Crossing to Safety Summary

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Last Updated on November 23, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 252

Larry and Sally Morgan meet Sid and Charity Lang for the first time in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1983, both men having joined the university faculty as first-year English instructors. Their plight as junior faculty members and their common interests draw the four together, although the Morgans have come via University of California, Berkeley, and the Langs from Harvard University. They find their friendship enriched by common experiences, both wives bearing children at about the same time. Despite a good publication record, Larry is not reappointed; though Sid remains for a time, he too is denied tenure.

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Being wealthy, Sid and Charity help their friends financially after Sally contracts polio. Sid becomes a professor at Dartmouth College, and Larry succeeds as a writer. Episodes in the plot emphasize their first year, their summer vacations at the Langs’ home in Vermont, their later trip to Europe, and Charity’s final ordeal with cancer. The relationships are drawn with tact and subtlety as characters reveal themselves through interaction. The novel explores the question of how close and supportive spouses and friends can be without violating a person’s essential being.

In addition to memorable characterization and artful narrative technique, the book offers lean, muscular prose, with concrete diction and graceful rhythm characteristic of Wallace Stegner at his best. Using vivid nature imagery, he forms natural objects into symbols and motifs that bind the narrative into a tight unity. Through precise and ample description of settings, he achieves a powerful evocation of places that are thematically significant.

Crossing to Safety

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1748

Crossing to Safety is an old-fashioned novel about a traditional subject, friendship, and what it means in the lives of four people who experience it over several decades. The novel is dedicated to Wallace Stegner’s wife and “to the friends we were both blessed with,” and one suspects that there is a strong autobiographical strain in the book.

The novel is narrated in the present of the summer of 1972 by Larry Morgan, a writer who, with his wife Sally, has returned to Battell Pond, Vermont, to pay a last visit to their friends Sid and Charity Lang. Most of the novel works as a series of flashbacks, as Larry describes the relationship that has developed between the two couples, especially in their first year in Madison, Wisconsin, when Larry and Sid were young English professors at the University of Wisconsin, and then in the following summer, when they all congregated in Vermont and spent three idyllic weeks together. Now, in 1972, Larry and Sally are in Vermont again—after intermittent summer visits and a winter together in Florence, Italy, in 1958—because Charity is dying of cancer and has asked for one last visit with friends and family.

When the Morgans first meet the Langs in Madison, in the fall of 1937, all four people are full of energy and expectation, for life is a continuing series of possibilities. The Langs are wealthy, through Sid, and they share their happiness and their plenty, in these last days of the Depression, with their new friends the Morgans. Both wives are pregnant, Sally with her first child and Charity with her third. Their pregnancies, however, hardly keep the two women from an exciting round of activities—parties and picnics—usually arranged by Charity:a charming woman, a woman we couldn’t help liking on sight. She raised the pulse and the spirits, she made Madison a different town, she brought life and anticipation and excitement into a year we had been prepared to endure stoically.

Larry is only a one-year replacement at the university, while Sid is nearing the end of a three-year contract, and, at the close of the academic year, with the births of both their children, the dream ends. Larry’s contract is not renewed, and Sid is only given a three-year extension (not tenure or promotion). In an attempt to forget their troubles, the four go sailing but capsize in the still-freezing waters of Lake Monona. The accident hints at greater disasters to follow.

Charity’s name is not lightly chosen, for the Langs are the embodiment of love and generosity. They take Sally and her baby (named Lang in their honor) back to Vermont for the summer and let Larry stay in their Madison house, where he can teach and save money. At the end of the summer, he joins his family in the Lang summer compound in Vermont for three idyllic weeks, until the real tragedy hits: On a hiking trip, Sally is struck down by polio and crippled for life.

Now, in 1972, the Morgans have survived thirty-five years of a different kind of life. In a sense, Larry has been in bondage to his wife, but Sally has made the most of her disability, and Larry now thinks that “my chains are not chains,” for “Sally’s crippling has been a rueful blessing” that “has taught me at least the alphabet of gratitude.” In fact, Larry has become a famous writer, and the couple has traveled widely in the intervening years. Sid has also been fortunate. When he was finally denied tenure at Wisconsin, he and Charity retreated to the isolation of their Vermont home, but after World War II, Larry was able through a connection of his own to get Sid a job in the English Department at Dartmouth College, where he has been teaching successfully ever since.

Life has now caught up with the Langs, and Larry and Sally have come at Charity’s last beckoning. It is not an easy scene, for Charity is never a simple or patient woman.All her life she has been demanding people’s attention to things she admires and values. She has both prompted and shushed, and pretty imperiously too. But she herself never needed or accepted prompting in her life, and she is not going to be shushed, not even by cancer. She will burn bright until she goes out; she will go on standing on tiptoe till she falls.

Charity wants to die her own way, which naturally is not everyone else’s, and Sid especially feels excluded by her last plans. The tension between Sid and Charity is not new, however, for it has been the “serpent,” as Larry Morgan calls it, in the otherwise paradisiacal relationship among the four characters since almost their first meeting.

