Even if Stegner believed he had the family's permission, though, there remain questions about his judgment in using so much of the Foote material. Letters from Stegner leading up to the publication of "Angle of Repose" and continuing until his death in 1993 suggest that the author knew the book might cause him trouble, especially after the editor of Foote's "Reminiscences" notified Stegner in 1970 that the Huntington Library planned to publish the memoir.
Stegner tells Micoleau in a letter that he has heard about the planned publication of "Reminiscences" and worries that Foote will now be fully recognizable as the fictional Susan in his novel. "Must I now unravel all those little threads I have so painstakingly ravelled together, the real with the fictional, and replace all truth with fiction? . . . What should I do about my threads of actual fact?"
A year later, in writing to Micoleau that she would soon receive a copy of the novel, he said: "I must admit I send you this book with some trepidation because in spite of my reiterated warning that this was a novel not a biography, I imagine you may have expected me to stick with your grandmother's real life and character. And that I found I was unable to do. I had to warp it . . . I quote fairly freely from her letters (though I rewrite those, too, when I have to)."
These sentiments are reiterated on the acknowledgment page, which reads: "My thanks to J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history."
Foote's "Reminiscences" came out to little notice in 1972, the same year Stegner's "Angle of Repose" won the Pulitzer Prize.
Many of Foote's descendants, most of whom live in and around Grass Valley, where Foote and her husband spent their final years, were appalled by the novel. Few facts about the life of Foote and her family were changed--Evelyn Foote Gardiner, Micoleau's sister, claims Stegner used the real names of 19 people in the novel--except for two liberties taken by Stegner that the family found disturbing.
First, Stegner's novel depicts the Foote-based character, Susan, falling out of love with her husband, Oliver Ward, and in love with one of his assistants, Frank (in real life, Arthur's assistant's name was Harry Tompkins). Stegner's characters have an affair--something that would have been scandalous in a conservative Quaker family such as Foote's. Secondly, Stegner has Susan's daughter Agnes (the same name as Foote's daughter) drown in a river while her mother is engaged in an illicit encounter with her lover. In fact, the real Agnes died at age 17 from complications from appendicitis.
The family also was concerned--although less so--about Stegner's somewhat lurid implications that Susan's relationship with her best friend and frequent correspondent, Augusta Hudson (in real life Helena de Kay Gilder), was more than just a Victorian friendship between women.
"Wally was a good guy who made a big boo-boo," says Bob Gardiner, who works as a tour guide at the North Star mine in Grass Valley, a historic landmark that was managed by his grandfather, Arthur Foote. He is surrounded by yellowing photos of his grandfather as he speaks. "Yup, people back East always liked to read about people out West without getting their feet dirty. Stegner didn't even do his research. He just stole it."
Why didn't Foote's family take any action? "We're non-litigious," says Gardiner. "We're academicians. But I know that plagiarism is a crime with a victim."
Elizabeth Haskell, Foote's great-granddaughter, lives just a few miles away. She's a placid, self-contained woman in her early 60s. She believes that Stegner's great mistake was one of hubris. "He simply did not feel that Mary Hallock Foote would be discovered on her own someday. He thought her life was there for the taking. Well, of course, she was discovered. She was a talented artist and writer and, what's more, a cultured pioneer! She married a man she loved whose greatest dreams failed one after the other, and still she stayed by him. Her friendship with Helena de Kay was a marriage of true minds, and not what Stegner indicated." She sighs. "It doesn't bother me anymore. True greatness can outlive anything."