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Train Dreams: A Novella

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Train Dreams: A Novella Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

1. What did the incident with the Chinese laborer show us about Robert Grainier and his beliefs regarding human suffering?

2. What made Grainier and Gladyss marriage special? How was he transformed by his role as a husband and father?

3. What does the novella tell us about the nature of survivors such as Arn Peeples (chapter two) versus those who perish? How do the characters understand death?

4. In chapter three, how was the young Grainier affected by his encounter with half-dead William Haley and the tragic tale of Haleys niece?

5. What aspects of life in the West stayed the same as Grainier matured and grew old? What aspects of his life were lost to modernization?

6. For Grainier, is solitude a form of solace and peace, or is loneliness painful for him? Is his solitary life appealing to you?

7. What does Kates story tell us about Grainiers capacity for love? Is his community cruel or just naive?

8. In the third chapter, were told that Grainier never knew his parents and wasnt even sure if he had been born in the United States or in Canada. In the absence of a mother and a father, who and what shaped his identity?

9. How does the novellas spectacular scenery become a character itself? How do the settlers balance the brutality of nature, captured in the horrific wildfire, with their desire to live on a frontier?

10. What does the demise of Kootenai Bob in chapter four say about the relationship between his people and the settlers? What determines who the outsiders are in Grainiers world?

11. Revisit the story of Peterson, who was shot by his own dog (chapter five). How do humans and animals get along in Train Dreams? What aspects of the animal world, and the spirit world, terrify the settlers the most?

12. Discuss the title. What are the dreamlike qualities of this novella? As Grainier expands the nations rail system through his death-defying work, is he transported or trapped?

13. The novella contains many powerful scenes of backbreaking manual labor through which human beings “triumph” over nature. What circumstances drew them to this life? Under what circumstances would you be satisfied with so few creature comforts?

14. Discuss the novellas closing image. What did the wolf-boy reveal to a crowd of townspeople (including Grainier) who thought they had seen it all?

15. Much of Denis Johnsons other fiction deals with destructive wars within the self, especially in Jesus Son and Tree of Smoke. Does Train Dreams underscore this view of humanity, or is it a departure from Johnsons previous work?

Reading group guide written by Amy Clements/The Wordshop

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

Gregg Narber, January 21, 2012 (view all comments by Gregg Narber)
An elegiac account of a life that would normally go or have gone unnoticed, both now and in the period of the book (the late settlement of the American West). James Agee did something similar in the Depression with "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" -- his subjects the lowest of the low among Alabama sharecroppers. Johnson does the same for his protagonist, with all of Agee's poetry and none of Agee's self-absorbtion. That nobody who hauls things for hire in his wagon wants the same things we all do -- love, children, a roof over his head -- and contributes to keep the planet spinning in some small way: here to settling the West. A book moving beyond all expectation.
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richard chen, January 4, 2012 (view all comments by richard chen)
Capturing a way of life which is often merely dreamt of in Western America, the writing style provokes the soul into going West to loosen oneself. The imagery of community, land and inner discovery play finely against each other in this simple but moving story. The power of simple beauty is moving. It is difficult to convey the weight of emotion in words in this mere review except to say Denis has done a fine job thereof.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780374281144
Author:
Johnson, Denis
Publisher:
Farrar Straus Giroux
Author:
Patton, Will
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Historical
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20110831
Binding:
HARDCOVER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Includes 2 CDs with a run time of 2 hour
Pages:
128
Dimensions:
7.5 x 5 in

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Train Dreams: A Novella Used Hardcover
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Product details 128 pages Farrar Straus Giroux - English 9780374281144 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Readers eager for a fat follow-up to Tree of Smoke could be forgiven a modicum of skepticism at this tidy volume — a reissue of a 2003 O. Henry Prize — winning novella that originally appeared in the Paris Review — but it would be a shame to pass up a chance to encounter the synthesis of Johnson's epic sensibilities rendered in miniature in the clipped tone of Jesus' Son. The story is a snapshot of early 20th-century America as railroad laborer Robert Granier toils along the rails that will connect the states and transform his itinerant way of life. Drinking in tent towns and spending summers in the wilds of Idaho, Granier misses the fire back home that leaves no trace of his wife and child. The years bring diminishing opportunities, strange encounters, and stranger dreams, but it's not until after participating in the miracle of flight — and a life-changing encounter with a mythical monster — that Granier realizes what he's been looking for. An ode to the vanished West that captures the splendor of the Rockies as much as the small human mysteries that pass through them, this svelte stand-alone has the virtue of being a gem in itself, and, for the uninitiated, a perfect introduction to Johnson. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Review" by , "[A] severely lovely tale...The visionary, miraculous element in Johnson's deceptively tough realism makes beautiful appearances in this book. The hard, declarative sentences keep their powder dry for pages at a time, and then suddenly flare into lyricism; the natural world of the American West is examined, logged, and frequently transfigured. I started reading Train Dreams with hoarded suspicion, and gradually gave it all away, in admiration of the story's unaffected tact and honesty...Any writer can use simple prose to describe the raising of a cabin or the cutting down of tress, but only very good writers can use that prose to build a sense of an entire community, and to convey, without condescension, that this community shares some of the simplicity of the prose. Chekhov could do this, Naipaul does it in his early work about Trinidad, and Johnson does it here, often using an unobtrusive, free indirect style to inhabit the limited horizons of his characters...A way of being, a whole community, has now disappeared from view, and is given brief and eloquent expression here."
"Review" by , "National Book Award winner Johnson has skillfully packed an epic tale into novella length in this account of the life of Idaho Panhandle railroad laborer Robert Grainer....The gothic sensibility of the wilderness and isolated settings and Native American folktales, peppered liberally with natural and human-made violence, add darkness to a work that lingers viscerally with readers....Highly recommended."
"Review" by , "I first read Denis Johnson's Train Dreams in a bright orange 2002 issue of The Paris Review and felt that old thrill of discovery....Every once in a while, over the ensuing nine years, I'd page through that Paris Review and try to understand how Johnson had made such a quietly compelling thing. Part of it, of course, is atmosphere. Johnson's evocation of Prohibition Idaho is totally persuasive....The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella's best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence...it might be the most powerful thing Johnson has ever written."
"Synopsis" by , Denis Johnson's Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions.
"Synopsis" by ,
Denis Johnsons Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions.
"Synopsis" by ,
A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
One of The Economists 2011 Books of the Year
One of NPRs 10 Best Novels of 2011

Denis Johnsons Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions.

Robert Grainer is a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime.

Suffused with the history and landscapes of the American West—its otherworldly flora and fauna, its rugged loggers and bridge builders—the new novella by the National Book Award-winning author of Tree of Smoke captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.

 

"Synopsis" by , A New York Times Notable BookAn Esquire Best Book of 2011A New Yorker Favorite Book of 2011A Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of 2011 Denis Johnsons Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions. It is the story of Robert Grainier, a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century---an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime. Suffused with the history and landscapes of the American West, this novella by the National Book Award--winning author of Tree of Smoke captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.
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