Lyman Ward, a retired University of California history professor and past winner of the Bancroft Prize. Lyman, in his late fifties and suffering from a degenerative bone disease that confines him to a wheelchair, has been abandoned by his adulterous wife, Ellen Hammond Ward. To pass the time, he begins researching the personal history of his grandparents, Oliver Ward and Susan Burling Ward, who spent most of their adult lives in the American West, his academic specialty. He is extremely opinionated, and his attitudes toward the social experiments of the 1960’s could not be more negative. He begins with a strong bias against his grandmother, who probably also committed adultery. Lyman is a protagonist and also the novel’s narrator; during the telling of the multigenerational saga, he encounters much evidence that exposes his need for self-serving conclusions. He finds that history challenges him to be a more sympathetic and forgiving human being than the subjects of his study: He must consider allowing his estranged wife Ellen to return.
Susan Burling Ward
Susan Burling Ward, an Easterner and a magazine illustrator with ambitions to be an artist. Born in 1848 and reared in a small New York town, she fails to attract an aristocratic New York City husband and so marries Oliver Ward, a mining engineer, and accompanies him to California, Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and other parts of the West. Her snobbishness and desire to return to the East prevent her from judging her husband by criteria other than those of New York City salons. After her dreams of wealth and gentility clash repeatedly with the realities of their married life, she considers leaving, and at the very least she flirts with Frank Sargent, one of Oliver’s assistants....
(The entire section is 731 words.)