General Commentary on
From Peter Anderson's final
evaluation of the 1997 series in Dubois:
In my opinion, the strongest point
about this series is the book selection. I'll use this set of books to make a point about
selecting titles for discussion series in general.
Each of these books is a minor
masterpiece, a "masterpiece" because it represents perhaps the best single work
of each author and because most of these authors are relatively large in literary stature,
and "minor" because each of these books displays substantial foibles and
weaknesses in writing. These are not the finest books written in American in this century.
These books are human and accessible, not flawless and distant. In other words, they make
good discussion material.
Following are two brief examples. In
Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams comes about as close to synthesizing natural history with
human conscience and human history with a naturalistic core as I've ever seen. The outcome
is astonishing, and though this book has faded from public view--it already seems oddly
dated less than ten years after publication--I firmly believe time will place it among the
best works of natural history of our time. Nevertheless, Refuge suffers from at least two
significant (and many minor) problems. (1) As a literary text, its fundamental metaphor,
illness, collapses when Terry shifts from talking about ecosystems and human health to
politics. She doesn't make the transition work. (2) Her major sub-theme, recovery, follows
a wobbly orbit. We're never clear if she does or doesn't allow for human intervention in
recovery, if recovery is cyclical, whether the refuge's recovery is actual or approximate
and by extension if recovery equates to renewal or replacement or just change, and so
But each of these so-called problems
is what makes this book terrific. Further, these issues make for a great discussion book.
A "human" book, like Refuge, embraces readers and opens them as if they, not the
book, were being read. By contrast, group discussion of a monumental, bulletproof
work-of-art classic--The Brothers Karamazov or something--ends up being. . . timid [and]
predictable. . . . It's not just due to the curved lens of time. Folks simply don't read
Dostoyevsky the way they read a "human" writer, even one from the same era, say
Kate Chopin. This is true as well of our own decade's genius-caliber works: Kenzaburo Oe's
A Quiet Life, or Peter Handke"s Absence, for instance. These don't make for good
discussions. People are awed and frightened by these books.
Coming back to our series: the most
rarefied, artistic selection, All the Pretty Horses, is delightfully imperfect. Cormac
McCarthy, one of my all-time favorite writers, chokes and stumbles his way through
language thickets of his own making. He narcissistically watches himself rewriting Huck
Finn backwards and left-handed in the mirror. He makes his point ad nauseam about
linguistic borders with his blurring forays into Spanish. Everything McCarthy does in this
novel is beautiful and intelligent, and deeply eligible for criticism. Thus, it's another
fine discussion text.
My point: I hope all future WCH
series can make predominant use of books which are neither easy to pin down as bugs on a
board, nor so blindingly quasi-flawless that they present opaque and rigid barriers to
discussion. I think at times we've tended toward the former.
. . .If you need to pick a book to be
replaced, don't ask me. I admire all six of these books. They're good together, also.
Notice that three of these books look nostalgically backward--Cather, Doig, Stegner--and
three look nostalgically forward--Williams, McCarthy and Lesley--making nostalgia in its
many guises a counter-subject of the series.
By accident (as usual), I
discovered that the one addition I would make to this series is maps. Because of my own
curiosity about the Northwest, I pulled out a map showing the various reservations so that
I could more accurately "place" the story of Winterkill. When I shared this map
with the group, it seemed to help everyone. Our discussion of Refuge came to a bit of a
stop as we all puzzled over the map in the front of the book, trying to figure out where
Williams lived and where all those places were around the Great Salt Lake and the bird
sanctuary. We concluded that the map in the book was not sufficient, for us, at least. So,
I would encourage anyone working with this series to provide maps of the locations--both
real and fictionalized--to help all readers place them as they read.
I still wonder, sometimes,
whether I'm doing enough or too much. When I've asked this group, pointedly, they always
say that, what they want most of all are:
* a reason to read (the
discussion meetings themselves)
* a series of books that they wouldn't necessarily choose on their own
* "good reads," that is, the pleasure of reading, plus something to think and
I think this series provided
these elements for the participants. My gentle "steering" of the discussion
toward general themes is about as much as I would recommend. My best "new" idea
this year was to encourage readers to identify key passages that they would read aloud to
the group--or ask someone else to read aloud. Some of the writing is just too good not to
share this way!
Finally, I made up bookmarks
indicating the titles and dates on one side and the overall series theme on the
reverse. This was particularly helpful to me, and some of the participants really liked
Of the several times I've led this series, I think this was the
most stimulating. A number of the participants in the Pinedale group really know how to
ask the trenchant questions about a book, so things always get good fast. As in times
past, I kept bringing the discussion, usually toward the end of each session, back around
to the subject of community and the western landscape. Specifically, I tried to get into:
What are participants' personal experiences of the western landscape? How do western
communities differ (or not) from communities elsewhere? How does landscape affect
community, both the formation of a community and ongoing life within it?
Douglas and Glenrock groups
These are all issues right out of Daniel Kemmis' "Community and the Politics of
Place," a book I highly recommend for BD leaders doing this series. Out of the
hundreds of books on the subject generally, I'd recommend "A Sense of the West"
by James Sherow, "Many Wests: Place, Culture and Regional Identity" by Wrobel
and Steiner and the Atlas of the New West by the Center for the American West in Boulder.
Studying up on the region arms me with a ton of facts, anecdotes and little insights into
the towns and sub-cultures of the area, and I think group participants really enjoy having
discussion of these books focus in on recognizable, relevant local issues. Even a book
like "All the Pretty Horses" can be asked to perform in this manner - we spent
time that day talking about the decline of cowboying in and around Pinedale, and what
that's meant to a town that considers itself ranch-oriented. From outside reading I was
able to throw in a few statistics about cattle ranching, the number of working cowboys,
facts about Mexicans coming to the U.S. and vice versa, etc.
In general, a fine series, which I enjoyed being a part of. The Pinedale library, in
particular, is gorgeous, and ought to be a model for Wyoming community libraries
Peter Anderson (Pinedale group)
This series is generally well-received by its
participants -- a perennial favorite. That’s not to say that all participants
enjoy all the books.
As advice to discussion leaders who’ve not led
this series, I find that groups usually have the most trouble with All the
Pretty Horses. Prepare well for it. While many readers seem put off by it on
first reading, it seems to me to be a book which can be opened up for great
appreciation via a sort of classroom literary exegesis. Most of the other books
Crowheart was one of three different places in
which I led this particular selection of readings this year. Per usual, the
series afforded many opportunities to relate what we were reading to our own
experiences of living in the West. In Crowheart, I encountered roughly the same
set of general responses to the books as I found in Afton. Alta, the third place
I led the series this year, reacted differently.
Of all the WCH book series, this one has perhaps
the most transparent theme -- it’s extremely easy to get into good discussions
of landscape and community with every one of these novels and memoirs. The
series tends to lead itself, with the exception of All the Pretty Horses,
as noted in my Afton report. In general, I find this a comfortable series to
conduct, and it is generally well-received.
expect other discussion leaders have had different experiences with this series,
which points up an important fact -- the leader’s handling of a series does much
to affect the reception of the series by the group, and one of our tasks is to
remain as subtle an influence as possible, I believe. This doesn’t mean we
shouldn’t interact -- it means, I think, we should select and word our
discussion questions and issues with great care. Tread lightly, as it were. I
think it’s a more delicate situation than teaching in a classroom environment,
even if there seems, at first glance, to be less at stake in a WCH discussion.
All the Pretty
We began by discussing elements of McCarthy's style that can be disconcerting to readers, e.g., few punctuation marks, no quotes around dialogue, the Spanish with no translation, the Faulknerian nature of dialogue and movement. None of them seemed to find an impediment to the book; one of the discussers felt that style was rhymthic, like a horse's gait. I then mentioned the narrative point of view in all the books we've read so far, giving examples from the books. And I then turned to a passage at the beginning of Chapter 4 wherein John Grady Cole tells his story to a group of children with whom he is sharing his food. In one paragraph he encapsulates his experiences. We discussed what this does for the novel; they determined that at this point, John has become proactive; all before had been fate.
I then gave them some background on McCarthy, his other novels, and the themes and setting of All The Pretty Horses: his grandfather's death, his father approaching death, his mother's neglect, the passing of the old West and John's desire to hold on to that, and the novel as a Western. I had walked in with a clear plan and definite questions. When I started talking about themes, the plan flew out the window, but the discussion took flight with active participation from everyone. Some of them brought in personal experiences of their ranch lives and the loss of the "romance" of the West. They talked about John's quest, especially its idealistic aspects because they felt he was searching for the ideal and that it does not exist. The name of the hacienda seems to indicate that--La Purisima. Some of them saw it as a morality story with John as a supplicant all the way through, trying to plead with father, lawyer, and, ultimately, the judge, especially where he begs for forgiveness, "I killed a man." They brought up that John comes to an understanding of his father who was in a POW camp in WWII when he is imprisoned in Mexico. They also made clear that while John and Lacey Rawlins are travelling back to the old cowboy way, they are really traveling into manhood with both of them too young to experience all they go through.
They discussed John Grady Cole and thought he was a tough kid and extremely moral, trying to make things right for Blevins and Rawlins by retrieving the horses and sometimes trying to protect them. They also talked about dispossession--the Indians and John's who seems to have no place to go. They questioned whether or not we are all dispossessed. They felt that Joh has experienced a lost of past as well as of future. I mentioned recurring images--sunsets, sunrises, trains, roads; reflections in water.
We then tried to make connections to the other works we've read. I mentioned that this novel like Doig's This House of Sky begins in silence and ends in silence. They determined the difference between the two, for Doig knows where he is going; John does not, but he knows who he is. No sense of closure like in Death Comes for the Archbishop and Refuge, a sense of lostness and loneliness as in River Song. They determined at the end that John Grady Cole is searching for the ideal which in nonexistent and that life is a series of losses. It was a spirited, thoughtful discussion.
Ten people braved bad roads and cold temperatures in Casper for the session on Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. Overall, this text was a success; even though some members did not like the violence, the writing style, or the Spanish, they appreciated the coming of age story line. We spent most of the evening discussing the major characters especially Jimmy Blevins. Because we were not given specific information from the author, many of us superimposed a former life for this character. Most members felt John Grady Cole lost his innocence by the novel's end. We made some comparisons to Odyssey and the hero myth in general. We discussed Cole's physical scars like those of Telemachus' as well as his psychological scars. One member thought Alehandra's aunt was the most violent of all the characters with her manipulation of her niece's and Cole's life. Most of us cringed at the prison episode but believed it was a realistic as well as stereotypical portrayal of life in a Mexican prison. We ended the evening with some comparisons to the movie which I have not seen.
