The Big Rock Candy Mountain

by Wallace Stegner

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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. Alcohol, although illegal, is considered good medicine. Bo drives to Montana on primitive roads and buys enough to fill his car. On the way back, a blizzard hits. Badly frostbitten, he soon has pneumonia as well. When Elsa and Bruce get the flu, Chet sells the liquor. Profits are good, and Bo goes into bootlegging on a steady basis.

The next year, with Prohibition in effect in the United States, Bo buys a faster car and they move to Great Falls, Montana. When a large operation pressures Bo into working for it, he moves his family to Salt Lake City. Here Chet and Bruce attend high school. A gifted athlete, Chet excels at baseball. Bruce is more academically inclined. He skips a couple of grades and graduates from high school with Chet.

At seventeen, Chet hopes to play professional baseball and is increasingly serious about a young woman, Laura Betterton, who is twenty-one. Concerned, Bo and Elsa arrange for Chet to work for a local semipro team in the hope that he will eventually play for them. One evening the police raid the house. Chet is home alone but Bo soon arrives. Both are taken to the police station, though Chet is not charged. Embarrassed, Chet gives up hopes for a baseball career and elopes with Laura. Both fathers insist on an annulment, but Chet and Laura soon run off again and move to Rapid City, South Dakota.

After completing college, Bruce goes...

(This entire section contains 815 words.)

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to law school at the University of Minnesota. Elsa is stricken with breast cancer and has a mastectomy. In 1931, Chet loses his job and moves home with Laura and their child. Chet is washed up at twenty-three, and even Laura leaves him. Shortly after, he succumbs to pneumonia.

Bo invests in a casino in Reno, Nevada, his most profitable venture ever. Afraid that it will not last, he sells his share after a few months. When Elsa’s cancer returns, they move back to Salt Lake City. Bruce leaves school to help take care of her. Bo, unable to deal with her illness, is gone much of the time. When Elsa dies, they bury her beside Chet.

Bruce returns to the University of Minnesota. Bo invests the last of his money in a mine deal that does not pay off. Old and lonely, his money gone, Bo has no more grand schemes for the future, no more places to move toward. As Bruce graduates from law school, he learns that his father shot the mistress who spurned him and then shot himself. While arranging the funeral, Bruce tries to make sense of his father’s life and death. Although he hated Bo and revered Elsa, he realizes that both parents are a part of him.