I feel spent, having finished this book. I took more time reading it than any book in recent memory - and it wasn't only its 563 pages that made it a long read. I had to read with a pen at the ready, so many ideas and images and thoughts I wanted to highlight.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a western book. A character study. A journey. But not a there-and-back-again book like Bilbo Baggins wrote. It's a go and go again kind of journey, searching ever further afield for that one thing that will make you happy, always finding that it just slipped out of your fingers.
Bo Mason is that dreamer - a schemer who will gamble on a sure thing, following whatever lead will drop him on top of that Big Rock Candy Mountain the soonest. He'll farm, work the railroad, bootleg or run a "blind pig" - whatever it takes to get money in his pocket the fastest. And to Elsa, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, Bo's zest for life and skills with a shotgun lure her into a love that will test all the strength she's got as they live their lives during the hard years of the early 20th century.
The road their life takes, the unbelievable anguish and sacrifice, the horrible choices and bum deals and the eking out of an existence, the packing up and starting over - you would think that it would be so depressing that you'd want to just chuck the book out the window. But Wallace Stegner is a literary genius because he ties up this cheerless and heartbreaking story with a writing style and way with words that is so amazing you can't help but be floored by the beauty of it. How is that possible? The turn of phrase and poignantly expressed truths stopped me time and again. And as we read the story from different points of view, we see the strengths in the characters, usually deeply hidden under their glaring weaknesses. All except Elsa, whose strengths and weaknesses are both transparent - she is one of the most intriguing and sympathetic characters I've read.
I also loved that this book took me to the Utah of long ago, an emerging place, a western wasteland of outcasts and misfits that was slowly turning into something grand and worthwhile - the side of Utah that the Mormons of my ancestry probably wished didn't exist and certainly wouldn't have appreciated. The language of some characters was really rough and there were scenes of serious ugliness. But this book made a time and place and cross-section of people so real to me. I can't even use the words "grand" or "epic" or "sweeping" because it felt too intimate for those adjectives, too painful - like reading someone's diary and finally understanding how hard their life had been. And despite the language, despite the ugliness, the scope of this book and the way it made me feel and the sense it gave me of a time now forgotten - a time when the great wandering of early Americans was coming to a close - those things make me want to give Big Rock Candy Mountain my book award: