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Train Dreams: A Novella


Train Dreams: A Novella Cover

ISBN13: 9781250007650
ISBN10: 1250007658
Condition: Standard
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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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lukas, March 20, 2014 (view all comments by lukas)
Denis Johnson wrote a big, ambitious, sprawling book about Vietnam ("Tree of Smoke"), so it's understandable that he returned to the small scale and stark prose of his earlier books. A novella doesn't necessarily have to be slight, but this is to the point of being forgettable, despite Johnson's skillful writing. For my money, he's never topped his collection of interconnected stories, "Jesus' Son." There are some similarities to McCarthy, but Johnson's more down to earth.
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rroseselavy, January 30, 2013 (view all comments by rroseselavy)
An elegy for the most common sort of person who must in some ways typify who really settled the American West. Much in the spirit of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, Johnson finds the glory and poetry in the life of someone people did not even notice had died. An amazing book that could not be more well written, nor written with more economy.
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Darin, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by Darin)
Proving that powerful writing does not require an abundance of technical flourishes and exuberant verbosity, Denis Johnson's masterful novella tells its tale with a language so precisely honed the reader feels an immediate kinship with Robert Grainier, the early 20th century woodsman whose life of considerable loss we experience. Born in 1886 in either Utah or Canada, Grainier never knew his birth family. Hiring on first with logging outfits in Washington state, then with the railroads, he has never shirked from honest, hard labor. Finally meeting a woman of whom he feels worthy, he marries in his early 30s and has a daughter, only to suffer unspeakable tragedy.

Retreating from society to his self-built cabin in the woods, Robert is our guide through the early 20th century as technogical marvels outpaced the capacity to adapt to them. He has driven wagons with teams of horses, built and rode the rails, motored in early automobiles and even flown in a biplane. That this novella (first published in the Paris Review in 2002) tells of alienation juxtaposed with advanced technology which purportedly makes communication and travel easier, the parallels to the early 21st century never cease to amaze; with all of the gadgetry and telecommunications devices at our disposal, are we any less isolated than the part-time hermit living at the edges of his time and place? The effect is a temporal displacement that lesser writers could not pull off.

Beautifully composed, gorgeously literate, full of wondrous yet precise description, Train Dreams transports its readers across time to experience the heartache of one man and his place in a country which does its best to strip him of all that is worth living. Scenes of natural wonder, heartbreaking tenderness and phantasmagorical echoes compete to create a landscape of the human heart. Highly recommended to read annually as a reminder of our place in the grand scheme of things.
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Product Details

Johnson, Denis
Picador USA
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
7.125 x 4.5 in

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