Long afterward, Bruce looked back on the life of his family with half-amused wonder at its rootlessness. The people who lived a lifetime in one place, cutting down the overgrown lilac hedge and substituting barberry, changing the shape of the lily pool from square to round, digging out old bulbs and putting in new, watching their trees grow from saplings to giants that shaded the house, by contrast seemed to walk a dubious line between contentment and boredom. What they had must be comfortable, pleasant, worn smooth by long use; they did not feel the edge of change. (p. 374)
The Big Rock Candy Mountain tells the story of the Mason family, who lived in the western United States in the first half of the 20th century. It opens with Elsa leaving her home in Minnesota after her widowed father marries her best friend. Elsa meets and marries Harry “Bo” Mason, a restless idealist with a continuous stream of ideas for making big money. Whenever Bo lost interest in his current business venture, they pulled up stakes and moved on to the next opportunity, the “Big Rock Candy Mountain where life was effortless and rich and unrestricted and full of adventure and action, where something could be had for nothing.” As you might imagine, things never panned out as expected, and their life was a hard one filled with dashed hopes and unrealized expectations. Bo and Elsa had two sons, Chet and Bruce, who experienced not only Bo’s whims, but also his strict parenting style and volatile temper. By the end of the story, the boys have grown up and the family is deeply scarred.
It sounds like a real downer, doesn’t it? Well, yes, it is. For several days nagging, low-grade feelings of anger and sadness infiltrated my heart and mind. I was angry at the way Bo jerked them around, and the ways he emotionally manipulated his wife and children. But Stegner was a very skilful storyteller. Each time Bo lit on a new scheme, I hoped it would work out for them. I celebrated small victories, and mourned losses. When the influenza epidemic hit their rural town, I felt both desperation and hope. As Bruce comes of age he plays a larger part in the story, and I was right there with him as he tried to make sense of the man he has become:
“I suppose,” he wrote, “that the understanding of any person is an exercise in genealogy. A man is not a static organism to be taken apart and analyzed and classified. A man is movement, motion, a continuum. There is no beginning to him. he runs through his ancestors, and the only beginning is the primal beginning of the single cell in the slime. The proper study of mankind is man, but man is an endless curve on the eternal graph paper, and who can see the whole curve?” (p. 436)
In the novel’s last pages, the adult Bruce reflects on life with his father, how the experience shaped him and what it means for his future. It was a very moving scene that I won’t soon forget.
Readers should be ready to feel uncomfortable, sad, and angry. But it’s worth it for the reading experience.