Figuring out the difference between fact and fiction in Angle of Repose is a lot easier said than done. Sure, you can certainly do it, but you'll find that things get a lot more complicated the deeper you dig.
So, let's start off with Lyman. Although Lyman is a historian, he's not exactly writing a history book about his grandparents; he's writing a novel about their lives. That's a pretty big distinction. Although he has letters and personal documents to provide background info, there are tons of scenes that he totally makes up. For example, when he's writing the first encounter between Susan and Frank, he complains that he "can't avoid it any longer" and must "put words in their mouths" (7.7.109).
As a result, Lyman's biases are easily apparent throughout his book, especially where his grandparents' sexuality is concerned. Although Lyman is completely unaware of this, Shelly tells him that a "modern reader [...] might think [he is] ducking something essential" (4.6.22). As modern readers ourselves, we know that this tension is the result of his own disastrous marriage: Lyman is trying to figure out how his grandparents' marriage survived in order to determine why his own fell apart. Still, it also shows that Lyman subconsciously bends the truth to fit his preconceptions.
But, we're not done yet—there's another layer of fact versus fiction that must be mentioned. Like Lyman Ward, Angle of Repose author Wallace Stegner is a historian turned novelist. No surprise there. What might surprise you, however, is the fact that the letters in the novel are absolutely real: they were written by a woman named Mary Hallock Foote, who actually experienced the things the novel attributes to Susan Ward.
This choice has garnered a lot of controversy, but we think that it provides a fantastic layer of authenticity to the novel. What do you think? Do you agree with us that using real letters was a smart choice? Or, do you think it devalues or exploits Foote's real-life experiences?