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The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner: The American West Meets the Twentieth Century

Updated on December 21, 2022
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Carolyn loves writing about children's literature, the American West, and photography. She has a BA in English Lit.

Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner book cover
Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner book cover
The Big Rock Candy Mountain Alternate Book Cover
The Big Rock Candy Mountain Alternate Book Cover

The Big Rock Candy Mountain in my opinion is Wallace Stegner's most compelling and theatrical novel, and is a stunning blend of storytelling, drama, and characterization. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is the story of Bo and Elsa Mason and their children as they seek their fortunes in the American West. Bo leads them on a seemlingly neverending quest for wealth that takes them through bleak South Dakota, rough and tumble Washington and Oregon, the unforgiving Canadian prairie, Wilderness Alaska, staid and settled Utah, and finally Nevada, a last frontier for Bo's fortune seeking.

The story details the desperate dreams of Bo Mason to "make his pile" and become a big man in the world through doubtful enterprises, including homesteading, saloon-keeping, rum-running, and even hostel-keeping in the Alaskan wilderness. The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner is a story that begins in the late 1890s but quickly progresses through the early years of the 19th century, through the flu epidemic of 1919, and beyond the Great Depression. The song to which the title refers was popularized during the Great Depression and alludes to high hopes and broken dreams of its main characters.

Stegner's main character Bo Mason is creative, smart, and driven, and finds his dreams almost realized repeatedly. He has the soul of an adventurer, but also has a family to care for. In a series of ironic and dramatic setbacks, caused both by external circumstances beyond Bo's control and Bo's selfish, even narcissistic, nature, Bo's dreams are thwarted and ultimately shattered.

Tensions and family violence come into play as Bo's ruthless dream to make his pile and get rich quick is set against his wife, Elsa's desire to build a safe secure home life for her family. From the very first pages of the novel, which detail Elsa's spirited departure from her family homestead in the rural midwest, Stegner creates a picture of a young girl who is displaced by changes that leave her feeling an outsider in her own home, and propelled into the home of her uncle in the comparable wilderness of South Dakota.

Elsa pays a high price for her youthful lack of judgment when her reality becomes more than she bargained for. The dramatic description of a prim and proper Scandanavian country girl venturing onto a train full of lewd men, and the deprivations of using a dirty bathroom and getting ill on the train makes it perfectly clear that Elsa is not really cut out for a rough and rugged frontier life. Sure she knows how to work, but the hardships that she meets throughout the novel and which eventually break her spirit make the first scenes seem trivial.

Her arrival in a small South Dakota town filled with dusty streets, hard women, and a rough and rowdy baseball crowd, she falls in love with Bo, and where Stegner alludes, through youthful indescretion, she becomes tied to Bo's fate despite the fact that their marriage is ill-favored and ill-matched. Even in the earliest scenes of the novel, Bo has a hardness to his personality that foreshadow the family violence and years of trouble and grief that follow in this compelling story.

Manifest Destiny Meets The Great Depression

This book is not an adventure novel. Like some of the meatier western novels by writers such as Cormac McCarthy, this book contains alcoholism, child abuse, and strong hatreds that call to mind Greek tragedy. If Bo Mason is the central villian in this novel, The American West is the devil on his shoulder.

This is a novel filled with complicated relationships that paint a very real picture of a troubled, dysfunctional family. Stegner's characters take on a reality born from the open-ended way that he tells the story. Stegner doesn't draw conclusions or make didactic remarks about Bo Mason. He builds a natural tension between Bo's violence, fierce drive to succeed, and sometimes impulsive selfishness. But just when you are ready to hate this character and write him off, human weaknesses emerge that bring sympathy and almost heroism to an otherwise completely unsympathetic character.

