Synopses & Reviews
It is mid-October, 1997, harvest time in the Columbia Basin of central Washington state, a rich apple- and pear-growing region. Ben Givens, recently widowed, is a retired heart surgeon, once admired for his steadiness of hand, his precision, his endurance. He has terminal colon cancer. While Ben does not readily accept defeat, he is determined to avoid suffering rather than engage it. And so, accompanied by his two hunting dogs, he sets out through the mythic American West-sage deserts, yawning canyons, dusty ranches, vast orchards-on his last hunt. The main issues for Ben as a doctor had been tactical and so it would be with his death. But he hadn't considered the persuasiveness of memory-the promise he made to his wife Rachel, the love of his life, during World War II. Or life's mystery. On his journey he meets a young couple who are "forever," a drifter offering left-handed advice that might lessen the pain, a veterinarian with a touch only a heart surgeon would recognize, a rancher bent on destruction, a migrant worker who tests Ben's ability to understand. And just when he thinks there is no turning back, nothing to lose that wasn't lost, his power of intervention is called upon and his very identity tested. Full of humanity, passion, and moral honesty, East of the Mountains is a bold and beautiful novel of personal discovery.
"East of the Mountains is not about the courage it takes to die, but the courage it takes to live, and Guterson depicts this moral and spiritual struggle with a clear-eyed intensity and intelligence."—Chicago Tribune
"The writing is wonderful throughout. . . . Heartfelt, engaging and well drawn."—The Miami Herald
"Wonderfully written, tender towards its characters, and full of incident and insight."—Men's Journal
"It is a strikingly joyful book and a monumental achievement."—The Philadelphia Inquirer
Ben Givens is a retired heart surgeon who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Deciding to take charge of his own demise, Ben travels into the wild country of Washington state with his two dogs and his father's Winchester, to hunt one last time and then to end his life on his own terms. But, as with all quests, the Fates intervene. A car wreck introduces him to various helpers and hindrances, and gradually Ben undertakes a journey back through his own past. As he nears the apple-growing country in which he grew up, he recalls the signal events of his youth and manhood-especially his wartime experiences and his profound love for his wife of fifty years. Ben is transformed into an American Odysseus as he confronts the many sides of his own nature in a novel that radiates with the glories of the natural world and the mysterious permutations of the human heart.
Reading Group Guide
Q> What is the importance-literal and symbolic-of Ben's movement eastward? What qualities are associated, through image and direct statement, with the concept of "east"? Q> Most quest novels feature young men or women on journeys of discovery. What effects result from Guterson's presentation of a dying seventy-three-year-old man embarking on a journey of rediscovery? What does Ben Givens (re)discover? Q> Do you think that coincidence and chance occur too often in the novel? What might be Guterson's purpose in countering Ben's lifelong "judicious deliberation" and "attention to all particulars" with the accidents and chance encounters he experiences? What is the significance of the several references to miracles? Q> If "Suicide was at odds with the life he knew, at odds with all he understood, of himself and of the world," why does Ben plan such a carefully thought-out, staged suicide? How would you describe Ben's understanding "of himself and of the world"? Does that understanding change during Ben's three days east of the mountains? Q> "He had been born in the cradle of apple orchards," Guterson writes of Ben, "and it was this world he wanted to return to." How important to Ben is this return to the apple-orchard country of the Columbia Basin at the height of the apple harvest? Given Ben's views on death and dying, why does he want to end his life in this "cradle"? What is significant in the fact that Ben's view of his family's old orchard is from a moving bus while he is busy with the ill migrant picker? Q> Do Ben's memories of family, Rachel, and war serve only to provide us with details of his past life? What bearing on Ben's present does each of his memories have? How do those memories help us understand Ben's life and behavior? Q> At the end of chapter two, Ben recalls that he and Rachel, on their honeymoon, "had kissed with the sadness of newlyweds who know...that their good fortune is subject, like all things, to the crush of time, which remorselessly obliterates what is most desired and pervades all that is beautiful."To what extent has time crushed the desired and the beautiful in Ben's life? To what extent do his experiences during his three-day journey counter that disquieting observation? Q> Why does Guterson pay so much attention to details of landscape and natural phenomena? Through what kinds of landscape, both past and present, does Ben travel? How is Guterson's presentation of each landscape important in terms of the corresponding stage in Ben's life and of his view of life at each stage? Q> What role does hunting play in Ben's life? What kinds of hunting does he participate in or observe, and what are the purposes and consequences? In what ways does his attitude toward hunting change? Q> How are the episodes involving the wolfhounds and their consequences significant, particularly in terms of Ben's inability to control or influence events? What details of landscape and time of night give these episodes particular import? Why does Ben, having found William Harden near his journey's end, relinquish the gun to the wolfhound owner with the statement, "That gun is cursed"? Q> As he settles Rex into the cab of Stu Robinson's tractor-trailer, Ben thinks, "There were no good answers to important questions." What are the important questions, from Ben's perspective? What answers does he find? Which of those answers, if any, are "good"? Q> What is the importance of Ben's experience in the field hospital in Italy, and of Ben's memory of that experience? Why is this memory presented in such detail? What influence did the Army surgeon have on Ben? Q> In his Quincy motel room, Ben opens the Gideon Bible to the Book of Job and reads the verses that begin, "Days of affliction have taken hold upon me." And, on the bus to Wenatchee, he refers to Don Quixote as "Knight of the Mournful Countenance." Are the correspondences implied by these references justified? In what ways might Ben be compared to Job and Don Quixote? What other biblical and literary references occur, and what are their relevance? Q> Sitting in the restaurant with Emilio, Ben decides that "the life of the boy-of anyone-was a life, in the end, and no mere story to be told across the table. The essentials could not be culled from the rest without divesting both certain meanings." What bearing might this realization have on our acceptance of the story of Ben's life? Copyright (c) 2000. Published in the U.S. by Harcourt, Inc. Questions and author biography written by Hal Hager & Associates, Somerville, New Jersey