All the Little Live Things
By Wallace Stegner
Read Jan 2022
While some descriptions of this book say something like “Joe and Ruth Allston return….”, the reverse is actually true. This book was written in 1967 and the first book in which Stegner introduces us to Joe and Ruth Allston. In this book, Joe is very recently retired as a literary agent. The Spectator Bird was written in 1976 and Joe is seven or eight years into retirement. The comment about them returning really reflects the situation that was true for this reader—hungry for more from Stegner after recently reading The Spectator Bird which won the National Book Award and Crossing to Safety (published 1987) which is also well known, and have already read The Angle of Repose (published 1971) which won the Pulitzer Prize, this reader turned to this book which received less fanfare but which, in this reader’s opinion, is even better than The Spectator Bird.
Joe and Ruth Allston have recently moved to a currently rural area about 30 minutes from a university town in California. They have purchased land from a developer who bought part of a farm that is still owned by one of their neighbors. Joe and Ruth have built a house and are now working on landscaping.
The book opens with our narrator, Joe, lamenting about the death of Marion. He is clearly impacted by this death—she was too young, too full of life, and someone he clearly loved. After this prologue the book goes back to about the time Joe and Ruth meet Marion. But first we are introduced to Jim Peck, a bearded philosophy student. He seeks permission to camp on part of their property. They grant it and he builds a tent platform on the other side of the creek from their home and a bridge to reach it that requires great balance and dexterity to cross. Marion and her husband and young daughter buy and move into a house down the hill from and on the same side of the creek as the Allstons.
The Allstons become fast friends with Marion and her family quite quickly. Marion chastises Joe for killing insects and animals he declares pests. She loves all living things. Her love of life is dazzling and engaging. In contrast, Joe Allston becomes increasingly annoyed with Jim Peck as he expands his camp to include a tree house and as he invites many other young people to hang out with him day and night. Jim Peck has tapped the Allston electric and water lines and even puts up a mailbox. Ruth is less annoyed and suggests Joe is just railing against the societal changes that young people are driving—free thinking and free love among them.
This reader won’t share more of the story but will comment on aspects that make this book an even better one than The Spectator Bird in this reader’s humble opinion.
First some similarities. Both books have wonderful descriptions of the surroundings and of the events that occur. In this book Stegner’s love of nature is very evident. Joe’s descriptions of the antics of the birds that occupy hours of his time, of the battle he rages with the gopher who wants to undermine his garden, and of the tragic event that occurs on the bridge that all use to cross the creek to reach their property are all quite remarkable. Both books comment on the encroachment of developments into land previously farmed. Both books deal very well with the emotional transformations that accompany retirement. Both books reveal the loss of the Allston’s only son by drowning in a surfing accident—or was it an intentional act—and the guilt Joe feels about this.
Both books demonstrate Stegner’s value of marriage. Joe loves Marion but only in a friendship way. He comments she is almost like a daughter he wishes he would have had. There is never anything untoward about their relationship but it is clearly special and he shares with Marion feelings about his life that he may never have shared with Ruth. In The Spectator Bird, Ruth was becoming concerned about Joe’s feelings for Astrid and he admits to the reader that had he not been married he would have considered a relationship with Astrid. But he was married so that consideration was fully off the table.
So– what is different. The Spectator Bird reveals a hidden part of Astrid’s life that has some intersection with Joe’s mother that is rather spectacular and something that a modern Netflix series could use for a very engaging series. Perhaps this is an aspect that made this book so much more popular than others he wrote. All The Little Living Things has nothing similarly spectacular although there is an out-of-wedlock pregnancy that results from “free love” practiced in Jim Peck’s camp and which Joe disfavors. In the end, much of this book is about a man wrestling with the fact that some of his long-held values are being challenged by a changing society—something widely experienced in the 1960’s. Simultaneously Joe is experiencing a second loved one following a path he really doesn’t want them to take and he can’t make them change course. The latter is a universal situation. Sons and daughters sometimes take different paths than their parents hoped for and sometimes there are devastating consequences for all. Friends make choices we don’t want them to make. Stegner beautifully tells us one man’s trials and reminds us that we can’t always have things the way we want them to be.