Remembering Laughter – Wallace Stegner

Set in rural Iowa, Remembering Laughter opens at the funeral for Margaret Stuart’s husband and features a short scene between Margaret and her sister Elspeth MacLeod. The story immediately flashes back eighteen years to a summer day when Elspeth arrived in Iowa by train to join Margaret and her wealthy husband Alec. The happy couple, composed of the lively and outgoing husband and his puritanical wife, welcomes Elspeth, but Margaret soon begins to worry that her sister is taking an interest in the married and less-than-reputable farmhands and sets about trying to make sure that her sister is taken care of. Little does Margaret realize that attraction elsewhere…and then a child comes into the picture.

I have enormous blind spots in terms of American literature, much preferring to read stories set abroad. Remembering Laughter is both the first piece by Wallace Stegner I have read and my first set in Iowa. Based on a simple description it is not a book I would have picked up, but I had it more than recommended (it was literally handed) to me and I was looking for something short. I was surprised at Stegner’s light touch that made the book incredibly readable and, simultaneously, made the story all the more emotionally powerful.
According to Mary Stegner’s afterword, Remembering Laughter, Wallace’s first book, was based on a story she told him about her two aunts in Western Iowa. What struck me about the story is that even though it takes place over the course of nearly two decades there is barely a hint of the passage of time. The child grows up and the technology changes a bit, but the frigidity between the two women seems to be eternal, at least until the source of their conflict is addressed. Laughter, as the title suggests, looms large in the relationship between the two sisters, but largely because Alec is the touchstone of laughter for both of them.

I cannot say that I will eagerly seek out Stegner’s other books, but I was also pleasantly surprised to the point that I would not resist reading anything else by him.

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I have also recently finished Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House and will write up some thoughts on that book soon. I am now reading Naguib Mahfouz’ Palace of Desire because it is the only book on my to-read shelf originally written in Arabic. It is not a book to be read quickly, but I am enjoying it thus far.

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