarded for his hard work through promotions and special projects. He was a bit of a dreamer, envisioning possibilities and developing new materials and methods in his own time. He was usually a bit ahead of the curve, with ideas not quite ready for prime time. And while money was often tight, Oliver refused to allow Susan's earnings to be used to support the family. Oliver and Susan had a family, and moved several times for Oliver's work. Their son Ollie (Lyman's father) was often sent to stay with relatives in New York, because the mining camps were deemed unsuitable.
Through his research, Lyman carefully pieces together the story of Oliver and Susan's marriage, reconstructing the series of events which brought their relationship to the "angle of repose" (the angle at which soil settles after being dumped). Susan loved Oliver and had faith in his abilities, but was often disappointed with the actual results. She wanted so badly for her children to grow up refined and "Eastern," and became increasingly frustrated with their living conditions and the people she encountered day-to-day. Susan and Oliver's fortunes, and their hopes for the future, ebb and flow over the years. As Lyman tells Susan and Oliver's story, he tries to come to terms with his own failed marriage and the rapidly changing world around him.
I absolutely loved this book. The prose captured me instantly, and I became completely wrapped up both in Lyman's California of 1970, and the dusty Victorian mining camps. I identified strongly with Susan: her feelings of isolation, her persistence in keeping her artistic talents fresh, her devotion to her family, her longing for intellectual stimulation. And my heart went out to Lyman, with his own isolation and struggles with a failing body. These characters were so real to me; during the week it took me to read this book, I thought about them all the time. Towards the end, I wanted to prolong the relationship -- instead of rushing to finish, I read the last 50 pages very slowly, setting the book aside to make it last. This will undoubtedly make my "Top 10" list for the year. ( )