The group was very interested to learn that McCarthy came from a fairly privileged Eastern, and mostly Southeastern background, given his status as a "Western writer." I read quotes from his one and only interview which called this book "unusually sweet-tempered for him," and noted that for a man who writes terse dialogue in the style of Hemingway, McCarthy was a "world-class talker" and enjoyed a good gab. The group also compared his style to Faulkner, as have his reviewers.
We discussed the structure of the writing and how it contributed to, or detracted from our appreciation for the story. We found the dialog, lack of punctuation, and visually arresting images to be one of the most appealing aspects of the book - once we got used to them. Most of us, in fact, found the novel difficult to read until we were more than halfway through - and then we were hooked. Some members found the Spanish off-putting, though others managed to piece it out with our rudimentary Spanish or French. We were interested to learn that this, too, was acquired by McCarthy later in his life, when researching an earlier novel.
We discussed whether John Grady Cole had changed by the novel's end. Most found the last few lines to indicate that he was riding off to a new life, having matured from a hormonal teenager through his adventures in Mexico. But then I mentioned that in the third book of McCarthy's Border Trilogy, JGC returns to Mexico and has a doomed relationship with a Mexican prostitute - this dismayed the group. We also noted the place of horses in the novel - some felt this was the most romantic part of the book and loved it. All agreed that JGC seemed to communicate with, and understand, horses better than humans. I mentioned that his skills and interests were part of a way of life that was passing, even in the West, and that heading for Mexico was a way for him to return to a culture that valued those skills, even if he found it difficult to fit in.
Finally, we all loved the word pictures McCarthy painted, from the landscape, to the prison life, to the delightful scene with the Mexican children who advised JGC about his love life. We were mixed on the long digression with his lover's great aunt, as she recounted her own life story and life philosophy. And those who had seen the Matt Damon film agreed that it didn't do the story, the prose, or the author justice.
I began the evening by giving some background on Cormac
McCarthy and his earlier novels. I also gave some information on the type of
novel All the Pretty Horses is - Western, a picaresque adventure, and a
Bildungsroman or apprenticeship novel. I introduced some of the themes
in the novel, namely the transience of life, the inevitability of violence and
death, and the need to find a way of making sense of all this as well as the
passing of a way of life. I showed them a general map of the area the boys
covered. We then began discussing the book; most of the participants enjoyed
the novel. We discussed most of these themes.
The discussion centered primarily on the characters and
their relationships, values and ethics. The discussion about the characters was
spirited, sometimes almost vehement with one woman asserting that today we need
more the values that Cole possesses because she is sick of the “bleeding heart
liberals!” The participants determined that John Grady Cole was more of a
romantic than his friend Lacey Rawlins, whom they saw as more realistic. They
pointed out passages in the novel that supported their positions and
convictions. We also discussed the importance of horses and Cole’s relationship
While we did not specifically discuss landscape or
community, they actually discussed the idea of community without using that
word. They had recognized the differences between the two communities in which
Cole finds himself – the more egalitarian community of his growing up in Texas
and the more hierarchal community in Mexico on the hacienda. More importantly,
they grasped the mythic qualities of the novel – knights on horseback, so to
speak. We determined at the end that John Grady Cole is something of a tragic
figure, trying to find a place in the world he desires and losing all that is
dear to him. When I introduced the author Thomas Wolfe, they immediately said,
“You can’t go home again.” They were saddened but they also felt elated.
Overall, it was an enjoyable, informative discussion.
Linda Ross, 3-8-04
A complex book and a complex reaction – like/dislike
beginning. With prompting, the group discussed the various moral and value
systems at play, including considering who was the most moral, Rawlins, Grady
Cole, or Blevins. The effects of “have” and “have not” on families and
communities and the disparity between machismo and impeccability as illustrated
by the American boys, their families (especially Grady Cole’s) versus the
Mexican families they encountered, and the effects of corrupt power, violence,
and evil. More than a coming of age tale. The group responded to the aspects of
hero’s journey in the book, and considered it to be something of a goodbye to
the mythical codes of conduct of the cowboy-hero.
Bob A Brown, 11-11-03
We followed the order of attached questions. Our group
contained few readers of genre westerns, so we moved on to the mythological and
literary-historical echoes in the work. We spent time discussing character as
well as the cultural contrasts. Reading several passages aloud helped
illustrate McCarthy’s astounding sense of rhythm and the sparse power of the
Kevin Holdsworth 02-03
All the Pretty Horses Discussion Questions
Many see this book as the ultimate western. What
elements does it share with other westerns with which you are familiar?
- In the mythic western, character is not nearly as
important as plot, setting and point-of-view. Is this true of this book as
- All the Pretty Horses also contains a number of
mythic or mythological elements. Identify and explain some of these.
- In which ways does this book resemble Don Quixote?
How about also Purgatorio?
- How is the theme of new world versus old world
- Many point to the fine style of this book. In what ways
is it derivative, particularly of Hemingway and Faulkner? How self-conscious
is the borrowing? Read some particularly arresting passages.
- McCarthy uses almost no description of the characters,
yet they are very clear to the reader. How does he do this?
- Is this a coming of age story?
- What importance does the subplot with Blevins assume in
- For those who have also seen the movie: what deviations
resulted from the adaptation?
If anyone has a discussion of All the Pretty Horses coming
up there's a good set of discussion questions at Random House. The address is:
This is a nice site, with numerous sets of discussion
questions on various texts.
Also, the Cormac McCarthy homepage has some useful
material, including a translation of all the Spanish in ATPH. It can be found at:
Because I expected a divided reaction to
this novel, I asked the participants to begin by reading a passage that illustrated any
comment they wanted to make about it. This got us started on or at least led us to many of
the issues/themes I had hoped would develop. We had a good discussion about how the novel
takes the guise of a classic Western (the "hero", the search/quest theme, the
inhabitants of the landscape, the horse, the "sword", the code of honor, etc.)
and then moves that into something quite modern, a major part of the conflict. When I
asked how they could compare this with the previous novel (Death Comes to the Archbishop)
, they at first could only suggest contrasts, but drawing on each others comments there,
they began to suggest some parallels like the duality of "place" and the
tensions between the American vs. native (Indians, Mexicans) view. They saw the theme of
the tenuous nature of human connection in All the Pretty Horses as being much bleaker than
in the Cather novel. We had a good discussion about style and those who claimed to dislike
the novel concluded that the style had a lot to do with their reaction. Others, of course,
loved it for the style! A good discussion by a good lively group.
In case any of you have been following the
news about the film version of All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, here's the latest
scoop. Book group members reading it this year might be interested in its metamorphosis
into celluloid (at least, I have to admit, I am!). Last I had heard Robert Redford had the
rights, but alas, that was incorrect info. The following came from a "what's up"
type column in the January 2000 Texas Monthly: "Last fall, Columbia Pictures decided
to test-market one of Y2K's most hotly anticipated releases, the film version of Cormac
McCarthy's acclaimed Texas novel All the Pretty Horses, which was directed by Billy Bob
Thornton, stars Matt Damon and Henry Thomas, and won't open until this fall. In November a
rough cut of the movie--some three hours and fifteen minutes long--was screened in Austin
for an audience of folks chosen at random. . . .
One of those kind souls, a McCarthy acolyte and
movie buff, felt duty-bound to report what he saw. "On the Plot: 'There were two ways
that Billy Bob could have gone: black and white, with a voice-over droning about the
spirituality of horses and grainy slo-mo shots of horsehair and big eyes--like the early
scenes in The Elephant Man--or a big western full of color and toothy cowboys. He went
with the later, which is good. McCarthy's big weakness is his ponderousness. His big
strength is his storytelling ability; his books are wide and cinematic. So while the movie
follows the book pretty closely, it loses the horse mysticism and the laconic cowboy stuff
but keeps the basic story: American teens coming of age through violence and love in
Mexico. The book starts strong and goes soft in the second half, when the romance
gets going. The movie starts slow and picks up when the boys go to Mexico, where John
Grady Cole, played by Damon, falls for the daughter of a Mexican land baron.'
"On the casting: 'Damon is great as the
heroic, romantic, virtuous Cole. His hair is dyed dark; his accent is kind of soft and
sexy, in a modern cowboy kind of way. Thomas is even better, maybe, as the fallible
Lacey--not heroic like Cole, not virtuous, not the wandering hero. He's the sidekick who
doesn't get to fall in love, kill an assassin, or wander lost in the great American
wilderness. . . .'"
The review goes on to discuss more actors (the
Mexican daughter Alejandra, alas, is miscast) and the musical score (reminiscent of the
70's classic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). The reviewer thinks the movie will be pretty
darn good and will support an almost 3-hour final version, but I won't go on excerpting
from the review or this will become a 3-hour missive.
The following questions were prepared by Martha
Clark Cummings who leads the Thermopolis group. She said this was a favorite book of the
group, that it evoked comparisons with both Doig and Cather, and that they spent a great
deal of time discussing question #4 about the myth of the cowboy.
Questions about All the Pretty Horses
1. Many people enjoy the stories they read
because they identify with particular characters or because the characters remind them of
someone they know well. Was there a character in this book you felt that way about? Who
2. Some people have compared this book to
Lonesome Dove or Huckleberry Finn. Others say that the decay of Western civilization
throws such a long shadow over this book it can be compared to neither. What do you think?
3. Why does Alejandra promise the Duenna Alfonsa
not to marry John Grady even though she seems to love him?
4. In what ways does All the Pretty Horses
perpetuate the myth of the cowboy? In what ways does it change that myth?
5. One reviewer said, "Human thought and
activity seem almost inconsequential when projected on the vast alien landscapes where
they occur. Human behavior may achieve its own integrity--it's John Grady's conscientious
striving for this quality that makes him Mr. McCarthy's most appealing character--but it
generally seems to have little effect. It's unusual for a writer to adopt such a
disinterested posture toward human beings, but Mr. McCarthy, like john Grady, seems to
hold a higher opinion of horses." Do you agree or disagree?
6. McCarthy has been both praised and critiqued
for his style. One reviewer said the book was "powered by long, tumbling
many-stranded sentences." Another said he was "put off at first by the author's
all too writerly writing. His joined words, without hyphenation, and his unpunctuated
breathless sentences, call too much attention to themselves." What did you think
about his style?
