Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986
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 doomed to be rootless. Toward the end of the book, Bruce realizes that having lived so many places, he does not know where home is, but it is someplace west of the Missouri River. The Mason family is isolated socially because Bo’s bootlegging activities keep them outside respectable society. They have broken the ties with their own families. Bo, Elsa, Chet, and Bruce have only one another—and the relationships in this family are uneasy. Bo loves Elsa and the boys but believes his family obligations are holding him back from realizing his dream. Elsa loves Bo but believes she is a burden to him. Just as Bo and Elsa leave home at a young age, so, too, do Chet and Bruce escape from their parents’ way of life as soon as possible. The Mason family is like many other American families: The urge to move ever westward results in the social disruption of the family and the absence of community.
At the beginning of the book, Elsa’s and Bo’s points of view dominate. As Chet and Bruce grow up, their voices are heard as well, and the relationship between father and sons is another important theme. Chet is more like Bo, athletic, a man of action, independent. Embarrassed by Bo’s bootlegging activities, he runs away from home at seventeen but cannot make it on his own. A failure, he dies at twenty-three.
Bruce, who is small, unathletic, and bookish, has mixed feelings about his father. As a boy, he admires some of Bo’s talents, but he is most often the target of Bo’s temper when things go wrong. The only time he feels close to his father is in Saskatchewan when Bo kills a snake: Death is the one thing they share. As he grows older, he escapes to school and books. Eventually he chooses to study law—a direct rejection of Bo’s lifelong habit of living outside it. When Elsa is dying, Bruce cannot understand Bo’s self-centeredness, and his hatred grows more intense. After Elsa dies and he discovers that Bo has given her clothes to his mistress, he walks out. He never sees Bo alive again.
Elsa’s and Bo’s points of view dominate the first three-fourths of the book, dramatizing the conflict between the restless man and the nesting woman. Bruce’s point of view, which controls the latter one-fourth, is much more reflective and tends toward a stream-of-consciousness narration. Bruce’s sections, the ones most associated with Stegner’s own voice, are more authoritative. Much of his perspective makes Elsa seem like a saint while Bo is condemned for his shortcomings.
Only when Bruce is making arrangements for Bo’s funeral does he take a more enlightened view of his father. He acknowledges that Bo was a competent carpenter, mechanic, and storyteller, that “his qualities were the raw material for a notable man,” and that in an earlier time he might have been great. He also realizes that family was important to Bo. Bruce comes to understand that he is the product not only of Bo and Elsa but of all his other ancestors. He cannot disown any part of himself. Instead, he must find a way to synthesize the restless chaser of dreams with the socially responsible person to become a complete man.
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