All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner ~ 1967. This edition: Viking Press, 1967. Hardcover. 248 pages.
My rating: 10/10
This attempted review has been simmering away at the back of my mind for months and months. Getting it posted on New Year’s Eve day takes a great weight off of my conscience, even though I am not doing the novel the credit it deserves by this brief discussion.
Since reading the book way back in March of 2013, I have wondered how best to communicate the special quality it has, and its deep appeal, which is much more fundamental than its (highly engaging) storyline. This is where I bemoan my lack of a formal education in writing literary analysis; I know what I want to say but I don’t have the vocabulary to say it, so I fall back on the easy things: I liked the book. It moved me. Beautifully written. Memorable characters. An evocative picture of a time and a place.
These are things I can say of so many books I am fortunate enough to have encountered over an expansive reading life, but which do not at all illuminate the qualities that make this (or any other) book so special, this writer (or any other) so immediately compelling.
So, a review. Where to even start? How about here, with the front flyleaf material of the first edition, to set the story up, and to give me a lead in adding a very few thoughts of my own.
Why does the older generation feel as it does about what is happening in the world today? Wallace Stegner answers the question, with sympathy and understanding, for one good human individual trying to come to terms with his world while retaining his own integrity. In a novel that probes deeply into this and other aspects of contemporary life, he shows his narrative skill, his great gifts of evocation, and his eloquent intelligence at their mature best.
Fulsome praise indeed, even allowing for a publisher’s bias! But yes, in this case, not overstated. The author is addressing one of the Big Questions of his time, the mid 1960s, which is to say, the great divide between the generations; the wide movement of youth (and relative youth) to reject categorically the ethics, morals and social standards of their elders, and to try to remake the world into a new utopia. We’re talking about hippies, here. And the California setting is the seething nerve centre of this societal battleground, full of lines drawn in the sand and unwitting trespasses and deliberate provocations. Change is in the air, and no one is immune to its effects.
Joe Allston and his wife, two Easterners in their sixties, retire to California in search of peace after the death of their wayward son. Their paradise is invaded by various parasites – not only by the gopher and the rose blight, the king snake and the hawk, but also by a neighbour with a bulldozer, bent on “development.” Jim Peck, a bearded young cultist, builds a treehouse on their property and starts a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex. Most damaging of all, it is invaded by Marian Catlin, an attractive young wife and mother, affirming all the hope and love that the Allstons believe in, who carries within herself seeds as destructive as any in the malevolent nature that surrounds them.
The relationship between the two couples, the older Allstons and the younger Catlins, is beautifully portrayed, and I felt it was one of the most admirable aspects of the novel. Stegner delicately captures the nuances of friendship, unspoken sexual attraction which does not have to be acted upon, and the balance of power between youth and age. Joe and Marian strike sparks off each other, but the relationship never turns ugly; all four spouses are involved in the relationship and each turns to his or her partner for support and comfort as needed. For the core issue of the story is this: Marian is pregnant, with a much-desired second child. (The Catlin’s first child, a young daughter, is very much loved and wanted, and is a charming girl, nicely handled by the author.) Marian also has terminal cancer, and she has rejected treatment in order that she can bring the pregnancy to term.
A difficult plot to see any happy way out of, isn’t it? I’ll tell you right now: no feel-good miracles occur.
Here’s an admirable review which eloquently puts into words my own elusive thoughts on the novel: Bookslut: All the Little Live Things. Please read.
This is my very first Wallace Stegner, and I know full well it won’t be my last.