7. Although he had achieved a lot of critical
success (having received the Ingram-Merrill Award for creative writing, a Rockefeller
Foundation Grant, and a MacArthur Fellowships among others,), popular success had largely
eluded McCarthy until the publication of this novel, which sold 190,000 copies in
hardcover and was on the New York Times bestseller list for six months. The book won the
1992 National Book Award for Fiction and the National book Critics Circle Award for
fiction in 1993. None of his previous five novels sold more than 5000 copies. How do you
account for the popularity of All the Pretty Horses?
8. At the end of All the Pretty Horses, John
Grady is required under oath to recount his story of adventure to a judge and to courtroom
auditors. After hearing the story, the judge remarks: "I've heard a lot of things
that give me grave doubts about the human race but this ain't one of 'em" Why does
John Grady's story bolster the judge's faith in the human race?
9. A symbol is an object or actions that has
acquired a meaning beyond itself. What are some of the key symbols in All the Pretty
Horses? How are they used by the author to enhance the meaning of the novel?
Martha Clark Cummings
The initial debate in Pinedale concerned
the Spanish in the text of the novel. Opinion was approximately split on whether it worked
as an artistic device and evocation of place or whether it just got in the way of the
story. One participant mentioned that the Spanish gives the reader (assuming the reader
knows no Spanish) the impression of what it would feel like to not understand, to be
dislocated, to feel out of place. A critical reader felt that McCarthy lacks his own
voice, that he's cobbled together a voice out of Hemingway and Faulkner. But he also
mentioned that it's tough to write in America today without being influenced by Hemingway
and Faulkner at some level.
I outlined The Hero's Journey, courtesy of Joseph
Campbell, and we spent a fair amount of time talking about the mythical structures of this
story and of stories in general. One person observed that the characters in this novel
seem more like symbols than people, which sparked discussion of the nature of characters.
Then the conversation shifted to the differences
between Mexico and America and, most interestingly, individuals' experiences of traveling
in Mexico. We talked about the differences between men's and women's experiences of
traveling below the border. We discussed the relativity of morality, for want of a better
way to put it.
I followed Norleen Healy's lead with this discussion by asking
the participants (divided into groups of two or three) to select and read a passage that
represented some aspect of the novel that they wanted to comment upon. This proved to be
an effective tool to focus the group's attention on particular motifs, versus simply
whether they liked (they all did) or disliked the book. There were three principal motifs
that emerged: the role of losses and disappointments in life in forming who we are and how
we deal with the world; the nature of the journey and its trials; the relationship of
Grady with horses, and his interactions with them.
I gave some background on the journey throughout history as both a cultural and
literary device for testing an individual and facilitating change, both for the individual
as well as his or her culture. This led to a lengthy discussion about Blevins and his
actions and their effects on Grady and Lacey. Blevins had evoked strong feelings among the
group members. This in turn opened the topic of fate, both how group members as well as
the characters in the book view it, and whether or not our western landscape and
communities affect this. This is a theme that can be further developed as we discuss the
other books in the series. The book, so rich in its characters and events and landscape,
generated a lively and thought provoking discussion. There was more participation by all
group members than I can remember from previous sessions. The feedback on the opening
"exercise" was very positive. A very good meeting!
Bob Brown (Lusk)
. . . several [called the book] lyrical and [had marked] passages
for reading. The broad nature of the text and its extremes were found to be beyond belief
in many cases, but important to the overall theme of the text. The group decided that
landscape was certainly important and found several places where the landscape reflected
the action in the plot. Maybe westerns are "good" if they fulfill the
expectations of Eastern critics? Just a thought from the group.
Wayne Deahl (Torrington group)
Prior to opening our discussion of McCarthy's novel, we briefly reviewed some of the
major points of our discussion on Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop,
as some group members were not in attendance for that first session and I wished to focus
on similar areas for this second discussion. (Some of those areas included the journey
motif, the nature of friendship, the role of the landscape, and the influence of the
visual arts on the author's writing.)
Following are questions we used for our discussion, but, like the novel's characters,
our conversational "journey" often went on unexpected, sometimes difficult, yet
1. Which character(s) did you like or identify with OR which did you find repulsive?
Why? Many readers chose John, as he was so idealistic and would act on his principles,
even when those actions made his life extremely difficult. Others appreciated Rawlins for
his honest humor and steadfastness. Some found Blevins to be troublesome, while others
pitied the boy.
Responses to those questions led to other questions regarding specific character's
personalities or "character", such as "Why does John feel responsible for
Blevins?" or questions regarding a character's role or purpose, such as
"How is Rawlins a kind of 'Greek chorus'?" Those questions and comments
naturally led to the "mythic" aspects of the novel.
2. Following a very brief mention of the traits identified with mythic heroes, we
discussed the heroic nature of John Grady in response to "Is John Grady a hero?"
That discussion also focused on his motives, and how he and his reasons for action
appeared to shift and change as the novel progressed. We also examined other mythic
"types" such as the scapegoat and the outcast.
This also led to comments regarding the role of fate, and various characters' (such as
Duena Alfonsa) comments on "fate" and its consequences. In turn, those
reflections on fate led to a consideration of Rawlin's comment: "Ever dumb thing I
ever done in my life, there was a decision made before got me into it" and the
choices the boys made that directly contributed to their changing situations.
3. Referring to the frescoes which had, according to Cather herself, an influence on
Cather's style in Death Comes for the Archbishop, I described the picaresque
style of painting --roughness and ruggedness of texture, light/shadow contrast, typified
by shattered rocks, blasted trees, winding streams and ruins -- and referred to its
influence in the work of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. (It would have been
MUCH better had I some prints or examples of American painters from the Hudson River
"Looking at the text, could McCarthy's description be said to be an illustration
of the this 'picaresque' style? Why or why not? What is the role of the landscape or
setting in this narrative?"
Responses varied regarding the novel's descriptions, but the question did generate
discussion on how the changing "face" of the western landscape is contributing
to lifestyle changes, similar to those that John Grady faces. This is turn contributed to
some reflections on the "myth vs. reality" of the West.
4. What did you enjoy or find troubling about this writer's style? (It's interesting to
note that some found the long "run-on" sentences troublesome, but others enjoyed
the writer's style very much, noting the writer's stylistic similarity to Faulkner. Some
found the non-linear, non-sequential style of the opening to be a problem, but also
reported that when they stopped "fighting it" they did better. Other found the
reading became easier and "less confusing" when the story's exposition was
complete, and John and Rawlins began their journey. We briefly discussed how the opening
sequences are somewhat "cinematic" in their flashback approach and the story of
the journey naturally is more linear.)
5. How does the story perpetuate the "mythic cowboy" character? How does it
negate it? What is the role of sin and guilt in character development and action? At the
close of the story, John Grady is suffering from a burden of self-inflicted guilt. What is
his "sin"? What is he doing to atone for that "sin"? (Comments here
led to a comparison of the Reverend and to the Judge)
6. How does the novel's close affect you? Does this conclusion fit your expectations
for a "western novel"? Why or why not? Is that ending symbolic in any way?
By our evening's close, the group's general consensus was that the novel was not only
very enjoyable, but that it was deeply layered, offering the reader a great deal. Some
felt it was not only similar in many respects to classic westerns but that it had much in
common with classical myths, evidence that there really are "no new stories." As
is typical with this group, we enjoyed a wonderfully invigorating discussion!
Ebba Stedillie (Douglas group)
The group's reaction to the novel was very positive. One member
said she had to read it all in one sitting and had purchased the other two books in the
trilogy. I had forewarned them about McCarthy's long sentences, lack of punctuation and
use of Spanish. As a result these matters didn't seem to bother them too much, although
several mentioned they often had to reread passages to figure out what was going on. I had
provided translations (from the McCarthy web site) of the longer, more significant Spanish
passages which we looked at before beginning the discussion. They loved the beauty of
McCarthy's language and appreciated the realistic representation of cowboy language in the
I started this discussion with putting the novel in the context of journey/initiation
stories. I wrote the major components of this type of story on the board, briefly
described how Huckleberry Finn illustrates them, then invited the group to discuss how All
the Pretty Horses fit the pattern. This proved to be a good way to discuss the novel's
scope as well as good way to get into a discussion of other aspects of the novel. From
there we naturally transitioned to a discussion of values such as the issues of fate and
free will, friendship and loyalty, defending the underdog. Rereading and discussing key
passages from the text led us to new insights about how John Grady matured through this
journey, what horses meant to John Grady and how they were central to the novel. I was
pleased by the group's close examination of textual evidence to determine meaning. I think
they had a good sense of the many levels of meaning that could be drawn from the book. One
being how McCarthy both used the "western formula" and moved beyond it.
Because there was so much to decipher in this book, the group spent less time in
comparing it to other books in the series. But they drew some comparisons. It reminded
them of Death Comes for the Archbishop in its landscape and glimpses of another culture.
They agreed that the central role of landscape in this book was a feature it shared with
all the books we read. I asked them if the book gave them any insights into our own
community thinking they would relate to the loss of a way of life (the ranch,
specifically) but no one mentioned that. Instead they mentioned the familiarity of the
speech patterns, the feeling of "connection" to horses, the notion espoused by
the Duenna that "there is no forgiveness for women."
We concluded the evening by discussing the books that meant the most to us in the
series. (Cather was the favorite and Stegner the least favorite with most of the group)
and looking at the brochures for the other series of books and deciding which we would
like to do if we are able to have the group again next year.
Marcia Hensley (Farson group)
This was a very interesting and challenging discussion:
interesting because everyone had read the book and had thoughts and feelings about it,
challenging because of the multifaceted nature of the book. Of the seven participants, two
of the men (yes, there are men who are active participants in this group!) were put off by
Grady's seemingly omniscient knowledge base, a kinder way of saying he seemed to be an
objectionable know-it-all (then again, aren't many 16 year olds?). Whether or not any real
maturing or "coming of age" occurred was debated, although it was agreed that
the adventures on Grady's journey certainly left him with a wider experience base with
which to apply his ethos of impeccability.
