Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Spectator Bird; Wallace Stegner

Author:  Wallace Stegner
Publication Year: 1976
Publisher: Penguin
Edition: trade softcover/1990
Source: personal collection
Setting:  CA
Date Completed: 6/2012 
Rating: 5/5
Recommend: yes

Joe Allston is a retired literary agent. Somber and introspective, his wife Ruth describes him as irritable and depressed.  The couple moved from New York to California after retirement, but despite the move and new surroundings Joe is still haunted by the sense of guilt he feels ever since his only child died in a surfing accident twenty years earlier.

Joe sees himself as a failure -- as a son to his mother and as a father to his son....... 

"I learned to scratch dead leaves over what I didn't want to see." 

When a postcard arrives, forwarded from New York to California, from an old friend in Denmark named Astrid, Joe's memories think back to a trip he and his wife took there 20 years earlier as a way of dealing with their grief over the loss of their son.  Joe digs his way through old boxes and finds (3) notebooks from their trip in 1954.  Joe begins to read the diaries, and is surprised that he could have written some what is contained within.  When his wife finds out what he is doing, she insists that he reads the diaries out loud to her.  Each night he reads a bit more to his wife, and as he does, Ruth hopes to clear up some questions about that period in time that has been troubling her for years. 

So begins Joe's odyssey into the past, back to his earliest beginning with his mother, which explained so much about the man he grew to be.

"Young, middle-aged, or getting old, Joe Allston has always been full of himself.  He has always hunted himself in places where he has never been, he has always been trying to thread some needle with a string that was raveled at both ends.  He has always been hungry for some continuity and assurance and sense of belonging, but has never had ancestors or descendants or place in the world.  Little orphan Joe, what a sad case."

".......I have never needed many people around. I always had more than I wanted. A few friends are enough.  There are lots of perfectly pleasant people that I like, but if I don't see them, I don't miss them.  What kept me in New York was work, not people. When the work ended, most of the people ended, all but the handful that meant something. Maybe that's alarming, but that's the way I am."

"The sixties are the age of anxiety.  You feel yourself on the brink of old age, and you fret. Once you pass your seventieth birthday that all clears away. You are like a man with an old car and and no particular place to go. You drive it where you want to, and everyday it keeps on running is a gift."

The Spectator Bird is really two stories. One story deals with how Joe sees his life. It's about marriage, aging, growing old, internal crisis and regrets about the past.  The other story is one that unravels as Joe reads the old diaries to his wife from (20) years earlier.

Stegner's writing is fantastic.  Descriptive,  the characters finely tuned, leaving the reader with vivid images and lasting impressions There is so much that resonated with me as I read this book. Although, I'm not as old as Joe or retired or in crisis mode, I saw a lot of myself in Joe when I think about my life. 

At first I saw his wife Ruth as a bit of a nag, but by the end of the novel, I saw the genuine caring and love between them.  Like many couples, although they were often irritated with one another, their relationship was solid. Ruth was always fussing over Joe, kind of like a mother hen with a deep desire to nurture her husband, something that Joe needed this as well.

(a favorite quote )
"It is something --it can be everything--to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below, a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can't handle."

Indeed, Joe Allston was the "Spectator Bird" in the game of life.

Read this Book! I definitely plan to read more books by this author.


  1. This doesn't sound like a book I would enjoy right now, not sure I would be in the right frame of mind for it. I do think it's somethinng I'm going to write down and remember though. I do think I would enjoy it.

  2. I think I might like this. I read Crossing To Safety years ago but that's the only Stegner I've read. Enjoyable review, Diane. You made me want to read it!

  3. I've read this book before and, like you, enjoy Wallace Stegner. I think I might need to read him again now that I'm getting older. I always felt like I might have been too young to understand the points he was making when I read him before.

  4. I think I'd like this one and be able to relate to Joe too. I've never read Stegner's work before.

  5. Sounds brilliant, in both concept and writing. Stegner is adept at telling multiple stories, past and present, together.

    It's on the list--great review. Loved the quotes.

  6. I've read two of Stegner's other books and loved them. I didn't know about this one. Looks like my kind of book.

  7. Stegner is on my TBR -- he's the kind of writer I suspect I'll linger over -- his writing begs introspection.

  8. I'm sold just from the quote. Beautiful! You always find the most interesting books. Thanks for another great recommendation to add to my pile.

  9. I think Joe sounds like an interesting character!

  10. The story totally appeals to me and the quotes you included only make me want to read it more. Would this be a good one for the husband on audio? Looks like it could be.

  11. I love Stegner... especially Crossing to Safety and The Big Rock Candy Mountain. I'm adding this to my list - sounds like my kind of book.

  12. This sounds like a good one and one I could relate to. TBG is 70 and just spent the beginning of the week in the hospital. I have "nagged" him to drink more water and walk around the house more to help him recover. I guess I could identify with Ruth in the book.

  13. I love Stegner, but I haven't read this one. Must track it down.

  14. This author has been on my radar screen this year. I recorded Masterpiece version of one of his books and that made me take notice of him. I know that this is something I would like. I will be checking it out to see if I can add it to my Kindle!!!

    1. I'm on drugs! Now I know why this author rang a bell because JoAnn has written some great reviews of his work too. I got him confused with the other author who wrote a book with a bird in the title during I have to figure out which one he was to!!

  15. I like books that follow more than one theme as is the case here (aging and the past). Great review Diane!

  16. I've heard about this author but didn't know where to start. This sounds like the right place.


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