Angle of repose, as defined in Stegner's Pulitzer Prize-winning work, is the angle of incline along a riverbed at which dirt and rocks will not slide. More profoundly, it serves as a permeating theme throughout this novel about an elderly amputee who is confined to a wheelchair but remains determined to pursue an independent and active existence. He is historian Lyman Ward, grandson of Susan and Oliver Ward, and through the prism of historical analysis he presents the lives of his grandparents. As he peruses his grandmother's letters to her best friend, we learn of Susan and Oliver's adventures and challenges as pioneers of America's frontier. Oliver, an engineer, dedicates himself first to mining and later to irrigation projects. Susan, an artist and writer, captures the rugged beauty of 19th century western America in her work, while struggling to maintain a marriage and a family under difficult conditions.
This novel, at its heart, is a work about personal endurance and self-discovery. As Lyman explores the hardships of his grandparents' life, he comes to learn more about his own ability to stand firm in the face of difficulty. Lyman's narrative voice is wise, objective, and admiring, at times reminiscent of Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman. Through this voice Stegner has managed to capture that elusive feel of what it means to be human and to truly live. His characters ring true in all their beauty and all their flaws. And his message is a powerful one - that life can be a sedentary existence or an active one, and that it is our decision how we react to the circumstances of our environment.