The enigmatic character of Blevins both puzzled and saddened the group. Many look
forward to seeing how the newly released movie portrays him. The concept of Blevins as a
trickster figure seemed to resonate with the group. The good old boys Grady and Lacey
couldn't get away with a happy and innocent escape from their problems in Texas; it was a
necessity for the psychological shadow of an idealized western journey to be manifested,
and necessary that this characterization travel with them out of Texas: enter Blevins. The
journey into Mexico was seen to be an attempt to escape from the changing culture and
conditions of the west, with its increasing restrictions and loss of freedom. An
interesting representation of the shift from the culture of Texas to that of Old Mexico
was the encounter with fences and gates as the boys made their way south to the border,
then the complete absence of same once they had crossed the Rio Grande.
The astonishing and lyrical descriptions of western landscape were discussed, with
several passages from the book being read by group members. Similarly, the group found
McCarthy's descriptions of the behaviors of the horses to be remarkably evocative. With
both the former and latter, all of us had found ourselves "seeing" while we
read. While some found other aspects of the writing style frustrating, all seemed to think
that the descriptive passages as well as the wonderfully dry (and typically western) humor
more than made up for the unmarked dialogues and use of Spanish phrases.
The idealized characterizations of the women in the book were commented on, although it
was thought that this seemed consistent with western stereotypes, especially 50 years ago.
The great-aunt was seen in many ways to be the most interesting character in the book, and
her explications of her life and times and values the most interesting to ponder. The
group dynamic immediately picked up from where it left off at the end of the last meeting.
Participants talked to each other, rather than through me, and even when responding to my
comments or questions did not speak back to me as "teacher," but rather to me as
a participating member of the group. This led to a very thoughtful and active round-table
In general, the reviews from the discussion group
were fairly mixed on this book. A number of people liked it, but no one seemed to
passionately love it. Ive found this to be the case most every time Ive led a
discussion of it. Several readers had read it before, when it was new. One commented that
she had not liked it much then, but enjoyed it much more this time around. I suspect this
is a book which grows on a person over time, and thus may benefit from a certain amount of
preemptive nursing, by which I mean some lead-in conversation at the prior session, or in
handouts given with the books when theyre checked out.
We talked a lot about the language in which the
novel is written, focusing on three elements: (a) the dialogue and how it works, (b) the
descriptive passages, and their evocative power and (c) the poetic, philosophical voice
which weaves in and out of the narrative, sometimes occupying one or more of the
characters, such as Dona Isabela.
We talked about horses, what they seem to mean in
the novel and why. A couple of group participants are horse people, and we drew on their
experiences for commentary about the depictions of horses and horsemanship in the story.
We talked about borders. The suggestion was that
the crossing of borders is something each of does once in a while, and all the potential
rewards and punishments for doing so are contained concretely and metaphorically in this
narrative. We discussed borders between cultures, in this case between Mexico and the
U.S., and what its like to live in the overlap region between them.
Toward the end of the session, I brought up the
notion of mens narratives in comparison with womens narratives, and the group
took a glance at that subject but didnt pursue it much. No one seemed willing to
argue for or against the idea that men and women are attracted to different forms of
narratives, or if so, why that might be the case. Nevertheless, I think this can be a good
book for examining that area of inquiry.
Peter Anderson (Crowheart group)
This was a good, lively discussion of
McCarthy’s book. Most readers in this group did not like the book much, finding
it harrowing and somewhat opaque. Some also found its storyline just plain tough
to follow. I felt a need to try to unpack the novel a little in hopes of get
readers to engage with it at unexpected levels.
We covered a lot of ground, with this
group focusing especially on the bleakness of the landscape, the violence of the
story and issues raised by McCarthy’s use of Spanish in the text.
We discussed issues raised by the group
participants, including the effect of being in prison on the central character,
emotional borders and what it means to cross them, the lack of punctuation and
its effects on the reader, the plausibility of the character’s insights (given
their tender years) and the maleness of the storyline.
I dwelled a spell on the mythological
dimensions of the story and the symbolism of horses.
I’ve led several discussions of this
book (one of my favorites) in various locations. Maybe it’s just my approach,
but this novel always seems to lend itself more to a purely literary discussion
than a dialogue on broader humanities questions. That’s fine as far as it goes,
but I often leave such discussions feeling like we’ve only just cracked the egg.
We’re still a long way from an omelette.
Peter Anderson (Afton group)
We talked about McCarthy's reclusive lifestyle
and his other books, which many had read. The group loved the poetry of his
language, but felt, as a whole, that the book was a neat trick, full of lush
language and musicality, but not long on message. But All The Pretty Horses
was discussed on the same night as Refuge because of a snowstorm last month.
Refuge, the group concurred, is brutally honest, ernest, and wonderfully
structured. The message of William's book overpowered the themes of Horses.
In general, this novel was not
well-received by this group of fine readers. They greatly appreciated his
command of language, but criticized the book for its textual and thematic
One reader, unable to attend in person, wrote
us a long letter lambasting McCarthy’s use (misuse, as he saw it) of
punctuation. This sparked a long discussion about punctuation, its evolution,
its teaching, its purposes and meanings.
The use of Spanish in the novel was
also a point of contention, as it always is. I described possible literary
intentions behind the prolific use of Spanish in the text, and much debate
ensued. Most readers felt put off by it. They felt locked out.
We did have very positive dialogues
about landscape, horses, violence (to the degree discussion of violence can be
positive) and fatalism.
Death Comes For the
During our introductions each participant explained their relationship to the West: where they grew up; how long they've lived here; other Western locales in which they've lived. Not surprisingly, many of our participants were transplants from other parts of the country (the Midwest particularly well represented). Several participants had also lived for varying lengths of time in the Southwest, the setting for Cather's novel. There was near unanimous agreement from those who had lived in or visited the desert Southwest that Cather did an amazing job of capturing the essence of that landscape--a feat that seemed even more impressive given Cather's Great Plains and big-city background.
Many of us marveled at the harshness of life for the novel's main characters, particularly in relation to the comforts we take for granted today. We discussed the convergence of so many communities in this area--native American, Spanish, Mexican, Anglo-American, Roman Catholic, etc.--and the relative intolerance and cooperation with which these communities interacted.
The role of religion in the novel also engaged our attention. We were surprised at how little time Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant seemed to spend on proselytizing non-Catholics; their work was almost entirely with the already-established Catholic communities in the area. This seemed a little at odds with our typical perception of missionary work.
Overall, the group in Laramie reacted very favorably toward this book, and we had a very engaging and lively discussion.
I began the evening with some biographical information about Willa Cather as it related to her text Death Comes for the Archbishop. Then we discussed the novel as a chronicle of history and focused on its non-traditional structure. Many of us grappled with the positives and negatives of missionary work. The slow pace of the novel troubled some members. Others had trouble keeping track of the characters until they realized that the central focus of the work was the mood and the Southwestern landscape that Cather was trying to create. We discussed how the main characters, Fr. Latour and Fr. Valliant, were dynamic and static characters respectively. Other themes that we discussed included: religion, the "myth" of the Western landscape, and some characteristics that are specific to Western communities. On a different note, at times the discussion for this text seemed difficult and group members were not overly excited about the novel. We closed the session with some comparisons to the other works in the series.
Group reacted very positively to Death Comes for the
Archibishop. There had been a spectacular sunset as I drove to Wright, so
we began with a discussion of Cather’s descriptions, especially her skies. They
thought she did a much better job of describing the environment than Stegner did
in Where the Bluebird Sings… I gave some background on Cather and the
genesis for the narrative, and then we discussed the various communities in the
book and the overriding community which they correctly identified as the
community of faith. While it was not an extremely animated discussion, they all
participated effectively and responded to each other’s comments. I think it was
a successful evening.
Linda Ross, Jan. 2004
There was a very positive reaction to this book, and the
discussion began with shared anecdotes of time spent in the southwest and
especially Santa Fe and Taos. I gave a brief historical background to set more
fully the time and situation used by Cather. The discussion began to develop
the theme of landscape and its requirements and effects for those who interact
with it and live in it. This allowed the discussion to move from
Cather’s New Mexico to the plains and river bottoms characteristic of Guernsey,
and how the human history of the region was (and is) largely a function of its
Bob A Brown, 10-14-03
Study Questions for Death Comes for the Archbishop
- How does landscape shape the characters; how do the
characters shape the landscape?
- Respond to the idea that many critics find this book to
be more of a legend than a novel?
- Is this a story of religious exclusivity/inclusivity?
Does it have special resonance with Catholics?
- Why does Death Comes for the Archbishop make a
- Heroism and nobility are abstract concepts. Are they
embodied in characters in the novel? How?
- In what way is the New Mexico of DCA similar
to/different from your community?
- DCA has a certain timeless quality. It also
treats of the vast space of the southwest. Comment on these points.
- Read and discuss several of the especially effective
The Atlantic City group is
discussing Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop this Sunday.
Have any of you in the Western
Landscape series discussed this novel yet? What have the discussions been like? What
problems do readers report? What kinds of issues seem to interest them the most?
What's a good first question to
start with for this novel?
I can't respond to your questions since I haven't attended
a discussion of the Cather book yet. (I am going to participate in the Medicine Bow
group's discussion of it next week).
With that in mind, let me ask you a couple questions. I
know Cather is a favorite author of yours--I assume you [as a member of the committee who
developed the series] had something to do with this book's being selected. How do you
think it answers or addresses some of the basic questions the committee raised in the
series brochure--e.g., the question of whether Westerners shaped the environment here or
were shaped by it, the question of whether the West is a location or a culture? I know
this is all related to the Old World/New World "dichotomy" in the book, but I'd
really like to hear you talk about it briefly since you know more about Cather than most
people I know.
In response to Jane's inquiry concerning Cather's Death
Comes for the Archbishop, I reviewed the scholars' assessments of the previous discussions
of this work this year. I pass on two reactions from scholars who are not participating in
this list-serve yet.
In her evaluation of the discussion in Kemmerer, Barbara
Allen Bogart noted that "we talked about the Bishop's positive response to New Mexico
in contrast to Sandusky, focusing on the indigenous nature of New Mexican architecture and
speculating that since he came from a deeply settled country, he felt comfortable with the
depth of human culture in the southwest. We talked about the religious experiences
described in the book...(and) about the Bishop's penchant for gardening and then his style
of governing his parishioners with tact and political astuteness."
