Great Books of the Great PlainsTM


Study Guide for Wolf Willow, by Wallace Stegner


The Author

Wallace Stegner, winner of a National Book Award (for The Spectator Bird) and a Pulitzer Prize (for Angle of Repose), is significant to Western America in three ways: as a writer, as a teacher of writers, and as a founder of the modern environmental movement. By his own account, his formative time was his childhood in Eastend, Saskatchewan, in the 1910s. Following an unsettled and unhappy youth in Montana and Utah that he blamed on his father, Stegner went on to a distinguished literary and academic career. His first novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, was a critical and popular success. Others were less well received, so that in mid-career he largely abandoned fiction and mostly wrote history. During these middle years he headed up a creative writing program at Stanford University that turned out such literary stars as Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, and Edward Abbey. Late in life Stegner returned to fiction, finding voice by inventing a persona that his biographer, Jackson Benson, calls “the fallible wise man.” As an environmentalist, Stegner is best known for his famous “Wilderness Letter” (see link below). Stegner died from complications resulting from a car crash in New Mexico in 1993.

The Book

Wolf Willow covers some of the same ground as the novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain. It treats the boyhood years of Stegner in Eastend (called Whitemud in the book). Wolf Willow is a complex work because it crosses genre, mixing essay, memoir, history, and fiction. (Here’s a warning: you may think you know when Stegner is writing history and when he is writing fiction, but don’t be so sure.) It is complex also because the author has mixed feelings about Eastend, about his family, and about the Western experience. The book begins with Stegner’s return to Eastend on an identity quest; it recounts his reconstruction of his past; and it closes with his remarks on the possibility of a good life in a little town on the northern plains. All this sounds rather serious, and it is, but the premise of the book is pertinent to anyone who grew up in a prairie town, or maybe just to anyone at all. In order to know who we are, we need to know where we came from.

Some Questions

1.      Let’s begin with a question grounded in the theme of our discussion series. What was boyhood like in Eastend, as Stegner describes it?


2.      Try to sort out the structure and the genre of the book. Is there a scheme to it? Does one thing lead to another? What kind of writing is this?


3.      If Stegner came to Eastend and wrote this book in response to the identity question, then what sort of identity does he fashion? What stories does he choose to tell? What materials does he use in identity construction? Who is he, then?


4.      Stegner has some strong feelings about the land and about the frontier. What are his conclusions about the settlement enterprise in this part of the plains? How does he feel about being part of the frontier experience?


5.      Finally, what is Stegner’s verdict on the possibility of living a good life, a thoughtful life, in a prairie town? I’m talking here about his chapter entitled “False Front Athens.”


         Patricia Rowe Willrich on Stegner

         The Wilderness Letter

         Stegner Bio at “California Authors”

         Stegner Bio at San Francisco Public Library

         Wallace Stegner House


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