A Prohibition era raid on bootleggers in Canada. Bo Mason's rum-running activities during the 1919 flu pandemic directly leads to the death of his fellow townspeople in The Big Rock Candy Mountain.
A Prohibition era raid on bootleggers in Canada. Bo Mason's rum-running activities during the 1919 flu pandemic directly leads to the death of his fellow townspeople in The Big Rock Candy Mountain. | Source

Original Version of Big Rock Candy Mountains Song

A Genius for Writing About Human Relationships

I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that Stegner has a genius for writing about human relationships. A signficant main character in the novel is the son Bruce, who is abused as a child and then embittered by his experiences. His feelings toward his father are ugly and sometimes terribly hard to read, but in turn, completely understandable. Bruce is fiercely protective of his mother and disdainful of his father as he ages and falls prey to schemers.

Bruce's anger is hot and hateful, and despite his childhood abuse, described in painful detail in the novel, Bruce as an adult is a somewhat unlikeable character. This is a reflection of the complexity of issues drawn out in the novel, and not because I sympathize or condone child abuse. It is really interesting that Stegner didn't make Bruce more likeable or sympathetic, given the terrible things he endured as a child.

This book paints a picture of an American Western landscape at the end of the nineteenth century that is making way for civilization in some of its lawless wilderness areas. But the American West may never be completely tamed, and indeed, may be capricious and unyielding to its fortune seekers.

Even as Bo's adventuring days draw to a close, and his family eventually moves to Salt Lake City, where even in this community of conservative and respectable people, the family moves from home to home, never settling down to a "respectable life." Bo's continual desire to make a fortune overshadows his wife's desire to settle down and live a peaceful existence. Interestingly, in Salt Lake City, the Mormon Mecca, very little of Mormonism or Mormon culture comes into play, although in follow-up novel Recapitulation, Salt Lake City is a much more interesting setting. Stegner depicts a violent and tumultuous inner life for his characters. If you haven't read this fine novel and are a lover of cowboys and the American dream, you should pick up a copy. You won't be sorry.

About Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner was born in Iowa in 1903 and passed away in 1993. He was a Western author whose personal experiences informed his writing. As a child he moved around and lived in several of the places that are the settings for his novels. He lived in Salt Lake City and Canada, and after attending college became a professor at Stanford. His writings about the American West in essay, short story, novel, and nonfiction formats earned him the nickname the Dean of Western writers. In 1972 he won the Pulitzer prize for Angle of Repose, another novel that has similar themes and plot elements to Big Rock Candy Mountain. Angle of Repose is narrated by a historian who is struggling with significant disabilities, but the majority of the novel covers the historian's fictional research into his ancestors' lives working in mining. Again this novel no doubt was influenced by his time spent in Salt Lake City, where he is still highly regarded among the university crowd. Wallace Stegner's fiction has a timeless quality and yet it is brimming with historical themes that will place it among the likes of William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Harper Lee for its significant contributions to regional American Literature.

Stegner's Big Rock Candy Mountain depicts a man chasing the American dream in the American West. Instead of finding the success he seeks, his life ends in broken relationships and financial ruin.
Stegner's Big Rock Candy Mountain depicts a man chasing the American dream in the American West. Instead of finding the success he seeks, his life ends in broken relationships and financial ruin. | Source
The Big Rock Candy Mountain (Penguin Classics)
The Big Rock Candy Mountain (Penguin Classics)
The Penguin Classics paperback edition.

Recommended Books by Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner published over 25 novels, short story and essay collections, and works of nonfiction during his lifetime. The list below is a short sampling of Stegner's most well-known and popular works of fiction.

  • Recapitulation. This book about Bruce Mason after the death of his mother Elsa and his father Bo is a follow-up novel to Big Rock Candy Mountain, but not quite a sequel.
  • Angle of Repose. This book won the Pulitzer Prize and is also the story of the American West in a novel about a husband and wife who are ill matched. An upper-class, Eastern lady marries a mining engineer from a humble background.
  • Crossing to Safety. This book about the enduring friendship between two college professors and the intimate turn taken when one of their wives becomes ill is a somewhat autobiographical picture of Stegner's life as a professor at Stanford University. It is a popular book among college professors.

© 2010 Carolyn Augustine


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