For the discussion in Sundance, Jack McDermott encouraged
the participants to compare and contrast the personalities of the major characters and
explore the themes of spiritualism and materialism. He also asked the readers to react to
a line from the book that one of the characters "loved the ideas of things rather
than the things themselves." Jack also raised questions about the influence of the
landscape upon the characters and compared their journeys with those from other classical
Thus far, a large majority of the groups that have
discussed Cather's novel have responded positively with productive discussions of
humanities issues. Of the six books in the series, this one and Doig's work, This House of
Sky, have generated almost unanimous acclaim from participants. On the other end of the
spectrum, some groups have reacted negatively to McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses and
Stegner's Where the Bluebird Sings... Many readers have had difficulty getting used to
McCarthy's rather unique writing style, but once they do, most enjoy the book. Others have
found the novel too bloody and troubling. However, most discussions have been quite
productive in exploring these and other reactions.
Stegner's book has precipitated quite diverse reactions,
even within the same group. Some love his writing style and want to discuss the questions
about Western issues that he raises in his essays. Others simply don't want to talk about
these topics because Stegner's stances are so different from what they believe. Even
scholars have differing reactions to Where the Bluebird Sings; one noted that the essays
were too diverse and numerous to discuss effectively in just an hour while others
commented that the book was the perfect choice to begin or end the series.
These rather disparate reactions are somewhat typical for
a reading and discussion series, especially the popular ones such as the Landscapes Series
which thirteen communities are hosting this year . While we will need to wait until
the end of the year for a complete assessment, the series seems to be fulfilling its
purpose up to this point. What do other scholars think?
In researching Death Comes for the Archbishop I ran across
a really interesting essay on fact and fiction in the book: "The Tyranny of
Facts," by David Lavender in Old Southwest New Southwest, ed. by Judy Nolte Lensink.
This article also discusses Stegner's Angle of Repose and takes him harshly to task for
lifting material without acknowledgment from Mary Foote's letters. The author approved
Cather's borrowing from history for the most part, but questioned the vilification of
Antonio Jose Martinez, who is now somewhat of a folk hero in the Southwest. It's also
interesting that she made Vaillant sickly and had him precede the Bishop in death when it
was in fact the other way around. One of the things that interested me most in discussing
this book was the extent to which the Bishop changes in his reactions to the natives and
the landscape over the course of the novel. It's also interesting to contrast his and
Vaillant's differing spirituality.
As far as readers' reactions to the books, as Mike
mentioned, my group, although largely receptive to all of the books, had some problems
with Stegner and McCarthy. I believe they were excellent choices however. We had the best
discussion ever over Stegner -- because of the many interesting issues he raises -- and I
think my group left with a greater appreciation of McCarthy than they would have come to
on their own. The only book that I found questionable was River Song, by Craig Lesley.
Although I enjoyed the realism, it had too many loose ends for my taste -- undeveloped
characters, unexplored issues.
Oh, also on Cather, I was intrigued by its non-traditional
structure. It wasn't really shaped like a novel, in that it seems more a chronicle of
history than the story of a main character confronting either inner or outer conflict
(although these elements are present, they need to be ferreted out by the reader). I enjoy
Cather's own essay on this topic. She says, "I had all my life wanted to do something
in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment."
Thanks much for the tips you all gave last week. I checked
out Holbein from our library, and I found a wonderful collection of 19th century prints of
New Mexico scenes that included great images of Santa Fe, the cathedral, Kit Carson,
Pueblo and Navajo Indians, etc.
Judy asked what my current thoughts are about the Old
World/New World theme in the novel. On previous readings, I remember being impressed with
what I thought was a definite difference in depictions of the Old World landscape and the
New World landscape. This time around, I began to think there were more similarities than
differences, especially in her use of color and her descriptions of light. I found myself
more bothered than I have been in the past by Latour's conclusions about the Pueblo
Indians, especially the "rock turtles" on Acoma. But when I began to read DCA
again (for something like the 8th or 10th time), I had a very definite sensation of
pleasure, like coming home again and meeting an old, familiar friend.
In my experience, Cather never disappoints. I guess that's
why I argued for including one of her books in this series. I'd like to see more books
from the early 20th century and even from the 19th century included in these series. Mark
Twain's "Roughing It"--now there's a thought.
Since this was our first meeting, we began
with introductions and then a brief discussion of what kind of expectations the theme of
this series carries. This brought about some good discussion about the "myth" of
the Western landscape. Then we talked about different types of Western fiction -- the
formulary western, historical reconstruction, etc. When I asked them to react to this
novel, I was surprised that several of them said they didn't particularly care for it ,
primarily, it seems, because "nothing seemed to really happen." That moved us
into a good discussion of what Cather's purpose was in this novel. They seemed interested
in the background information on Cather and her affinity for the Southwest as well as some
of the general themes her fiction explores (I tried not to be too "teacherly"
here but they did ask a lot of questions). Someone made a good point about the tensions in
the novel which got us off on a discussion of the various cultures represented and how
they respond to the landscape and to each other. The group really responded to the
pictures Cather creates and her sense of the sacredness of the landscape. One person made
the wonderful comment that the landscape was the most important character in the novel.
When we stopped, several people (especially some of those who started out by saying they
didn't particularly like the book) said that after listening to the discussion, they
wanted to go back and reread the book (God bless 'em!). This is a good, lively group.
As I did with the Dubois group last year
(getting a good response at that time), I prepared an hour-long lecture on Willa Cather
and Death Comes for the Archbishop. I had asked the group at the previous meeting if they
would like to just sit back and listen and they heartily assented. I have reams of notes
and a small library of background materials on Cather, so I laid out a section on her
personal and literary history and then a section on the book itself, classroom-style.
The group seemed to appreciate it, just listening for one meeting instead of
discussing, and I think it makes a nice change of pace. I have a deep history with Willa
Cather, so preparing this sort of talk is no problem for me, and I rather enjoy
rediscovering her from time to time. We did spend about a half hour at the end giving
everyone a chance to contribute their own insights. In general, I don't want to get too
far away from the discussion format, but I think it adds a lot to a series if a
semi-lecture is done once in a while in areas in which the discussion leader feels
The group was happy to learn what Willa
Cather said about the novel (see discussion question #2, attached), and, if I had it to do
over again, I think I would give them that quote before the reading instead of after. We
spent quite a bit of time talking about organized religion, colonization, and attitudes
toward landscape, which led to comparisons with This House of Sky, which readers saw as
having a much more aggressive attitude toward the landscape.
1. Tell the group three things you liked about
the book. If possible, read aloud from one of the sections you liked.
2. Willa Cather said this about Death Comes for
the Archbishop. Does it change the way you see the book? How? Do you think she succeeded
in what she was trying to do?
"My book is a conjunction of the general and
the particular, like most works of the imagination. I had all my life wanted to do
something in the style of a legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment.
Since I first saw the Puvis de Chavannes frescoes of the life of Saint Genevieve in my
student days, I have wished that I could try something a little like that in prose,
something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. In the
Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial
incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one
supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such
writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it--but to
touch and pass on. I felt that such writing would be a kind of discipline in these days
when the "situation" is made to count for so much in writing, when the general
tendency is to force things up. In this kind of writing the mood is the thing--all the
little figures and stories are mere improvisations that come out of it."
3. The writer Rebecca West has written that Death
Comes for the Archbishop is amazing for its sensory achievements, its intense brilliant
visualizations. Find some passages that support West's claim. Read them aloud.
4. Some critics say that the Southwest is the
most important character in this novel. Describe the characters' relationship to the
landscape. Compare it to the relationships described in This House of Sky. Did reading
this book have an effect on your relationship to our landscape?
5. Other critics say that the two priests' ways
of looking at miracles are important in understanding how this book works. What are their
separate views? Compare the two and then make a statement about the true meaning of Death
Comes for the Archbishop.
Martha Clark Cummings
. . . Two group members helped to set the tone for the discussion
by sharing calendar photos of the southwest and a National Geographic map of the area
which included many of the place names mentioned in the book. (this map arrived with the
Sept. 2000 Geographic; other scholars may find it useful).
Following introductions, I took my cue from book discussion scholars who have
previously worked with this series by opening our conversation with an exchange of ideas
regarding the concept of community, the effects of landscape on community, and the unique
characteristics found in western communities. Then our discussion focused on members'
responses to the book.
Several members commented on the vivid images and the "serenity" of mood
those images evoked. This afforded me an opportunity to share Cather's comment ". .
.in novels, as in poetry, the facts are nothing, the feeling is everything. . ." as
well as some critics' suggestions that the mood is the key to this book. Group members
also discussed their responses to various characters and incidents in the book; most
greatly appreciated the relationship between the two priests as well as their varied
adventures resulting from dealing with their spiritual flock.
There was some discussion of the episodic structure of the text, which allowed me to
share biographical information on the author as well as some of Cather's comments
regarding her inspiration for the book (Thank you, Judy and fellow scholars for that
extremely useful archived info!) We talked about her stated intent, as well as how some of
those "inspirational sources," such as the fresco, influenced both the structure
and the language.
Some members did comment they'd wished some characters had reappeared later in the book
or that some story lines had been more complete. For example, some wished to know if Fr.
Vaillant had ever found the lost painting mentioned in the opening chapter of the book.
That led to others' speculation that that information wasn't needed, as the reference was
intended to illuminate the man's personality more than to foreshadow an event. Those
members saw Fr. Vaillant as a man who could "appreciate" the beauty of the land
and of the people he found there, a trait essential to his mission's success. Others saw
the book's content a reflection of the influence The Lives of the Saints may have had on
Many commented on the priests' differences, which led us to a discussion of a variety
of contrasts found in the book: good vs. evil, rich vs. poor, wasteland vs. water or oasis
(which quite naturally led to a tangential discussion of western water use), and beauty
vs. ugliness. This led to a discussion of how the priests changed, a reflection of the
landscape's influences on an individual.
As a reader can see, this complex and multi-layered text provided topics for a
far-ranging and interesting discussion. One area we mentioned, but did not discuss in very
much depth, was the journey/quest motif, which may provide us with a good transition to
the discussion of our next book, McCormac's All the Pretty Horses.
Ebba Stedillie (Douglas)
Since this was our first session we spent time discussing general
ideas related to the series. First, I discussed the WCH goals of these reading groups and
the way you choose the books to be read. Then we spent almost an hour discussing the
group's feelings about western landscape and community.
I started by asking them to define western landscape (what does it look like, how is it
unique?) This led to the inevitable lively debate on what states are actually western
ones. I asked them how they thought landscape affected the formation of and ongoing life
of our community (Farson/Eden) and conversely how the people who came here shaped the
landscape. The irrigation which makes it possible for people to ranch and grow hay here
was an obvious example of man shaping the landscape. They had more trouble thinking of how
customs were shaped by the environment. I thought one good example they came up with was
the almost sacred attitude of people toward hunting season in this area. Interestingly,
several said that this was a fairly recent (past 30 years) development. . . before then
locals hunted pretty much all the time because they depended on the food. We speculated
that hunting has become more of a special event as more outsiders have moved to Wyoming
and as more out-of-state hunters hunt here. Lots of fruitful discussion on this topic. I
finally had to just stop it and move on to the book.
