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Angle of Repose Study Guide & Plot Summary

This Study Guide consists of approximately 59 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Angle of Repose.
This section contains 726 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Angle of Repose Summary & Study Guide Description

Angle of Repose Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Literary Precedents and a Free Quiz on Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner.

Plot Summary

Retired historian Lyman Ward writes a family history focused on his grandparents - mining engineer Oliver Ward and writer/artist Susan Burling. Lyman Ward is a one-legged semi-invalid living in his grandparents' home in Grass Valley, California as the novel opens. He is divorced, his wife having had an affair with the surgeon who removed his leg. His son Rodman Ward is a Berkeley-educated sociologist who, Lyman believes, has no conception of history. Rodman loves his father and wants to move him into a retirement home in Menlo Park where he believes his father will receive better care. Rodman also acts as an intermediary for his mother, Ellen, who is remorseful about her affair and the divorce and wants to meet with Lyman.

Lyman Ward gets through his days with difficulty, relying on his personal assistant Ada Hawkes, a childhood acquaintance, for daily baths and meal preparation. He hires Ada's daughter, a feisty young college graduate named Shelly Rasmussen, to transcribe his daily dictation from a tape cassette as he works on his book. The novel shifts from the present (1970s) to the past (1870s and 1880s) as Lyman uncovers truths about his grandparents that enlighten him about his own life.

Surrounded by his grandparents' papers, personal possessions, legal documents and letters, Lyman Ward begins to write about them as a way to better understand his own history and destiny. Through Lyman Ward, the reader learns that Oliver Ward is a steady-handed optimist from Connecticut who is spiritually a true westerner, a dreamer who always maintains his belief that he will build and create something of lasting value - whether in mining, irrigation, or land development. His artist/writer wife, Susan, is the privileged daughter of a successful New York Quaker family and studied art in New York City. She follows Oliver, whom she occasionally addresses as "thee," through a series of disappointments and dislocations as he searches for his big success.

As the family struggles, Susan earns a regular income as writer/illustrator for East Coast magazines and maintains a longstanding relationship by mail with college chum Augusta Drake - a relationship that the narrator, Lyman Ward, describes as frankly lesbian. Throughout her marriage to the taciturn engineer, Susan pours out her heart and yearnings for a better life to Augusta, who is also married and raising a family on the East Coast.

As Susan and Oliver strive to meet the challenges they face, Susan gradually grows resentful of her situation and her husband's indestructible optimism. Their first home is in New Almaden, California where Oliver is resident engineer in a mercury mine and their first child, Lyman's father, is born. Susan finds little she can relate to in the masculine talk of the miners, and longs for the civilized company she knew in New York. Oliver finds the mine owners to be dishonest and exploitative of their workers.

The family moves to Santa Cruz where Oliver manages a mining operation, devises a method for making hydraulic cement, and seeks financial backing to build a cement plant. The family then moves to a silver mine in Leadville, Colorado, and then to Boise, Idaho where Oliver works for the U.S. Geological Survey locating dam sites on the Snake River. From Idaho, they move to Vancouver Island, Canada; and finally to Grass Valley.

In her frustration with herself and her life, Susan Ward has a brief flirtation with Frank Sergeant, a friend and business partner of her husband. During an assignation that is purely platonic, Susan's daughter Agnes follows her out to an irrigation ditch near Boise where Susan meets Frank. After they part, Agnes drowns in the ditch and her father and brother, passing by on horseback, find her body and recover it from the ditch. Strongly suspecting something between his wife and Frank, Oliver is unable to forgive her. Consumed by guilt, Frank Sergeant blows his brains out.

In tracing the dynamics of his grandparents' lives and their individual and joint search for the "angle of repose," which is an engineering term describing the angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling and come to rest, narrator Lyman Ward uncovers revealing and enlightening truths about their lives that may help him in his relationship with his ex-wife and his son. He seeks to reestablish his link with the past, with the earth and with his family that he sees as severed, like his missing leg.

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This section contains 726 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Purchase our Angle of Repose Study Guide
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Angle of Repose from BookRags and Gale's For Students Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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