Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
The family’s Whitemud home is a two-story, eight-room house built by Bruce’s father, Bo Mason, in an attempt to salvage his marriage to Elsa, whom he had earlier deserted in Washington State. The theme of the importance of having a lasting, secure and affectionate home is the emotional core of The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and the five years the Masons spend in Whitemud are the center of the novel’s exploration of this theme. Bo chooses the town simply as the latest target of his ambition to get rich quick. He regards it as a dirty little “dung-heeled sagebrush town,” but Elsa views it as a place to settle down and live respectably, if modestly. For Bruce and his older brother, Chet, Whitemud is the site of typical childhood adventures, but for Bruce, especially, it represents society and civilization, a warm place in which his precocious intelligence is molded both by culture and the natural world.
In the novel’s most lyrical episode, Bruce and his parents spend a day making an automobile trip from their homestead to the Bearpaw Mountains, which lie sixty miles to the south across the international boundary. Although the Bearpaws are actually only modest in height and extent, to the nine-year-old Bruce they seem like “Mountains of the Moon.” The day’s journey is a holiday not merely from the routine of homestead life but also from Bo Mason’s chronically bad temper brought on by the failure of his money-making ambitions.
*Salt Lake City. Utah city founded by Mormon pioneers in the mid-nineteenth century, to which Bo Mason takes his family after turning from various failed legitimate ventures in Saskatchewan to an illegal liquor business. When his bootlegging ambitions finally outgrow Whitemud, he uproots his family, moving first to Great Falls, Montana, and then to Salt Lake City. There he thrives on the margins of respectable life in a city widely known for its upright character. Though he accumulates money from his illegal activities and sometimes invests it sensibly, he remains incapable of sharing his wife’s yearning for a stable home and family life. His shady business and heedlessness corrode the family, with only Bruce surviving a decade of constantly moving from one dwelling to another in advance of the authorities.
Stegner later published Recapitulation (1979), a novel that continues Bruce Mason’s story. Like The Big Rock Candy Mountain, it is semi-autobiographical but embraces a greater range of Stegner’s own experiences as a teenager in Salt Lake City.
Big Rock Candy Mountains. Mythical land of plenty. Stegner’s characterization of Bo Mason is aimed at analyzing and discrediting an aspect of America’s westward migration, in which many people sought not merely opportunities but excessive wealth and advantage, at the expense of resources and other members of their communities. A gentle parody of these attitudes appeared in a song that became popular in the 1920’s titled “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,” and Stegner adapted the song’s title to his novel. The song celebrates a place where the “hand-outs grow on bushes” and a bluebird sings to a lemonade spring. Stegner’s novel shows in painful detail how a quest for an easy land of plenty can drive wedges between a man and his wife, between a father and his children, and between an individual and his community.