I like books with happy endings. A marriage. A rescue. A homecoming. A battle won. Ends neatly tied up, and the illusion of “happily ever after” created.
This isn’t, however, Wallace Steger’s approach in his novel Crossing to Safety. The story begins at the end: with four ageing people, one of whom is dying of cancer. Through several extended flashbacks, Stegner traces the friendship between the two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, over the course of about three decades, before bringing the reader back to death’s shadow as the book closes.
The Morgans and Langs meet as young couples, when Sid and Larry are on the cusp of their academic careers. Sid and Larry appear not to have caught each other’s attention at the university, but when Sid’s wife Charity is introduced to the Morgans at a social function, it is impossible for the couples not to become friends, just like it’s always impossible not to do exactly what Charity wants. With her dazzling smile and her italicised speech, and with the best intentions in the world, she takes possession of the Morgans, and nothing is ever the same for them again.
It’s not surprising, then, that Charity is the focal point of the story, and both its sunshine and its shadow. At her best, she’s heart-warming, irresistible even, and at her worst she is absolutely infuriating. In both cases it’s for the same reason: she truly wants what is best for everyone and she will willingly make any sacrifice in order to ensure that what is best happens. The difficulty, however, is that she is always absolutely certain that she knows what “best” is, even in the face of evidence that is overwhelmingly to the contrary.
For Larry and Sally, Charity’s kindly-meant interventions are often blessings—poor and friendless, they may never have achieved the success and stability that they eventually achieved without her. But the Langs’ awareness of how much they owe to Charity does not blind them to the fact that her penchant for control causes misery to her husband, Sid. “She has to be boss”, Larry reflects to Sally. “Maybe she tells him when to wash his hands and brush his teeth. I don’t suppose she can help it, but she’s as blunt as a spitting maul.”
Crossing to Safety is a reflective novel, tinged with sadness. “Leave a mark on the world”, Larry muses. “Instead, the world has left marks on us. We got older. Life chastened us so that now we lie waiting to die, or walk on canes, or sit on porches where once the young juices flowed strongly, and feel old and inept and confused.” Life is hard, and Crossing to Safety doesn’t pretend that it’s not. When I finished it, I couldn’t help but think how pointless and hopeless life is without God. What is success, without Him? How does one face death, without Him? But looking back, I can see that the novel shows, too, how a difficult life can still be a good life, how something hard can even be “a rueful blessing”.
If you like novels that keep you on the edge of your seat, Crossing to Safety might not be for you. If you’re a die-hard happy endings person, it might not be for you. But if you like beautifully-written, thought-provoking stories, you just might like this one.