Crossing to Safety is an old-fashioned novel about a traditional subject, friendship, and what it means in the lives of four people who experience it over several decades. The novel is dedicated to Wallace Stegner’s wife and “to the friends we were both blessed with,” and one suspects that there is a strong autobiographical strain in the book.
The novel is narrated in the present of the summer of 1972 by Larry Morgan, a writer who, with his wife Sally, has returned to Battell Pond, Vermont, to pay a last visit to their friends Sid and Charity Lang. Most of the novel works as a series of flashbacks, as Larry describes the relationship that has developed between the two couples, especially in their first year in Madison, Wisconsin, when Larry and Sid were young English professors at the University of Wisconsin, and then in the following summer, when they all congregated in Vermont and spent three idyllic weeks together. Now, in 1972, Larry and Sally are in Vermont again—after intermittent summer visits and a winter together in Florence, Italy, in 1958—because Charity is dying of cancer and has asked for one last visit with friends and family.
When the Morgans first meet the Langs in Madison, in the fall of 1937, all four people are full of energy and expectation, for life is a continuing series of possibilities. The Langs are wealthy, through Sid, and they share their happiness and their plenty, in these last days of the Depression, with their new friends the Morgans. Both wives are pregnant, Sally with her first child and Charity with her third. Their pregnancies, however, hardly keep the two women from an exciting round of activities—parties and picnics—usually arranged by Charity:a charming woman, a woman we couldn’t help liking on sight. She raised the pulse and the spirits, she made Madison a different town, she brought life and anticipation and excitement into a year we had been prepared to endure stoically.
Larry is only a one-year replacement at the university, while Sid is nearing the end of a three-year contract, and, at the close of the academic year, with the births of both their children, the dream ends. Larry’s contract is not renewed, and Sid is only given a three-year extension (not tenure or promotion). In an attempt to forget their troubles, the four go sailing but capsize in the still-freezing waters of Lake Monona. The accident hints at greater disasters to follow.
Charity’s name is not lightly chosen, for the Langs are the embodiment of love and generosity. They take Sally and her baby (named Lang in their honor) back to Vermont for the summer and let Larry stay in their Madison house, where he can teach and save money. At the end of the summer, he joins his family in the Lang summer compound in Vermont for three idyllic weeks, until the real tragedy hits: On a hiking trip, Sally is struck down by polio and crippled for life.
Now, in 1972, the Morgans have survived thirty-five years of a different kind of life. In a sense, Larry has been in bondage to his wife, but Sally has made the most of her disability, and Larry now thinks that “my chains are not chains,” for “Sally’s crippling has been a rueful blessing” that “has taught me at least the alphabet of gratitude.” In fact, Larry has become a famous writer, and the couple has traveled widely in the intervening years. Sid has also been fortunate. When he was finally denied tenure at Wisconsin, he and Charity retreated to the isolation of their Vermont home, but after World War II, Larry was able through a connection of his own to get Sid a job in the English Department at Dartmouth College, where he has been teaching successfully ever since.
Life has now caught up with the Langs, and Larry and Sally have come at Charity’s last beckoning. It is not an easy scene, for Charity is never a simple or patient woman.All her life she has been demanding people’s attention to things she admires and values. She has both prompted and shushed, and pretty imperiously too. But she herself never needed or accepted prompting in her life, and she is not going to be shushed, not even by cancer. She will burn bright until she goes out; she will go on standing on tiptoe till she falls.
Charity wants to...