Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Big Rock Candy Mountain was Stegner’s first critical and popular success. The title derives from a popular song of the early twentieth century which describes “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” as a utopia where riches grow on bushes.
The book’s protagonist, Harry “Bo” Mason, is one of the many dreamers who came West in search of riches. He tries many different occupations but fails to strike it rich. His wife, Elsa, wants security, respectability, and peace of mind, but she is tied to Bo. They have two children. Chet, the elder, inherits his father’s temperament; Bruce inherits his mother’s temperament, and he is considered a sissy by other boys and by his father.
Bo’s best opportunity comes when the Volstead Act introduces Prohibition after World War I. He begins smuggling whiskey across the Canadian border in a car. For a time, he is making considerable money and lavishing it on his family. Then the same thing happens to him that happened repeatedly to freelance entrepreneurs during the growth of the West: A group of better-organized, better-capitalized men drives the independent operators out of business.
Stegner uses a sophisticated format. His story is told from the points of view of all four family members. In the early chapters, the viewpoints of Bo and Elsa are featured, while those of Chet and Bruce become more prominent as the boys grow older. The story covers a period from 1906 to 1942. During...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
After Elsa Norgaard’s mother dies and her father marries her best friend, Elsa, not yet nineteen, leaves her home in Minnesota to live with her uncle in Hardanger, North Dakota. In 1905, Hardanger is a little town on the edge of the frontier. There she meets Harry Mason, better known as Bo, who runs a combination bowling alley, pool hall, and blind pig (an illegal bar).
Several years older than Elsa, Bo ran away from his abusive father when he was fourteen. Restless and ambitious, he was looking for a place that was just opening up where he could make his fortune. Elsa is attracted to Bo, who can be charming. Despite misgivings about his temper, when Bo proposes, Elsa accepts. Bo and his partner buy a hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and run it for seven years. Bo and Elsa have two boys: Chester (Chet) and Bruce.
When a customer pays his bar bill with gold dust from the Klondike, Bo and his partner decide to move to Alaska. While in Seattle waiting to sail, Chet and Bruce come down with scarlet fever. The partner goes while Bo, impatient, stays. Bo and Elsa buy a café near a lumber camp. After Elsa’s arm is injured, Bo is increasingly restless at the café, which makes little money, and short with Bruce, who clings to his mother. When Bo loses his temper and mistreats Bruce, Elsa locks him out.
Elsa cannot run the café by herself. She places Chet and Bruce in an orphanage, swallows her pride, and moves back to her father’s home.
Bo goes to Canada and opens a boardinghouse for railroad workers, selling them bootleg liquor at night. Prospering but lonely, he begs Elsa to come back to him. In 1914, Elsa and the boys go with him to Whitemud, Saskatchewan. For the next five years, they live in town during the winters and on their homestead during the summers. The price of wheat is high but yields are low. In 1918, they end the summer without enough money to live on that winter.
In late October, there are rumors of a flu epidemic....
(The entire section is 815 words.)