Places: Angle of Repose

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1971

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 1860-1970

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedZodiac Cottage

Zodiac Angle of ReposeCottage. Last home of Oliver Ward, the grandfather of Lyman Ward, a retired history professor who is constructing a narrative of his grandparents’ lives from documents and personal reminiscences. Located in Grass Valley, California, the cottage takes its name from the Zodiac Mine, which Oliver superintended in his later career. The cottage and its gardens resonate with the lives of Lyman’s grandparents and also serve as the stage for his painful recuperation from the amputation of a leg. Throughout the novel, which is threaded with Lyman’s first-person narration, the self-sufficiency of his virtual but self-imposed confinement to Zodiac Cottage is used as a counterpoint to Susan and Oliver Ward’s shifting domestic circumstances half a century earlier.

*New Almaden

*New Almaden. California community built near the New Almaden Mine, located about twelve miles by stage road from San Jose. Some weeks following their marriage, Susan Ward joins her husband at the New Almaden Mine, where he is employed as chief engineer. Susan expects her new home to be merely a cottage on a bare hill amid ugly mine buildings but instead finds a handsome, though modest, new house with a veranda. At the moment of her arrival she feels sensations about space and size that are emblematic of pioneers in the American West. Wallace Stegner knew the New Almaden region intimately, as he lived for many years not far from it, in Los Altos Hills.

A brief interlude set in the nearby coastal town of Santa Cruz provides Lyman Ward with one of several opportunities in the novel to remark upon the contemporary face of the landscape. As one who writes books and monographs about the frontier, Ward is well suited to contrast the physical and social environment of the present with that of the nineteenth century.


*Leadville. Colorado mining town located high in the Rocky Mountains, about eighty miles from Denver, near the headwaters of the Arkansas River. A note of adventure, even physical peril, is introduced to the novel by a vivid passage describing Susan Ward’s two-day journey to Leadville from Denver, first by train and stage, and then by wagon over Mosquito Pass. The stark contrast between the civilized East and the near-barbaric West is moderated by an account of the Wards’ dwelling. Though the cottage is a modest cabin by a stream on the edge of town, it becomes a cozy, even gracious, home through ceaseless work and especially through Susan Ward’s capacity for hospitality and for sophisticated conversation with the notable men and women who pass through Leadville. In Stegner’s treatment of the Ward cabin, the significance for Susan of a secure home emerges as a foremost theme. If she is able to create such a home, Susan believes that even in the absence of material wealth she can resist the transience and social crudity of the frontier West, and also provide an opportunity for her children to experience a home they can love.

*Boise River Canyon

*Boise River Canyon (BOY-zee). Valley located about ten miles upstream from Boise, Idaho–a city that was a territorial capital and then a state capital during the long period during which the novel unfolds. Oliver Ward spends a decade trying to bring a regional irrigation project to completion.

The Wards’ struggle to rise from rude beginnings to gentility is embodied in two houses in which they live in the valley. Susan narrates the building of the first house in a letter to her successful Eastern friends and offers them a worthy destination for the visit she longs for but which never occurs. Oliver builds the second house–which has a lane of Lombardy poplars and a rose garden–as a surprise for Susan, while she is visiting friends in the East with the children. This house represents a last burst of optimism about the Wards’ prospects, which are soon to be extinguished simultaneously with the accidental drowning of their youngest child in one of the project’s irrigation canals.


*Michoacán (mee-choh-ah-KAHN). State in northwestern Mexico in which Oliver Ward is commissioned to evaluate a mine located several days’ journey from Morelia, the state capital. Susan accompanies him and is enraptured by the style and ambience of Mexican culture. Prevented by her transient and economically insecure existence from traveling in Europe as her well-off Eastern friends have done, she eagerly accepts Mexico as her only glimpse of the Old World civilizations that she yearns to know first-hand.


*Milton. Rural New York town on the Hudson River, about three miles below Poughkeepsie, in which Susan Burling is reared. Her upbringing in a Quaker household in Milton is contrasted, though not emphatically, with the material and social comforts of the life she later enjoys in New York City, where she encounters urban culture and society. After graduating from an excellent Manhattan art college, Susan applies her talents as a writer and illustrator equally well to city and country life. This circumstance suggests that Stegner, despite his particular devotion to western places in virtually all his writings, considers the artist, or writer, capable of a range of geographic sympathies greater than that of most of his own fictional characters.

Suggested ReadingsAbrahams, William. “The Real Thing.” Atlantic Monthly, April, 1971, 96-97. Penetrating eval-uation of Angle of Repose. Applauds Stegner for making this fictional connection with an important past.Etulain, Richard W. Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990.Lewis, Merrill, and Lorene Merrill. Wallace Stegner. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1972.Proffitt, Steve. “Wallace Stegner: An Interview.” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1992, M3. This interview, published a year before Stegner’s death, focuses on some of the writer’s most central concerns. Reveals a great deal about Stegner’s approach to the West as a literary setting.Robinson, Forrest G., and Margaret G. Robinson. Wallace Stegner. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Offers an extended analysis of Angle of Repose and interesting insights into Stegner’s creative production generally. Useful chronology and well-constructed index.Stegner, Wallace. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. New York: Random House, 1992.Streitfeld, David. “Wallace Stegner and the West Years of His Life.” The Washington Post, April 15, 1993, C1-C2. This appraisal of Stegner’s writing, published shortly after his death, makes brief but cogent statements about his major work, including Angle of Repose. Credits Stegner with considerable artistic integrity.
Categories: Places