Everyone in the group had positive reactions to DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP. I began
by giving a brief overview of Cather's life and mentioning her Nebraska novels and the
ways that DCA is similar to them (landscape as major character, etc.) and how it differed
(male protagonists, different landscape, etc.) Then I invited people to share memorable
moments of the book. One thing several mentioned was the peaceful tone of the book and of
course, the wonderful descriptions of landscape. They were interested in the contrasting
characters of Jean and Joseph; they approved of the way the missionaries dealt with the
natives and felt that the cathedral was Jean's legacy both to the natives and to the
Catholic church. I wish I had been able to find a photo of it to discern whether or not it
was compatible or intrusive in the landscape. We discussed the fact that although its
architectural style was not native, it was made of native stone--a blending of old
world/new world. I did find an AMERICAN HERITAGE article (Feb./March 1994) on the Martinez
house in Taos and how it contracted with the cathedral (pp. 96-97). I found a quote about
Cather that applies well to DCA and might be useful to other group leaders (although we
ran out of time to discuss it unfortunately): "Cather believes in having faith in
one's dreams. . . .second, Cather believes there is beauty to be found in certain human
spirits, a beauty that. . . .can persist even in the face of the most discouraging
Finally, she sees a real heroism in people who persevere to rise above their apparent
limits. Faith in a dream, beauty of spirit, heroic tenacity: these are traits seen over
and over again in the characters who make Cather's fiction memorable (James Work, PROSE
AND POETRY OF THE AMERICAN WEST, p. 290). Here are some general questions I gave readers
to think about as they read each of the books in the series. I borrowed ideas from the
brochure for this series and various postings in the archives. . . .thanks to all of you.
1. How does landscape affect the formation of the community depicted in the book? How
does it affect ongoing life there?
2. To what extent have people in the community depicted imposed their traditions on the
3. To what extent has the environment shaped the characters and events?
4. How does reading this book give you insight into your own western community?
I also suggest that they note passages they find memorable and/or they have questions
about in preparation for the discussion. I suggest they use sticky notes to mark the
passages. Since many in this group are veterans of last year's discussion group, they were
prepared this time. I was pleased that without being reminded they had passages marked to
back up their comments and questions.
Marcia Hensley (Farson)
As with other groups discussing this book, the feeling of the
landscape of New Mexico evoked by the book was a principal theme. This was coupled with
the quote (shared by Martha Clark Cummings) about Cather's goals in writing the book in
the way that she did. People shared experiences of the southwestern landscape, including
visits to some of the pueblos described in the book. Kathleen Norris's book Dakota
was referenced by a participant, as another book that had evoked a feeling and mood from
descriptions of landscape (I heartily agree). Especially, "...the mood is the thing -
all the little figures and improvisations that come out of it" led to discussion of
meaningfulness in the commonplace in the lives of the participants, and discussion of the
existential aspects of this idea.
The characterizations of Father Latour and Father Vaillant, as well as the resident
priests of Spanish descent (especially Father Martinez of Taos), led to discussion of the
values brought to their missionary work by the two French priests, and their own
pragmatism in adapting to the land and its peoples. Discussion included the need of the
Europeans to build, versus the way of being of the Native Americans: "It was the
Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it." (p.233)
Many in the group identified with Father Latour's appreciation of the air of the
southwest, and the pleasure it brings to breathe it again when returning from a trip.
This was a very active and enjoyable group discussion. Importantly (in terms of group
dynamics), about half way through the discussion the members began to speak directly to
each other, rather than channeling everything through me. I hope this will continue when
the group meets again.
Bob A. Brown (Wheatland group)
While a couple of participants found the episodic nature of the
book a bit difficult, most found it very satisfying. Additionally, it provoked a
wide-ranging discussion. The descriptive and sensual nature of the text proved to be very
enjoyable. The place of landscape, the symbolic changes, or adaptations to, landscape were
all seen as important to the text, Some discussion concerned the history of colonization
and the wealth of cultures in the Southwest. As part of this discussion, some argued that
there exists a paucity of terms to understand and place these cultures. Nevertheless, the
discussion of the webs of influence, human and natural, portrayed by Cather was very much
Bob Brown (Lusk group)
The book was well-received and warmly
discussed. Here are a few of the salient points from the conversation:
The book has its own, slow pacing. It draws the
reader in to its tempo, which is a matter of carefully controlling the structure of
sentences and paragraphs and the selection of phrasings.
A question was raised by a Catholic: How do non-Catholics take this book?
Differently than Catholics? The responses mainly suggested that the religion of the book
didnt seem to make much of an impression by itself. Non-Catholic readers take the
elements of ritual and history somewhat at the narrators word. They dont
question the religious aspect of the story, because it doesnt fly in the
Comparisons were drawn between the senses of community and friendship in
the novel and those found in present-day western towns. A comment was made that sparseness
of population makes bonds between people tighter. This idea was also reflected in the
discussion of this book I led a week earlier in Alta. There, it was suggested that as
population grows, community disintegrates.
Its difficult to find examples of nobility in modern life. A few
suggestions were made of contemporary individuals who personify nobility. This came up
because I referred to Cathers comment, made while she was writing Death Comes for
the Archbishop, that nobility is the essence of lasting stories.
We spent a lot of time talking about art, since art lies at the core of this
novel. It was conceived as a narrative reflection of visual art and is constructed as a
series of tableaux, much like the hagiographic artworks in French cathedrals that Cather
admired immensely. Every page contains physical descriptions that emulate Impressionist
painting. The title of the book itself is taken from a Holbein woodcut, etc. One reader
commented that after you read the book, the sharp images blur, but the brushstrokes of
scenes stay with you.
I wrote my masters thesis on lesser-known
Willa Cather works, so I tend to feel too close to her, and I suffer from the tendency to
want to talk too much in discussions of Archbishop. But over time Ive pared my
thoughts down to a handful of simple questions for a discussion group that, in total, get
at many of the keys to this novel:
- Whats the difference between fiction and
non-fiction? Cather refused to identify this book as either. What do you think? Which
genre do you prefer to read, and why?
- What is nobility? How would you describe its
characteristics? Is it an arcane idea? Is there nobility in the world today? In the book,
is Father Latour a noble figure?
- How did this book make you feel as you read it?
How did you feel after you had finished it? What is it about language that makes a reader
feel different ways? What does Cather do to work with and through a readers
- What was left out of this story? In what ways does
Cather tell a tale by not talking about some things, or by bringing them up and then
quickly dropping them? She referred to this style as writing the reverse of the
carpet. Are we as readers accustomed to narratives which only look at the face of
the carpet? How might this story have been different had she narrated it differently?
- Ultimately, is Father Latour more human or
mythical? Whats the difference between those? Was his life a work of art? Is yours?
Peter Anderson (Afton group)
Most people who choose to live in the West (and
most of the people who live in Teton Valley are, in fact, there by choice, not obligation
or compulsion) are somewhat in love with the West, and this book immediately brought out a
number of glowing comments about the region. A gentle novel in pastel colors
was how one reader described it. A dream-like quality, said another. The
group, as has been my experience elsewhere in the past, adored the book. I dont
think any negative comments surfaced the whole evening.
A number of readers were very interested in how
much of the novel was, in fact, true. I described Cathers southwestern explorations
and the writing of the novel, which I think the group appreciated.
Departing somewhat from the novel, we spent a lot
of time discussing the nature of communities in the West, with particular attention to the
community of Teton Valley. This involved a certain amount of lamentation, of course, over
the ways this community is changing. One participant remarked that the connection to
landscape in a community diminishes as the population increases, a reverse correlation
which can be observed in every developing place in the region.
I wondered going in if the group would like to
turn the discussion to current events, this meeting taking place September 20th, but they
evinced a reluctance to do so, actually. I think people were grateful for a haven from
discussion of the current affairs of the world.
Peter Anderson (Alta group)
I think the group liked this book. We
talked a lot about its sensory depictions of landscape and people and how filled
it seems with life, even though it overflows with death (I pointed out that this
“uplifting” story relates no fewer than 91 deaths).
We talked at some length about the
history of the southwest, including the relationships between white settlers and
Indians. We also talked about Catholicism, including Cather’s gentle depiction
of its effects on indigenous cultures via missionaries.
Here are some general areas of
commentary I usually use to unpack this novel:
1) Although this novel was well-researched and depicts actual events, it
also contains a lot of fictional elements woven in as part of Cather’s
storytelling art. What’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction? Do they
have different purposes? Which is more “true,” or rather what types of truths is
each genre best-suited to exploring? Do you tend to read more fiction or
non-fiction, and why? Can you always tell the difference? What is the value of
“historical fiction?” Why would Cather deliberately abandon historical fact
2) Willa Cather said in a speech while
writing this novel that she was seeking to tell a story of nobility. What is
nobility? What are its characteristics, or rather what are the characteristics
of a noble person? Can you recognize nobility when you see it? Is there nobility
in the world today, or is this a hopelessly old-fashioned cultural concept?
3) Cather was a devotee of Impressionist
painting, and begins this novel with an impressionistic scene of the priests
having a gentle but serious discussion in a garden overlooking a European vista.
The scene is the first example (in this text) of Cather’s attempts to paint
impressionistically with words, and the narrative continues to present the
reader with such painterly scenes over and over, almost every page, for the
duration of the novel.
Furthermore, the novel was structured
like a chronological series of hagiographic paintings, such as might be found in
a European cathedral, further underscoring the intended relationship between
visual art and literature. Even the title was taken from a work of art,
Holbein’s woodcuts called “The Dance of Death.”
How well does literature imitate the
effects of visual art? Can you describe how you felt as you were reading this
book, and after you’d finished it? Is Cather’s great experiment a success? How
does visual art make you feel, and can those feelings be duplicated when
reading? Are we even using the same parts of our brains?
4) Cather sometimes said that she wrote
the “reverse of the carpet,” meaning the designs on the bottom of the woven rug
which counter the overt design and which we seldom see. What traditionally
visible elements are left out of this story? Why are some things which would
often be considered important (such as the execution of the murderer)
downplayed, while other seemingly mundane things (such as the quality of life of
the girl after the murderer is disposed of) are played up? Is a life (or a
culture, or a history) made up of the face of the carpet, the reverse of the
carpet, or the whole carpet?
