The Spectator Bird (1976)

by Wallace Stegner

Joe Allston thinks of himself as a spectator bird — watching from the rafters — and, feeling the aches and pains of being almost 70, is a crotchety one at that. He and his wife, Ruth, have been living in California for eight years since his retirement as a literary agent in New York — a profession he "drifted into," as he says he did everything else in his life. Their only child, Curtis, died 20 years before, perhaps as a suicide.

One day a postcard arrives from Astrid W/K in Denmark, which gets Joe searching for the journal he kept when he and Ruth traveled in Denmark, his mother's birthplace, in the year after Curtis's death. Ruth asks Joe to read the journal aloud to her, hoping to finally discuss an unresolved question from that trip. Getting to the critical passage stirs up intense emotions in Joe, who confronts  "the possibility I had renounced 20 years before and carried around with me like a cyst ever since."

This is a book of comfort for anyone of a certain age who, like Joe, feels disappointed and regrets that there has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. Being a spectator bird can bring rewards. The Spectator Bird is also a meditation on aging, duty, and the fulfillment of a long marriage. Just over 200 pages, it displays Stegner's elegant, precise economy of words. It won the National Book Award.


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