Background: The title is an engineering term for the angle at which soil finally settles after, for example, being dumped from a mine as tailings. It seems to describe the loose wandering of the Ward family as they try to carve a civilized existence in the west and, hopefully, return to the east as successes. The story is a series of Oliver's hopeful struggles on various mining, hydrology and construction engineering jobs, and Susan's adaptation and struggle to support him.
The book is given more complexity by having Lyman Ward narrate from his wheelchair a century after the fact. It is clear we are reading Lyman's interpretation of the story, a literary device that encourages readers to be more skeptical of what they are told. Some of the disappointments of his life, including his divorce, color his interpretation of his grandparent's story. Toward the end of the novel, he gives up on his original ambition for a complete biography of his grandmother. It is as if he picked up the disappointment from his ancestors or, perhaps, is drawn to focus more closely on his own mortality and what he can accomplish himself.
The novel is directly based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, later published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West. Stegner's use of substantial passages of Foote's actual letters as correspondence from his fictional character Susan Burling Ward caused controversy when it came to light. His use of the letters, however, gives the novel's locations—Leadville, New Almaden, Idaho, and Mexico—an authentic feel one doesn't usually find in westerns; the letters also give the Ward's struggles with the environment, shady businessmen, politicians and other dangers a human feel. In Lyman's interaction with (and rantings about) 1970s culture, we get yet another historical dimension to the story (Lyman's son teaches at Berkeley, and a counter culture daughter of a neighbor helps transcribe the tapes).
The novel is thickly populated with real, although minor, historical personages, giving further realism to the narrative. A "Who's Who" of American mining engineers of the late 1800s make their appearance, including Clarence King, Samuel Emmons, Henry Janin, and Rossiter Raymond (From the publisher.)
1. What do you think of Stegner's narrative technique, i.e., his use of a contemporary historian to tell Susan Ward's story? Is Lyman Ward a reliable narrator? How would this novel be different if Lyman's own story were excluded?
2. Stegner's narrator is confined to a wheelchair and partially paralyzed. He cannot move his head to either side, and thus can only look straight ahead. How does Stegner use these limitations to shape Lyman's role as a narrator and biographer? What is Stegner saying about the past and future?
3. How much of Susan Ward's destiny was determined by the era in which she lived and the limitations that era placed on a woman's freedom? Do you think of her as a woman ahead of her time?
4. Throughout the novel, Susan is torn between her old life on the east coast and her new one on the west. To each of her western homes she strives to bring a sense of gentility and comfort, even in the most rudimentary of circumstances. Her cabin in Leadville, for instance, becomes a magnet for the town's cultural elite despite the cramped quarters. Are the efforts futile or worthwhile? Do you applaud her attempts at civilizing the West or is she merely unable to accept another way of life for what it is? Is there a fundamental difference between America's two coasts today?
5. Stegner eliminates any concrete evidence of Susan's infidelity with Frank Sargent, leaving Lyman the task of piecing together the events that led up to Agnes's death. Why are these details left deliberately obscure? Does this heighten or mitigate the effects of Agnes's death on the story? Is Lyman being fair to Susan in his depiction of these events?
6. Susan often wonders if she made the right decision in marrying Oliver. Would someone like Thomas Hudson have brought her more happiness? What do you imagine Susan's life would have been like if she had stayed in the East? How did her years in the West shape her character?
7. Why does the novel end with Susan's return to Idaho? Why is it significant that the details of her life in the house in Grass Valley are given to us through the present only?
8. Do you think Lyman identifies more with his grandmother or his grandfather? How do the various aspects of his present situation—i.e., age, physical disability, marriage, career—compare and contrast to those of his grandparents?
9. The geologic term "angle of repose," defines the angle of the slope at which debris will cease rolling downhill and settle in one place, as in a landslide. Why do you think Stegner chose this term for the title of his novel? By the end of the novel, has Lyman reached his own angle of repose? How does he change over the course of the summer in which this novel takes place?
10. Stegner's novels are known for their strong sense of place. What role does the terrain in the West play in Angle of Repose? Would you consider the land to be a "character" in the novel? Can you describe this character in human terms?
11. The story of America's western expansion has been told in myriad ways, but often with the same details: danger and hardships, brave but crude pioneers, and get-rich-quick schemes peddled by untrustworthy scam artists. How do Susan and Oliver's experiences compare and contrast with these myths of the American West? How is each a hero in his or her own right? How are they different from the stereotypical western hero?
12. Angle of Repose was written in 1971, during a period of great upheaval in America's social and political culture. How does Stegner's novel reflect the issues that were prevalent at the time of his writing? What are the parallels, if any, between Susan Ward's story and that of Shelly Hawkes? How does each woman represent her own era? Is either story as relevant today?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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