5) Among many things, this novel is
about the suspension of time and the elongation of space. Were you struck by the
slowness of its pace? Did you find yourself impatient with the book, as if its
characters and events were moving along too slowly for the reader’s comfort? How
did that make you feel? Do we have pace expectations of literature, and what
does Cather’s intentionally, carefully slow pacing seem to be telling us about
those expectations? (The pace of this novel struck many readers as being
dreamily slow when it was published, also.)
How would you describe the “space” of
this story? Bigger than the historical individuals in it? Bigger than the
southwest? Bigger than Europe and America? Bigger than human life? Does the
literary spaciousness of this book make you feel lonely; peaceful; otherwise?
6) Is Father Latour a human figure or a
mythical figure? What is the difference between those ideas? Was his life a work
of art? Can any life be a work of art? Is yours?
Peter Anderson (Crowheart group)
Another snowstorm in Evanston. We discussed the books unusual style--as Cather
put it, more legend than dramatic treatment. We discussed how the pace of the
narrative fit the landscape. The historical foundations in the novel. The
similarities and contrast of culture and this landscape. The group was amazed
by the sensory visualizations. We read passages aloud. We also talked about
the idea of death, and how it's treated in this novel. We discussed some
contemporary New Mexican literature. We also puzzled over why New Mexico is,
today, such a wonderful "food state" and Wyoming is not, even though our
southern part of Wyoming was once part of Mexico. Hmmm....
Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs
Taking a cue from a suggestion posted earlier, and worried that a book of essays might not draw as many people as fiction, I asked the members to choose an essay or section from the book, read it, and come ready to discuss that. People were really enthusiastic about the book. It generated discussion about the relationships people to have land, and how we choose to live in it, especially in the arid West. We talked about mining and water use, issues of rootlessness in American culture in general, and how people craft images of the West. We also talked about whether Stegner left the reader with any hope that things could get better.
The least favorite part of the book was the last section on literature, although it did lead to a nice discussion on why people read. One member mentioned that this would have been a good book to start the series with, as it provides a good overview. We shared some ideas on further reading about books of the West generally. Most members also seemed excited to read Stegner's fiction.
The Casper group members in attendance thought this text was an excellent summation of the series. Some commented that many of the themes reminded them of Ivan Doig's This House of Sky, the text we began the series with. Both authors reflected realistically about their childhoods and the advantages and disadvantages to growing up in the West. The Stegner text was a series of essays so there was a lot to discuss in a short amount of time. Each member chose a particular essay or passage to reflect on (I found this idea in the archives); this generated thought-provoking discussion. Many members were particularly drawn to Stegner's letter to his mother. We discussed his relationship to the landscape despite how often he moved. Stegner does lament that his frequent moves as a child but comes to terms with it as an adult. Contrary to some of the archival comments, the eight members who chose to attend did not thing Stegner exuded arrogance; instead, they admired how forthright and honest he was.
The group seemed to react positively to the book. Since it
was the first book, there was no attempt for the participants to make
comparisons although I did attempt to indicate general themes and content that
we would consider in the next texts. It was a bitterly cold night; I was
impressed that nine of the 12 people signed up showed up.
We did discuss significant issues and ideas in terms of the
series’ theme. We primarily discussed the sense of community. Since Wright has
only been a town for about 30 years developing because of coal mining and since
some of the people have lived in the area for over 70 years as ranchers, I
thought it was important to establish and discover the sense of community,
placement, and acceptance they all felt. Some are there because of the mines;
some of them have been there for several generations. They have a strong sense
of community, something that Wallace Stegner, because of his migratory father,
thought very important. They are very accepting; they were very forthright;
they have accepted and developed a sense of community.
Overall, it was a successful discussion with everyone
participating and involved.
Linda Ross, Jan. 2004
I began the series by asking what the participants might
want from it. The new people (i.e., Guernsey) expressed an interest in learning
more about the West, and especially Wyoming. Surprisingly, the general reaction
to the book was negative: repetitive, too much Stegner ego, etc. However, from
this we began an extended discussion of water and the West, using Stegner’s
emphases on it, and the fundamental condition of aridity. The group also
discussed Stegner’s observation of our necessary mobility, and how our distances
to travel are accepted as part of the Western (Wyoming) life style.
I used my 100th Meridian map to facilitate the
discussion, as I have in the past.
Bob A Brown, 9-9-03
In a brisk discussion of Bluebird we touched on the
main themes of Stegner’s life and work: home, identity, sticking, aridity,
history, conservation, and difficult relationships.
Questions on Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade
This is Wallace Stegner’s last book. He died 10
years ago this month (April). In Bluebird we find many of his important
ideas, restated, reformulated, recapitulated, but still clear and unmistakably
- What is Stegner’s concept of a sticker? How do you
suppose this is reflected in his life and work?
- What is Stegner’s view toward home and also toward
- What, according to Wally, defines the West?
- Respond to his letter to his mother.
- “Crossing into Eden” is an account of a boy scout
backpacking trip to the Uintas, specifically to the Granddaddy Basin. What
themes does this essay develop? Would it be the same experience today?
- Discuss some of the myths that Stegner investigates and
- Respond to this quote: “The outside never got over its
heightened and romantic notion of the West. The West never got over its
heightened and romantic notion of itself.” (p. 102)
- Stegner argues that the modern
environmental/conservation/preservation movement rests on two notions: an
ecological understanding of the world and an appreciation for wilderness.
Respond to his ideas.
- Discuss the observation about humanity found on p. 201.
- Stegner is also celebrated as a novelist, short-story
writer, teacher, and historian. Discuss what you know or sense about his
influence and importance.
The Cody group just finished up the Community and the
Western Landscape series with Stegner. Given that some other groups were not enthusiastic
about Stegner's critique of the American West, I was uncertain how our group was going to
react. Stegner does not pull his punches, and we had group members with very strong ties
to ranching and to extractive industries.
The tone of our discussion was something of a surprise to
me. Folks really liked the book and they agreed with Stegner's critique of the West. I ask
folks to rank the book on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being terrific. Twelve folk ranked the
book 8 or higher, with two 7s and one 5. Several people said that they found Stegner's
criticisms easier to take because his family had contributed to the exploitation of the
West. They felt he understood the West.
I really enjoyed the book (which I had not read before the
discussion group) and I felt it offered some real insights into the character of the west.
The book works particularly well up here in the Big Horn Basin, because we have the
contrast between Powell and Cody. Cody fits Stegner's definition of a western community,
while Powell fits the definition of a Midwestern community. Ironically, Powell has roots
Stegner wants to see western communities establish precisely because of reclamation, which
Eventually, the discussion turned to what one member
called the real cause of all these problems--population. Much of the stress on the west is
the result of population pressures which have forced people onto marginal lands, one
person argued. It occurred to me that we might argue that what has happened in the west is
no different than what has happened elsewhere--it's just that the scars show longer.
I was reminded of Gatsby. At the very end of that novel,
Nick says, "And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away
until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch
sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that
had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of
all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the
presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither
understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something
commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
What is true in Gatsby is also true for Stegner. The Great
Gatsby is populated by careless people who do great harm. Gatsby's mistress is killed in a
car accident, her breast ripped off--just as we have ripped off the breast of the west,
which in its own way has pandered to our dreams. Gatsby ends with this passage:
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes
before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch
out our arms farther . . ..And one fine morning--So we beat on, boats against the current,
born back ceaselessly into the past."
It seems to me that Stegner would agree. We've chased the
Big Rock Candy Mountain, and the harder we chase it the further we are pushed back from
The discussion group in Medicine Bow disliked the Stegner
book very much. In fact, they disliked Stegner as a person after reading the book. They
think he's arrogant. And they took offense at his view of the West, even knowing that he
is a westerner. This group wants to keep the myth of the West and, to some extent,
believes in the myth. The group members made comments such as "What would easterners
think if they read this? They would think we're terrible." Usually by the end of the
discussion, the group members will acknowledge some good points about a book they did not
like. But in this case, they did not want to talk about the book because they disliked it
I would have preferred reading one of Stegner's novels. I
think collections of essays are difficult to discuss because the discussion can get
fragmented. I asked the group members to each pick one essay they wished to discuss, but
as it ended up, they wanted to talk about none of them. But, even in the best of
circumstances, sustained conversations seem more difficult with essay collections.
I agree with Margaret's observation that Stegner's
collection of essays can be difficult to discuss. In the Cody group we agreed right off
the bat to avoid the last section of essays in Stegner's book--the ones devoted to
literary criticism--and focus on the first two sections. One of the problems with a book
like this is that it cries out to be annotated. Group discussion participants don't write
in the books, however, so it makes it hard for them to track down particular quotes. (One
member of our group purchased his own copy so he could annotate it.)
While this is a problem with all the books in the series,
it seems particularly acute with Stegner because these essays overlap. These essays circle
around common themes, and it can be difficult to remember just where a particular
observation popped up.
I had planned on typing up a page or so of some of his
pithier observations, along with page numbers, to use as a reference point in our
discussion, but I ran out of time and didn't get it done. An idea which just occurs to me
is to give each member of the group a pad of sticky notes and suggest they mark passages
which strike them during the reading. It might facilitate discussions. It might encourage
One more comment on Stegner, which I neglected to mention
in my last posting. At one point he observes that a common element in Western fiction is
that it occurs outdoors. I had a minor epiphany when I read that, one followed by a
"duh!" and a slap on the forehead. So obvious, yet something that had never
occurred to me. When you combine this comment with his observation that motion is inherent
to the West, with humans adopting the migratory patterns animals have evolved to survive
in an arid landscape (i.e., westerners think nothing of driving a 100 miles to do a little
shopping), you have several elements which bind the books in this series--fiction as well
as non-fiction. The outdoors, movement over vast distances, and the scarcity which comes
from aridity. Even Refuge, which to my mind is perhaps the most atypical book in the
series, fits the pattern.
Motion driven by scarce resources also explains a comment
made by one of the group members. After we had read our third or fourth book we were
talking about the title of the series--Community and the Western Landscape-when someone
said, "Hell, all we've figured out from reading these books so far is that there is
no community in the western landscape."
