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Recapitulation: A Novel by Wallace Stegner

Recapitulation: A Novel (original 1979; edition 2018)

by Wallace Stegner (Author)

Series: Bruce Mason (2)

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290979,255 (3.97)25
Bruce Mason, first seen as a youth embittered by the events of The Big Rock Candy Mountain, returns to Salt Lake City forty-five years later for the funeral of an aunt. As Bruce makes the perfunctory arrangements for the funeral, we enter with him on an intensely private and painful inner pilgrimage populated by the ghosts of his past. Recollections of them become a source of revelation for Bruce Mason. He makes peace with his dead father and finally comes around to what he is: a respected professional diplomat and a man with a past worth inheriting. Recapitulation is a moving novel about self-knowledge dearly bought and ultimate survival by one of America's most distinguished novelists.… (more)
Title:Recapitulation: A Novel
Authors:Wallace Stegner (Author)
Info:Vintage (2018), Edition: Reprint, 288 pages
Collections:Recent Reads

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Recapitulation by Wallace Stegner (1979)


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“What is an event? What constitutes an experience? Are we what we do, or do we do what we are?”

In this book, Wallace Stegner returns to one of his characters from The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Bruce is the sole survivor of the Mason family. It is 1977, and he is now a retired diplomat. He has returned to Salt Lake City, where he spent his teenage years, to arrange his aunt’s funeral. He looks back on his adolescence, coming to terms with his regrets and painful past. We meet his abusive father, loving mother, supportive friend, and ex-girlfriend he intended to marry.

“This territory contained and limited a history, personal and social, in which he had once made himself at home. This was his place—first his problem, then his oyster, and now the museum or diorama where early versions of him were preserved.”

It takes place over the course of two days, but the narrative floats back and forth between the present and the past (1920s to 1930s). The writing is exquisite. It is character-driven, quiet, and contemplative. It contains poignant scenes that are easy to bring to envision.

“He feels how the whole disorderly unchronological past hovers just beyond the curtain of the present, attaching itself to any scent, sound, touch, or random word that will let it get back in. As a stronger gust rattles through the tops of the cottonwoods below him, he stops dead still to listen. Memory is instantly tangible, a thrill of adrenalin in the blood, a prickle of gooseflesh on the arms.”

It is about memory. It is about the lucky breaks, choices, and decisions (or postponements) that determine a person’s path through life. While one can enjoy this book for the pure poetry of the writing, I think it is best to read it after The Big Rock Candy Mountain (one of my favorite books and highly recommended).

“He was beginning to discover that the memory had no calendar. Inside there, all was simultaneous. A sense of time had to be forcibly imposed on it.”
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Although there are a couple of other books I've read this year that may be technically better, damned if this isn't my favorite. Like a Tchaicovsky movement from The Nutcracker, I have read and reread this sucker so many times that it has become a part of me, incorporated in an organic way in my very thought processes. Passages will enter my mind, like verses of scripture. Few books ... no other books, perhaps ... have so influenced my view of the world.

People talk of scripture, how they can turn to any random page, and find comfort therein. This somewhat strange and obscure book is like that for me.

The following are various Stegner quotes I've collected. Enjoy.

Reading Salt Lake City with Wallace Stegner

At Home in the Fields of the Lord

A Gentile in New Jerusalem: certainly I was. Salt Lake City is a divided concept, a complex
idea. To the devout it is more than a place, it is a way of life, a corner of the materially
realizable heaven; its soil is held together by the roots of the family and the cornerstones of the

Salt Lake City is an easy town to know. You can see it all. Lying in a great bowl valley, it can be
surmounted and comprehended and possessed wholly as few cities can. … The streets
are marked by a system so logical that you can instantly tell not merely where you are but
exactly how far you are from anywhere else … Looking into the blank walls of cities … breeds
things in people that eventually have to be lanced.

In Salt Lake I wrote my first short story and my first novel. In Salt Lake I fell in love for the first
time and was rudely jilted for the first time and recovered for the first time.
Because I believe in the influence of places on personalities, I think it somehow important that
certain songs we sang as high school or college students in the twenties still mean particular
and personal things. “I’m Looking over a Four Leaf Clover” is all tied up with the late-dusk smell
of October on Second South and Twelfth East. … “Exactly Like You” means the carpet, the
mezzanine, the very look and texture and smell, of the Temple Square Hotel.


