Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621
All the Little Live Things consists of seven chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. Set in the Bay Area of California, the novel plays out some of the generational conflicts of the 1960’s as a group of strong characters settle in wild, hilly country near San Francisco much like Los Altos Hills, where Wallace Stegner’s family lived for many years.
Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, and his wife Ruth have built a retirement home, where they hope to live quietly, mourning the recent death of their son, who drowned in the Southern California surf, perhaps deliberately. The 1960’s, as depicted in this novel, was not a good time to seek peace and quiet in this part of California. Into the neighborhood come first Jim Peck and then Marian Catlin, characters who in different ways challenge Joe Allston’s convictions. Jim Peck squats on a corner of the Allstons’ property and establishes a sort of commune.
Marian Catlin and her husband have come to find a sheltered place for Marian and their daughter to live while John conducts research in the North Pacific. As the Allstons soon learn, Marian is pregnant and suffering from breast cancer. Meanwhile, Tom Weld, the owner of most of the undeveloped property around the Allstons’ place, is busy bulldozing the hills to build more homes.
Allston finds himself at the center of bitter quarrels with Weld and Peck about the fate of this piece of land, which he frequently compares to the Garden of Eden, and in amiable disagreement about the nature of good and evil and of life and death with Marian, who is fighting her own hopeless battle against cancer. Although he succeeds in driving Jim Peck and his followers away, he is not able to stop the relentless development of the open land around him.
The argument with Marian is inconclusive. She is an extraordinarily beautiful young woman, in love with “all the little live things.” When she first meets the Allstons, Joe is firing his shotgun into a gopher hole. She fiercely criticizes Joe’s violence against nature, insisting that gophers have the same right to live that she and Joe do. She misses seeing Joe in his most appalling, if accidental, act of violence against nature: when he spears a magnificent king snake with a pitchfork, man and snake in pursuit of the same gopher.
Marian’s devotion to the idea that life is sacred and not to be interfered with by humankind finds its most ironic expression in her battle with cancer. She is pregnant with what could be her second child and refuses medication either to halt the cancer or to control her pain. The Allstons do everything they can to help her cope, but they find themselves pulled into a series of events as painful as the death of their son.
Marian’s death provides a terrible climax to the plot of All the Little Live Things. When she goes into labor, Joe and Ruth Allston set out to drive her to the hospital, where she hopes her baby’s life can be saved even though her own cannot. On the way, they are involved in a nightmarish accident caused in part by Joe’s haste, in part by the sudden reappearance of Jim Peck and some of his followers, in part by Tom Weld’s failure to keep the bridge in good repair. The last sight Marian sees is the death of Julie LoPresti’s horse, clubbed to death by her husband to put it out of its pain after it breaks its leg on the damaged bridge. Julie is pregnant by someone in the commune; ironically, her baby will live and Marian’s will not.
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