(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The stories in this collection date from the early career of the distinguished American novelist and historian, Wallace Stegner. None was written later than the 1950’s; as Stegner notes in his brief introduction, some of these stories were later incorporated into novels, which increasingly supplanted the short form in his developing career as a writer. As he says of the short story, “It seems to me a young writer’s form, made for discoveries and nuances and epiphanies and superbly adapted for trial syntheses.”

In all of his writing, Stegner’s primary emphasis has been on nature, not only on the natural world external to humanity but also, and more important, on the interactions between that world and what is called human nature. These stories demonstrate some of the ways in which that interest evolved in his fiction.

The subjects and themes of Stegner’s stories vary widely. One group of six, written over a period of several years, focuses on a boy growing up in an isolated rural area which bears considerable resemblances to Saskatchewan, where Stegner spent much of his own youth. A different group of three connected tales deals with the hardships of cattle raising in the same general area. Others take place as far from Saskatchewan as Los Angeles in the 1950’s or Egypt sometime after World War II, and they deal with difficulties found in modern urban living. There is humor in some stories, some of which deal with happy times, but none is what could be described as comic. The characters are, for the most part, ordinary people trying to survive and make a life for themselves in an inhospitable world.

In many ways the most appealing and coherent of the stories in this collection are the half-dozen self-contained narratives dealing with the experiences of a boy named Bruce, growing up on a farm a long way from town. His life has its pleasures, but it is not a soft life. He must learn to cope with disappointment and with the harshness of an existence that has few amenities. “Goin’ to Town,” for example, details the excitement of Bruce’s waiting for an excursion to a Fourth of July celebration in the nearest community, and his bitter disappointment when the family car cannot be made to start. “Two Rivers,” a much happier story recounting a family picnic the next day, when the car carries the family into the mountains and there is harmony between the father and mother, shows that such lives are not unrelievedly grim. As in most of these tales, the wonders of the natural world play a major role, this time in the family’s enjoyment of the successful trip.

Most of the lessons Bruce learns, however, are hard. Trapping gophers to feed to a captured weasel in “Buglesong” arouses no pity in Bruce for the animals he kills, but in “The Colt,” when one of the family’s mares gives birth to a deformed colt, possibly because of neglect on Bruce’s part, the boy insists that the young animal be saved and helped to grow. He rejects every sign that the colt’s legs are permanently damaged and that it will never be normal, refusing to accept his father’s warnings that the colt should be destroyed. In a shocking ending, he is tricked into believing that the colt will be cared for while the family is at its farm for the summer, only to discover graphic evidence that the animal has been killed.

If the natural world is portrayed unsentimentally in Stegner’s fiction, so is the human world. The other hard lesson which confronts Bruce is that there are irreconcilable differences between his parents. “Butcher Bird” is a somewhat conventional story about the conflict between a wife’s desire for culture and grace as elements of civilization and her husband’s mockery of the English immigrant who tries to bring these qualities to the frontier. The ending of the story carries a brutal shock as the father, over the protests of his wife and son, carefully and deliberately shoots a songbird while mocking the Englishman’s revulsion at violence.

Other stories about the conflict between generations are grimmer but less traumatic. “Chip off the Old Block” and “The Volunteer” concern a different young boy whose father makes a tough living as a bootlegger. In the first of these the boy Davey has to guard the father’s liquor supply and look after their house while every-one else in the family is hospitalized in the 1918 influenza epidemic. At one point he uses a shotgun to chase away potential thieves. Against orders he sells some of the bootleg liquor, making a larger profit than his father would have. When the sick family members return home, the boy demands and eventually receives respect from his tough father. In “The Volunteer,” however, Davey’s efforts to excel in school and his adolescent fascination with a woman brought to the house by a customer conclude with unavoidable evidence of the poverty of all of their lives.

Despite the realism of their narrations, these stories about young boys carry some touch of nostalgia, some regret for a lost innocence. Stegner’s best stories about episodes in the lives of adults have little of this leavening. “The Women on the Wall,” for example, deals with an old man’s observations of a group of young women whose men are overseas in...

(The entire section is 2143 words.)