Wallace Stegner was one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. You can’t really go wrong with his books, which are all a little different, but always center on characters that are hard to forget. Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety seem to be his most often mentioned titles, and both deserve the attention, but there are more gems in Stegner’s canon.
Narrator Joe Allston is the “spectator bird” of Stegner’s title. He’s a retired literary agent, unhappy both with the circumstances of his retirement and the way in which he conducted his life. He feels as though he was always watching the parade of life, for instance serving as an agent to writers instead of doing the writing himself. His circumstances don’t help, as he has retired to rural area outside of San Francisco where he sees few people but his wife, whom he loves immensely but but whose familiarity he has come to find overpowering.
When he receives a note from a Danish acquaintance in the mail, Joe retrieves his journal and begins to read about the fateful trip that he and his wife took to Denmark back in the years shortly after World War II. His wife insists that he read the journal aloud, as she didn’t know he kept it. Although it’s about an awkward time in their relationship, he complies. He has put aside most of what happened on that trip for the sake of his marriage, but now it all comes burning fresh into memory.
I don’t want to give away too much of the tale, but there’s a mad scientist theme, Hamlet allusions, dilemmas of wartime loyalties in an occupied country, and plenty of surprises in the plot, something the reader might not see coming in a book that at first seems to be a subtle character piece about the cruelties of aging. Joe might be a curmudgeon, and he might be a spectator, but his life hasn’t been uninteresting, even if he chose not to follow every opportunity. This book is about the choices we make, even if we make them by not choosing.
I also recommend this book in the audio format, where it’s read by the talented actor Edward Herrmann (perhaps best known to modern audiences as the grandfather in The Gilmore Girls) whose intelligence comes through every sentence delivered by a pleasing baritone voice.
Check the WRL catalog for The Spectator Bird
Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc