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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

A Mysterious Wallace Stegner Occurrence

In summer 2011 at the Iowa City bookstore on the ‘remaindered’ table, I found Philip L. Fradkin’s Wallace Stegner and the American West. I had an authorized Stegner bio, but I decided to buy this one for Wayne Johnson, who had been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. In the 2010 Iowa summer writing festival, I had taken Wayne’s Novel Solutions. After that class and a two-semester phone & mail course with Wayne, I wrote the first draft of a novel.

Now in 2011, as had occurred the summer before, students met their instructors at a welcome dinner and then had a short meeting. The following afternoon classes began. My course was with a writer named Sands Hall. That first afternoon she held up a new novel and said she had read it over the weekend. Then she exuded praise for the 2011 State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.  I’d read about this novel and knew that Patchett received a food magazine assignment and spent two weeks in Brazil. This gave her the authority to base a novel there. Oh, spare me, I thought, being someone who detests Bel Canto.

Why?  Because I lived in Lima, Peru, and knew a Peruvian artist who was held in the Japanese Ambassador’s residence when the terrorist group, MRTA, took it over. Besides this, a photo-journalist I had met and worked with, documented Peru’s terrorist organizations for decades. That Ann Patchett romanticized a violent and real event in Bel Canto appalled my friends.


That first day in class, Sands had no sooner finished her exuberant praise of Patchett when she asked who would ever want to spend time with Wallace Stegner’s dreadful & depressing All the Little Live Things. Besides Fradkin’s hardcover bio on Stegner, I had bought a paperback in the Iowa City bookstore: All the Little Live Things! The novel was in my Land’s End canvas briefcase beside my desk in the classroom. Even more coincidental than what occurred in class was what happened in my hotel room. I began flipping through the Fradkin biography. In the chapter, Angle of Unrest, I saw the name Sands Hall at the bottom of page 266. On the page across from her name was a short scene from Fair Use, a play in which Hall argues with her father, writer Oakley Hall. He is cast as Historian and his daughter as Playwright, and they disagree vehemently about Stegner’s Pulitzer winning novel, Angle of Repose. After this serendipitous moment, I realized why Ms. Hall had fished Stegner from a literary pond and shown antipathy toward him after her exuberance for Patchett. 

Wayne Johnson

I also knew it was going to be a long week and it was.  That is except for seeing Wayne, giving him the Fradkin bio, and finding one more copy on the Iowa City bookstore’s remaindered table for myself. 

Next week:  The Angle of Repose Controversy


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