Charity Lang is the center of the novel and the source of much of its strength and drama. A tall, beautiful, exuberant woman, she overflows with love of life and generosity for those with whom she shares her vision. Charity organizes events to throw Larry together with her Uncle Richard, an editor who soon helps to launch Larry’s own editorial career; the Langs pay for many of the Morgans’ medical expenses following Sally’s disastrous accident. Charity’s life is a series of good deeds for others, deeds that usually result in real benefit. In her marriage, however, she is too often the mother to Sid, and it damages their relationship.

Sid is himself large and handsome, a man of energy and charm, but he is not as ambitious as Charity would have him. The daughter of a renowned academic, Charity would like Sid to be more assertive in his professional career. Sid, of no small talent, would rather write poems than scholarly articles and is probably denied tenure at Wisconsin because of this limitation. Charity treats him at times like a child and, when he fails her, turns childish herself and withholds her love.

At the end, when Charity is orchestrating her own last scene, Sid is barely considered; it is as if he is given a bit role in a last tragic act. Her compulsive control will even extend beyond the grave: She has given him a list of five women she approves of his remarrying. Yet Sid has needed that “direction and reassurance” throughout his life, Larry thinks, and, in the end, Larry is the one who is providing needed friendship to the stricken Sid. One important aspect of the novel is that Charity is a complex character: a woman who is capable of untold amounts of love, who can also be a manipulative tyrant. Both are true, and readers must hold both truths simultaneously.

The larger meaning of the novel is conveyed in the title from Cicero that Larry introduces early in the novel: De amicitia, concerning friendship. This is a novel concerning friendship and the love and happiness it carries. “They’re the only family we ever had,” Sally says in Vermont in 1972. “Our lives would have been totally different and a lot harder without them.” The novel deals also—because of friendship’s setting here—with marriage, that institution of mutual addiction and dependence, and with what it does to the individual partners—Sid and Charity and Larry and Sally.

Finally, the novel speaks of survival, of “crossing” life to safety. During their early years of struggle, the four friends love to repeat to one another a line from William Faulkner: “’They kilt us but they ain’t whupped us yit.’” Crossing to Safety is thus a novel dealing with the survival of the human spirit as it prevails, as Faulkner might say, over the vagaries of life. The title is taken from a poem by Robert Frost entitled “I Could Give All to Time,” the last stanza of which serves as the epigraph to the novel:

I could give all to Time except—exceptWhat I myself have held. But why declareThe things forbidden that while the Customs sleptI have crossed to Safety with? For I am ThereAnd what I would not part with I have kept.

What are the things “forbidden” by “Customs” that the poem’s narrator has “crossed to Safety with"? The image seems to be of Charon poling the ferry across the river Styx to Hades—some customs gate in the last journey of life. Yet the characters of Stegner’s novel have crossed to safety, have survived life with love, and charity, and friendship. They need pay little duty to Time.

The classical allusion in the Frost poem is reflected elsewhere in Stegner’s novel. Charity is described as Demeter, Greek goddess of marriage, at one point; later she is compared to Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War. The drama here reads like a Greek tragedy: Characters (particularly Sally) are struck down by the Fates. Yet there is another level of allusion here, and it is more Christian. In one powerful scene in Florence, the four drive a workman with a mangled hand for help, after viewing Piero della Francesca’s painting of the resurrected Christ, and the images get tangled together. At the end, Charity’s death is likened to the death of Christ, and there are several other allusions to communion and crucifixion in the novel. The story of the Langs and the Morgans, in short, is wrapped in an allusive language that elevates it to greater drama and meaning.

In other ways, the novel is quite traditional. Crossing to Safety contains three sections, and mostly they comprise flashbacks to earlier times the Langs and Morgans spent together, in Madison, at Battell Pond, in Florence. The novel is thus built around a series of episodic scenes—their first dinner in Madison, preparations for Charity’s last birthday/"deathday” picnic—and often years pass between episodes. Stegner’s descriptive prose is lean, and he evokes the events of his novel with both detail and atmosphere. There are few pyrotechnics, but readers experience the lives here with exactitude and fullness.

Crossing to Safety is an important contribution to the opus of work by one of America’s most distinguished novelists. From The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) through Angle of Repose (1971, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), Wallace Stegner for some decades has been telling us about ourselves, about the customs and mores and meaning of American life. Crossing to Safety is a significant addition to a remarkable body of work in American literature.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52

Booklist. LXXXIV, September 1, 1987, p. 2.

Chicago Tribune. August 2, 1987, XIV, p. 3.

Commonweal. CXIV, November 6, 1987, p. 630.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, July 15, 1987, p. 1029.

Library Journal. CXII, October 1, 1987, p. 110.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 6, 1987, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, September 20, 1987, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, July 31, 1987, p. 66.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, October 4, 1987, p. 1.

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