I didn't think anybody could do historical fiction better than James Michener, but Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose is just a little more complex, with characters a little more nuanced than any of the Michener I've read. Superficially, it flips back and forth between two stories: Susan and Oliver Ward, who move out West to work in mining towns of Colorado, Mexico, Idaho and California- spanning the period 1870-1891; and their grandson Lyman Ward, a history professor researching their lives in 1970.
Stegner riddles the narrative with all sorts of juxtapositions, counterpoints, and comparisons between the ages. The elder generation is young and energetic, bold and enthusiastic, diving into the Western territory to forge an extension of the American empire in the wilderness. It is the Wild West in some ways, but a more tempered, historic Wild West, where the daily grind is not gunfights and Indians, but more mundane, bureaucratic fights, like conflicting land claims, crooked lawyers who misfile paperwork with the Bureau of Land Management, and constant pressure to convince the far-off and unseen vested Eastern interests financing their new civilization that it will be profitable.
I'm not an historian, but it all feels very realistic- maybe because it is less glamorous than the Hollywood Western. Every small victory is hard-fought. For every successful venture, there are multiple failures. Even a bountiful silver mine may not be profitable, depending on the cost of labor, or the transport of equipment into the undeveloped interior, or the vicissitudes of the commodity markets. Nobody gets scalped by Indians, or burned at the stake. Bandits never rob any stagecoaches. No fights break out over card games in a saloon, as a player piano hammers out some tune. Yet, everything about the story seems to attest that this is how the West was really won.
Still more satisfying, the historical backdrop is populated by authentic characters. The Wards are adventurers, but also filled with longing for the more civilized world they left behind, and the people they had to leave there, to build this new life. Temptations, frustrations, frailties, uncertainty, fear of failure, actual failure and the imperative to move on from it... all the stuff missing from Frontierland at Disney World; these are the best parts.
Then there's Lyman Ward... professor emeritus. Much older in 1970 than the grandparents he's reaching back across ninety years to write about. He's living in the grand beautiful New West that Susan and Oliver held out as an ideal they would likely never see for themselves, but which they dreamed about hopefully for their progeny. But of course it isn't utopia; Professor Lyman is recently retired from U.C. Berkeley; the Vietnam War is going on, and the once-quiet semi-rural town he's moved out to is filled with free-loving, dope-smoking hippies... an unwashed generation that wants to shake the Establishment to its foundations and start again from zero; heirs to the best efforts of forty thousand Susan and Oliver Wards, but with no sense of history, and no appreciation for the sacrifices that built this "land of milk and honey" which they resent so deeply.
As Susan and Oliver face bankruptcy and infant mortality, Lyman Ward conspires to resist the inevitability of his children committing him involuntarily to a retirement home. Before this happens, he is determined to discover the one glaring, unanswered question about his grandparents' lives: what caused them to abandon their property in the Idaho Territories?
It is truly one of the ten most satisfying books (fiction) I have ever read.