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Train Dreams: A Novellaby Denis Johnson
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
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