Synopses & Reviews
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.
"A small masterpiece...Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness....Train Dreams might be the most powerful thing Johnson has ever written."---Anthony Doerr, The New York Times Book Review"A triumph of spare writing...A gem of a story, set in rough times, in a tough terrain, and tenderly told."---Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today"The visionary, miraculous element in Johnsons deceptively tough realism makes beautiful appearances in this book….The natural world of the American West is examined, logged, and frequently transfigured."---James Wood, The New Yorker"A nearly perfect short novel from the most essential writer of his generation."---David Ulin, Los Angeles Times
About the Author
Denis Johnson is the author of six novels, three collections of poetry, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke was the 2007 winner of the National Book Award.
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