New Book Review – Angle of Repose

ANGLE OF REPOSE, by Wallace Stegner, published in 1971 by Doubleday Books, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

The term, angle of repose, is an engineering term which describes the exact point or angle at which gravel will begin to roll downward, differentiating it from that point immediately before it, at which gravel will not roll down.

This ficticious story is based on the letters of Mary Halloch Foote, which were eventually written in the book A Victorian Gentlewoman In the Far West.  Her husband, Arthur Foote was the man behind the dream of developing the Boise River canal system; he spent 16 years on the project before having to give it up.

This book was selected as #82 of the 100 best English language books of the 20th century.  It is so beautifully written, the style and phrases at times stay with the reader for hours.  When reviewers write about this book, they talk about Grass Valley, or the New Almaden Mine of California, or of Leadville, Colorado and of Mexico.  They may mention that Idaho plays a part in the story, but they forget that the book centers in large part, on the dreams and genius of Oliver Ward, the engineer and designer of the New York Canal which now irrigates our region, the Treasure Valley in Southwest Idaho.  The story is told through the eyes of their grandson, Lyman Ward, 100 years later.

Oliver Ward is a mining engineer, and he is married to the refined, educated and talented Victorian easterner, Susan Ward.  He brings her from her comfortable eastern society life to the wilds of mining camp life in California.

Oliver faced disappointment after disappointment in his career, which injured his marriage.  Finally, he had the scheme to develop a canal system on the Boise River in the 1880’s.  This was his plan, his dream, his effort.  While he knew how to build the diversion dam and canal, Oliver could not convince eastern or European investors to invest in this project.  Sixteen years passed before the canal system was built, by then Oliver had had to move on.

While this is indeed about our own irrigation system, from which our own farm and all the land throughout our region is irrigated, it could be the story of every system, every canal in America;  each one which began with a need for water to irrigate, a dream and and a scheme.  A man, a hydrologist, an engineer and an investment company designed, planned, invested and built every canal system in our country.  We don’t think of the history of these systems too much, but it is interesting to consider, and this wonderful book lets us do just that.

This book is a fabulous read, and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes tales of engineering and construction, mining, the wild west or of  early west development.

Submitted by Robin W. L  on 09/19/2013

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