The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner’s fifth novel, was his first commercial success. All of Stegner’s fiction starts from his own experience, but The Big Rock Candy Mountain is the most autobiographical. Bo Mason is modeled after Stegner’s father, Elsa after his mother, Chet after his older brother, and Bruce after himself. Stegner, who did not finish the book until after his father’s death, says that writing about the father-son relationship was a way to exorcise his father.
Often categorized as regional literature, The Big Rock Candy Mountain is set in the West, in places in which Stegner had lived and which he knew intimately. His is an accurate, detailed picture of the language, the customs, and the psychology of the people who lived there. A major theme of the book is the attraction of the mythic West, the place where a person can start over and build a new, more prosperous life. The Big Rock Candy Mountain, described in an old song, is a symbol of such a place, and Bo’s whole life is devoted to finding it.
The novel depicts a period of time between the old days, when the West was still a frontier, and the modern period, which had not yet begun. Bo comes from a long line of pioneers who had been moving farther west with each generation. Like his ancestors, he is born with an “itch in his bones” to find a place where he can realize the great American dream of success and independence, but he is born too late and the best opportunities have been taken. Many who migrated west did so to homestead farmland, and Bo does homestead in Canada, but the only land left is marginal and produces a good crop only occasionally. The only real opportunities Bo finds are outside the law.
Elsa’s father also feels the lure of the frontier. He leaves Norway because he hopes to do better in America, but he wanders only as far as Minnesota and settles down. Elsa rejects her father and his way of life because his marrying her best friend is intolerable. Perhaps she finds Bo attractive because he is different from her own father, and when her father objects to the match, she plunges ahead with the marriage. Although she rejects her father, what Elsa wants most is a home and a family and roots. The desires of the restless man and the nesting woman will always be in conflict.
As a result of their vagabond existence, the Mason family is...
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