Sin in Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose”

The Wall Street Journal has a great feature called “Five Best,” where an author selects five books on a topic. Paula Fredriksen, author of Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews and Augustine and the Jews, has just written a new book called, Sin: The Early History of an Idea. Among the five books she chose on sin, she highlighted one of my favorite novels:

Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner (1971)

“Angle of repose” is a technical term, from mining; but it describes the course of two marriages in this lyrical, emotionally complex novel. The contemporary American West provides the time frame for one marriage; the settling of the West, in the later 19th century, the other. What links them is the 20th-century grandson-narrator’s attempt to piece together the story of his grandparents’ relationship. His research leads him to uncover an awful and heartbreaking moment of marital betrayal and its terrible consequences: sustained loss, aching guilt and remorseless, relentless punishment. The grandson’s own marriage is similarly afflicted. Listening to the westward train as he lies awake at night “in this not-quite-quiet darkness, while the diesel breaks its heart more and more faintly on the mountain grade,” the narrator wonders whether “I am man enough to be a bigger man than my grandfather.” The only life-sustaining response to sin, he realizes, is forgiveness.

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