Progress had been at work on it. Old buildings had been replaced by newer, taller ones, and
something drastic had happened to Main Street. Its sidewalks had been widened well out
into the former traffic lanes, and the streets narrowed to half its width. … The effect was like the
Soviet exhibit at a World’s Fair, something created by Heroic Workers. Merely human activites
would be diminished on such a street.

It Is the Love of Books I Owe Them

I am coming along Thirteenth East on my way to an eight o’clock class. It is a marvelous
morning – it is always a marvelous morning, whether the air is hazy with autumn and the
oakbrush on the Wasatch has gone bronze and gold, or whether the chestnut trees along the
street are coned with blossoms … I am enveloped in a universal friendliness. I turn at the
drugstore on Second South and start uphill toward the Park Building at the head of the U drive. ( )
  charlyk | Nov 15, 2019 |
I don't expect Wallace Stegner novels to be plot heavy, but I thought this one suffered a little from its lack of direction. I didn't dislike it—parts of it were quite profound—but this is probably as close as a "meh" as Stegner gets for me. ( )
  AngelClaw | Jun 18, 2018 |
Mr. Stegner captures moments and places with such a deft hand - all the remembrances of Bruce Mason come alive in the pages of this novel. It is easy to get lost in the almost stream of consciousness that is the flashbacks of Bruce's past. Like the previous novel of Bruce's life, there is an uneasy depiction of Harry, his father. Though there is so much that Bruce despises and hates, there is yet a sliver of humanity and goodness that Bruce can't deny, try though he might. There is no real resolution in this book - no miraculous redemption or growth - and that is the tragedy of the story. Bruce might have made something of his life, but it has only ever been in response to what he didn't want, not a pursuit of what he did. ( )
  tjsjohanna | Jun 25, 2017 |
Only an elite novelist could succeed in what Wallace Stegner accomplishes with “Recapitulation.” A sequel to “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” this novel is more contemplative than it is event-based and episodic. The reader spends perhaps as much time dwelling in the mind of the protagonist Bruce Mason as he does witnessing the experiences of the teenage boy that Mason remembers himself being during his formative years. “Recapitulation” is about recollection of the past and coming to terms with repressed anger, humiliation, guilt, and loss. It is about closing the door to those destructive emotions caused by undesirable living circumstances and hostile parenting.

Bruce Mason returns to Salt Lake City forty-five years after the death of his father, Harry Mason, in 1932. It was in this important Mormon city that Bruce lived most of his teenage life. We learn that during his productive adult years he had worked for the State Department as a diplomat in the Middle East. He had once been an ambassador. The pretext for his return is to make arrangements for and attend the burial of his aunt -- Harry Mason’s aged, senile sister. He has no emotional attachment to her; he has hardly known her. He knows that his presence isn’t necessary. He could easily dictate the arrangements from afar. He has come back for other reasons not characteristic of his nature and not entirely understood.

His State Department colleagues viewed Mason as a man “indifferent to where he had been, interested only in where he was going.” He was famous for carrying with him a little black book “in which he jotted down appointments, reminders, obligations, shopping lists, which, as soon as each item was taken care of, he inked out so blackly that they could not be read.” Not until close to the end of the novel does the reader recognize that Mason has returned to Salt Lake City to ink out the hurtful recollections of his youth and the emotions that they had generated.

Walking the streets of the city, recognizing familiar sights, Mason imagines himself walking double. “Inside him … went a thin brown youth, volatile, impulsive, never at rest, not so much a person as a possibility, … subject to enthusiasm and elation and exuberance and occasional great black moods, stubborn, capable of scheming but often astonished by consequences, a boy vulnerable to wonder, awe, worship, devotion, hatred, guilt, vanity, shame, ambition, dreams, treachery; a boy avid for acceptance and distinction …” He would see himself later in the novel as having been “the quintessentially decultured American, born artless and without history into a world of opportunity” needing to “acquire in a single lifetime the intellectual sophistication and the cultural confidence that luckier ones absorb through their pores from earliest childhood, and unluckier ones never even miss.”

The root cause of his deprived childhood was his father. “The Big Rocky Candy Mountain” chronicles Harry Mason’s incessant quest to achieve self-gratification, within and outside the law. Ever restless, he has moved his family from various locations in the United States and Canada to pursue brighter opportunities when a normal family man would have settled for what he had modestly achieved. Harry is a hard man certain in his judgment, critical if not contemptuous of conflicting viewpoints. The family had come to Salt Lake City hoping to leave behind “the many failures, the self-deceptions, the schemes that never paid off, the jobs that never worked out, the hopeful starts that had always ended in excuses or flight.” Initially, Harry runs a speak-easy in his home. The family is forced to live isolated lives. “It was as if they lived not merely at the edge of the park but outside the boundaries of all human warmth, all love and companionship and neighborliness, all light and noise and activity, all law.” Later, Harry becomes a bootlegger. This requires that he take long trips to acquire his merchandise as well as trips within the city area to make deliveries to customers. The family continues to live outside the law and the community.

