The Big Rock Candy Mountain (novel)
The semi-autobiographical novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) by Wallace Stegner follows the life of the Mason family (Bo and Elsa with their sons Chester and Bruce) during the early 20th Century in the United States and Canada. It spans a wide variety of settings. The book is structured in ten sections.
In this section, Elsa leaves her family home after breaking with her widowed father when he becomes remarried to Elsa's best friend. She moves to North Dakota where she meets Bo Mason, who runs an illegal saloon or blind pig. Despite being disturbed by Bo's sometimes violent behavior, Elsa strikes up a romantic relationship with him. Against her father's advice, she becomes engaged to Bo.
The second section describes the Masons' failed attempts to run a hotel, as well as the early childhood of their sons Chester and Bruce. Bo's relationship with Bruce becomes increasingly abusive, especially around issues of toilet training. After an especially strong outburst of violence against Bruce, Bo abandons his family.
In this section Bo has begun to establish a relatively stable life for himself running a bunkhouse in Saskatchewan. In the meantime, Elsa moves back in with her father after her son Chester gets in trouble for engaging in sexual play with a girl in the orphanage he attends. After returning home, Elsa considers getting a divorce and marrying a former suitor, but eventually she accepts Bo's offer of reconciliation.
This short section of the book is told from the perspective of Bruce and addresses an idyllic summer spent at the family's homestead. This section will later be important as a memory as the adult Bruce reflects back on his life. Also, in this section Bruce the child begins to regain memories of the abuses he suffered in infancy.
This section is set against the historical backdrop of the 1918 flu epidemic. Down on his luck, Bo realizes that because of the flu epidemic he stands to make a small fortune if he begins bootlegging whisky to Canada, due to the perceived medicinal benefits of alcohol. While Bo is away in the United States purchasing whisky, the flu epidemic hits his home town and eventually Chester is forced to guard the family homestead himself while all the other family members are sick.
The sixth section is set during the Prohibition Era. Bo has supported his family for several years by bootlegging, but eventually the family decides to leave the small Canadian town they live in on the Canada/Montana border after Bo is arrested for bootlegging on the same day his son, Chester, is arrested for arson.
The seventh section of the book takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah. Chester Mason is about to graduate from high school. His parents attempt to steer him away from his romance with an older girl, Laura, and into a promising career as a baseball player. However, when the Masons' house is raided by the police, Chester quits his baseball job and elopes with Laura.
During this section Bruce's study at law school is interrupted when he learns that his brother, Chester, has died. In addition, his mother's cancer is worsening, and eventually Bruce returns to his family for his mother's sake.
This section deals with the death of Elsa Mason from cancer, and the subsequent rift that develops between Bo and Bruce Mason, during which Bruce considers murdering his father.
This final section is told first from the perspective of Bo Mason, who is now an aging widower in Salt Lake City, oppressed by frequent feelings of self-hatred. Eventually Bo kills himself after murdering a former lover. The end of the section deals with Bruce's attempts to look back on the tumultuous history of his family and trying to come to terms with his role as the sole survivor.
- The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner, 1943. Published by Penguin Books, 1991 edition.
- "The Big Rock Candy Mountain Study Guide" at BookRags.com