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The Big Rock Candy Mountain

The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

Reviewed by L. Bennett

Originally published in 1943 and written by Wallace Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain is the story of the fictional Mason family whose search for the mountain portrays the ups and downs of life from the early 1900s into the Great Depression of the 1930s. The big rock candy mountain is a metaphor for a secure life with adequate funds, comfortable housing, happy family, and decent neighbors.

The Masons pursue their rock candy mountain from the Midwest to the Northwest, across Montana, into Canada, Alaska, Nevada, and Utah. They trap, hunt, farm, operate hotels, a café, gambling casino, and pool halls. They live in tents, small rooms attached to various businesses, fine houses, seedy rented rooms, and out of their car. It is a story of the time, where rough and ready men are decision-makers and submissive women and children do as they are told. It is also a tale that goes beyond those social stereotypes to examine the quiet strength of a woman whose husband's attempts to support the family, both financially and socially, often fall short of his high expectations.

Harry "Bo" Mason is the child of abusive parents and fled his home at a young age. Bo found his way west and into the pool hall business. His wife, Elsa, is the child of a good-hearted mother and a cold father. When her mother died and her father married Elsa's best friend, Elsa also fled. She went to an uncle who lived in the same town as Bo, and thus Bo and Elsa meet, fall in love, and are married. Soon two sons are born and Bo begins to display a vicious temper all too reminiscent of his own upbringing. As the family peacemaker, Elsa's hard choices between her husband and her sons evolves into a nomadic existence that both uproots and grounds the family. Do they find their big rock candy mountain? In my opinion, the two did not and probably never would even if they lived to eternity. One reached the mountain through semantic slight-of-hand, and the other may have finally found the right path.

I have to admit that I didn't figure it out, in spite of numerous clues, until the very end. Just the way a good mystery should be!

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