Bruce’s mother is Bruce’s lifeline during his early teenage years in Salt Lake City. “She had been brought up in a stiff Lutheran family, and without being at all religious, she had a yearning belief in honesty, law, fairness, respectability, and the need for self-respect. … She was a humble, decent woman … All it ever took to remind Bruce of how abused he was, was to catch sight of her face when she didn’t know anyone was looking.”

At school Bruce is a scrawny outcast. He seeks approval from his teachers by being excessively diligent. Fearful of the effects that his peers’ disapproval of him are having on Bruce, his mother forces him to join a tennis club, hoping that he might find some path toward social acceptance. Bruce is fortunate to meet at the club Joe Mulder, the star player of the high school tennis team. Joe takes Bruce under his wing, teaches him the game, and introduces him to his family. “Joe rescued his summer and perhaps his life. He taught Bruce not only tennis but confidence, and not only confidence but friendship.” Thereafter, Bruce spends most of his out-of-school time at the Mulder house. Joe’s father hires him to work at his nursery. Bruce discovers that his father is jealous. “Harry Mason resented the fact that his guarded laughterless, irritable house should be abandoned in favor on one rotten with respectability.”

Because of Joe Mulder, Bruce ventures into the hazardous realm of establishing relationships with girls. His great love becomes Nola Gordon, from whom he learns bittersweet lessons of life. She helps him feel, reflect, and grow. It is recollections of Nola and long-standing emotions about her that the adult Bruce additionally wishes to reconcile.

A master of subjective narration, Wallace Stegner is also a superb scene writer. He narrates characters’ tensions extremely well. One such scene has Bruce bringing Nola home to meet his mother, who is recovering from breast cancer surgery. Bruce and Nola had been at a high school prom party. Bruce had been feeling guilty that he had left his mother alone, his father having driven to California to restock his quantity of illicit liquor. The meeting between Nola and Bruce’s mother goes well, everybody is happy, but then they hear the sound of a car entering the garage. Harry Mason has returned.

Hoping to put his father on his best behavior, Bruce intercepts Harry outside the house. He tells him that they have a guest, his date. Harry criticizes Bruce for having left his mother alone. He enters the room pretending he does not know that Nola is present. “Bruce watches him go in and bend over and kiss the woman in the bed – and that is surely showing off … Except when he is showing off or clowning, he makes no such standard gesture of affection.” Bruce’s mother introduces him to Nola. “Bruce knows exactly how she is looking at his father, her eyes curious and interested … At once he feels compared and judged. Beside his father’s size and weight and shirt-sleeve dishevelment he feels like the overdressed figure on a wedding cake. … The old helpless feeling of inferiority oppresses him.” Harry gives a lengthy account of how his car had rolled over on a storm-damaged road. It evokes amazement and sympathy. Bruce announces that he and Nola need to go back to the party. “I have to be there to help close it up. I’m on the committee.” Harry answers with “an incredulous laugh. ‘If you’re on the committee.’” Nola interprets the response as kidding. Outside the house Bruce and Nola talk.

“… You and your father don’t get along.”

“Was it that obvious?”

“You won’t let him joke you.”

“His jokes aren’t jokes.”

Wallace Stegner reflects upon the subtleties of human existence. His insights resonate. Do we not look back upon our lives to reexamine the satisfactions and mistakes of our past? It is part of human nature to sum up, hopefully to cherish, not ink out, what we have experienced. ( )
1 vote HaroldTitus | Feb 28, 2014 |
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Bruce Mason, first seen as a youth embittered by the events of The Big Rock Candy Mountain, returns to Salt Lake City forty-five years later for the funeral of an aunt. As Bruce makes the perfunctory arrangements for the funeral, we enter with him on an intensely private and painful inner pilgrimage populated by the ghosts of his past. Recollections of them become a source of revelation for Bruce Mason. He makes peace with his dead father and finally comes around to what he is: a respected professional diplomat and a man with a past worth inheriting. Recapitulation is a moving novel about self-knowledge dearly bought and ultimate survival by one of America's most distinguished novelists.

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