I recently returned to town after being caught in the
post-spring break snowstorm, so am having a time of it getting back up to speed. At some
point, I want to comment on the discussion of Stegner, because even though my group didn't
find the book thrilling, they did find it thrilling to talk about -- an interesting
contrast. Narrative books are almost inevitably more fun to read, but Stegner raises
issues that virtually any westerner can get fired up about, whether we agree with him or
Stegner has given me some real food for thought.
Some of his observations seem right on. His book is particularly suited to us because of
the issue of aridity and the plunder of the west. (One of the members of the group is the
son of the founder of Husky--now Marathon--oil. I think his comments should be
interesting.) Between Stegner's critique of extractive industries and of reclamation
efforts, I suspect there is something to offend most everyone.
And yet, he is right on in some ways. I find some
of his insights compelling. In other ways I think he misses the mark. For us, it is
perfect to conclude the series with Stegner.
An interesting outcome of reading the books in
this series is that they've given me a real insight into the differences between Powell
and Cody: Cody is a western town; Powell is a Midwestern town. The agricultural basis of
Powell results in roots, in a community which has lasted long enough to become something,
in Stegner's words. Cody's wagon is hitched to tourism and the wealth of a few, a
combination which the community is beginning to rue. Interestingly enough, reclamation is
the antidote to the extractive industries. It accomplishes what Stegner seems to want to
accomplish, and yet he lumps them into the same category.
I'm still thinking about this one.
This message contains a set of discussion
questions from Martha Clark Cummings (Thermopolis group). They arrived attached to a
description of the discussion session that suggests it was less than fully successful,
though not because of the questions. I won't quote her at length, but suffice it to say,
the members were unhappy about reading essays, about confronting references to literary
works they didn't know, and about what they perceived as the condescending tone of the
author ("Who does he think he is?"). The people who did attend disagreed sharply
about the merits of the books and got into shouting matches at times. Martha says parts of
the discussion went well, however, particularly those related to questions #1 and #5.
Perhaps some of you will be able to make good use of Martha's hard work and
preparation for Stegner's book.
1. Wallace Stegner says that to live in the West
without damaging the environment "you have to get over the color green; you have to
quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns." (page 45) Meanwhile, all over the
West, people spend money and use up natural resources to irrigate lawns. Would you be
willing to give up your lawn to conserve natural resources? Why or why not? When the new
library was built in Jackson, they planted wildflowers instead of a lawn. It can take up
to four years to establish wildflowers. In the meantime, weeds often sprout in the
disturbed soil, threatening to take over. As a solution, a herd of weed-eating cashmere
goats was "rented" to browse on the weeds. Wallace Stegner would probably
approve. How do you feel about the Teton County Library's solution to the "love of
green" problem? If we were to follow Stegner's advice, what could we do differently
in Hot Springs County to get over the color green?
2. Stegner, quoting God's injunction to Adam and
Eve to "be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it," says
that people in effect are a "weed species living at the expense of every other
species and the earth itself" (page 118) How do you feel about being compared to a
weed? Should we discourage population growth and stop having babies to save the West?
Harlow Hyde, writing in THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY (June 1997), claims the Great Plains states
are experiencing a slow death because not enough babies are being born: "Without a
doubt the decline in births will gradually drain the life out of the region. Children are
the key to holding society together. Any village, town, county, culture, or other social
unit is just one generation from extinction. Without more children the aging social fabric
will fray and finally fall apart." He encourages people to have more babies to fill
the next generation. If there were a public debate about this issue, whose side would you
be on and what would you say in support of your position?
3. Stegner says, "If there is such a thing
as being conditioned by climate and geography, and I think there is, it is the West that
has conditioned me" (58) and says a Westerner is someone "shaped by the bigness,
sparseness, space, clarity and hopefulness of the West." In what ways has the West
conditioned and shaped you?
4. Stegner says, "We are in danger of
becoming scenery sellers. . . Without careful controls and restrictions and planning,
tourists can be as destructive as locusts--can destroy everything we have learned to love
about the West. . .We should all be forced to file an environmental impact study before we
build so much as a privy or a summer cottage, much less a motel a freeway, or a
resort" (page 55). Do you think Hot Springs County, in encouraging tourism, has
reflected on the destructive force of tourism? Do you think it should?
5. Stegner suggests, "One of the things
Westerners should ponder, but generally do not, is their relation to and attitude toward
the federal presence. The bureaus administering all the empty space that gives Westerners
much of their outdoor pleasure and many of their privileges and a lot of their pride and
self-image are frequently resented, resisted, or manipulated by those who would benefit
economically from them but would like to benefit more, and are generally taken for granted
by the general public" (page 80). Name all the federal agencies you can think of that
control land in our immediate vicinity. What powers do they have? Who are their officials?
Which of their policies affect us?
6. One review said that the problem with a book
of essays like this one is that several themes "are repeated like an insistent
refrain from essay to essay, while other interesting stories about the author's childhood
and youth are skimmed over lightly. . ." and that the usefulness of this volume is
that it will act "as a spur to readers as yet unacquainted with his work to
investigate his amply rewarding body of fiction" (THE NEW YORK TIMES, April 17, 1992,
Michiko Kakutani) Which works of fiction by Wallace Stegner has this volume spurred your
Martha Clark Cummings
When I read the book I loved it. I wasn't
sure how the group in Story would respond though, and I decided it didn't matter. I was
going to consider the book a gift to those of us who facilitate these discussion groups --
never mind the audience! Much to my surprise, the people who came for the discussion
(admittedly a smaller turn-out than usual) enjoyed the book as much as I did! When I asked
them why they liked it, most said because they agreed with him. One person said Stegner
helped him to articulate what he already knew but didn't know how to express. I had
asked everyone to choose a particular essay or theme and read a passage relating to it in
order to illustrate what they found interesting (or irritating) about the book. These
passages moved us around through most of the particulars I had hoped to discuss such as
--Stegner's "agenda"in the middle
section of the book
-- What really is the "Western"
character as opposed to the mythic stereotype?
--What shapes us in the West and sets us apart?
--What creates "place"? to Stegner? to
--What does Stegner value in a writer? a writer
of the "West"
--How is the man revealed in his writing style?
This happened to be the last book in our series
which turned out to be so fortunate because we could use some of the criteria Stegner
establishes to refer back to the other books. This helped to tie the series together so
well. We had a great discussion, and we all left vowing to read some of the other
authors/books he discussed in the last section of the book.
After reading the comments about the
overwhelming negative response of the Medicine Bow group, I must say that I was most
anxious as to what the Casper group might have to say about Stegner's book. To my pleasant
surprise, our group mostly liked the book, but with qualifications. Two of the group
thought the book to be outstanding and said they thought it was by far the best book of
the series. Others thought it was good, but not as good as, say, THIS HOUSE OF SKY or ALL
THE PRETTY HORSES. Some objected to Stegner's descriptions of the westerner (but not his
descriptions of the West) and to his themes (aridity, sparseness, and mobility) of how the
community of the West has been shaped.
One of the common complaints about this book is
that it is a difficult read. In exploring this complaint, we found that this is probably
true because the book is made of a series of loosely thematic essays. Another complaint
was that Stegner tried to cover too much material in the book. One participant remarked
that there was enough material and subject matter to cover three books: a narrative of his
life, a book about environmental issues, and a book on writing in the West. Personally, I
think this book is marvelous. It was my favorite of the series. I found Stegner
articulating things about the West and the westerner that I myself found to be true but
that I could not verbalize.
I started this discussion by talking a
little about the current status of Wallace Stegner in the pantheon of western writers.
This seemed to be the best of the books in this series for this group in terms of getting
their teeth into issues of "westernism:" what it means to live here, who we are
and are not, what comprises the region. Such a debate brought out the comment from a
couple people that they'd heard it all before, perhaps in part because Stegner had charted
the direction for western writing so influentially.
We spent a fair amount of time talking about the
landscape right around Pinedale, how it has changed over the years, and what it's like to
live there now that a lot of retirees and second-home vacationers are moving in. Several
participants wanted to discuss the other writers that Stegner critiques. Either they were
familiar with these writers and wanted to bring their works into the discussion, or they
were unfamiliar with them and wanted to know more. I recommend discussion leaders be very
familiar with all the writers and works to which Stegner refers in Bluebird. Being able to
point out the foundations of, for instance, Norman MacLean's writing adds greatly to the
discussion of the West.
groups reaction to this book was mixed. They enjoyed and identified with the essays
in the Personal section of the book. The essays in
Habitat made them feel uncomfortable, defensive, and sometimes angry. Except for the first and last essays , they found
the Witness section to be too literary. A few enjoyed the essay on Norman MacLean because
they were familiar with A River Runs Through It. Unless a reading group consists of literary or historical scholars, I think those
essays should be optional reading. They reinforce a view of Stegner as a highbrow who is
out-of touch with the reality of western life.
defensiveness that group members felt
resulted in a lively discussion of the issues
and ideas in the book. As people who live in
a community that wouldnt exist without irrigation, you can imagine that they had a
lot to say about Stegners discussion of aridity and water use in the West. They were
also drawn to the concept of boomers and stickers leading to a
thoughtful discussion of which category they and their families fell into and whether or
not boomers were all bad, as they felt Stegner implied. The idea of people adapting to the wests environment vs.
adapting the environment to people led to another lively exchange of ideas. And of course, some of Stegners comments
about keeping the wilderness pristine led us into a discussion of the current Forest
Service roadless initiatives and other environmental restrictions that
westerners are feeling pressured by. I felt I should defend Stegner a bit and point out
that he really isnt the most extreme kind of environmentalist as many group members
thought. I read them excerpts from
Stegners Wilderness Letter published in The Sound of Mountain Water stating his more
moderate positions on grazing and mining and we compared those statements with his
statements about wilderness in this book. I
was pleased that group members asked questions about Turner and Crevecour so that we could
discuss the influence of their ideas. One of the lighter moments of our discussion
centered around Crevecours eating wild meat makes men wild idea. We also talked about the mythic west and the
affect on American culture of the cowboy as
mythic hero. That also hits very close to
home with these people, many of whom consider themselves part of the cowboy culture. They saw some similarity between Stegner and Doig.
In the end, the group agreed with Stegner that just by being in the
West we are putting pressures on the environment, but they wanted Stegner to do more than
tell us what is wrong. They felt that it was arrogant of Stegner to blame westerners for
their mistakes without offering any ideas for solutions. Their view seemed to be that here
was this ivory-tower intellectual making a living off of his westerness, but writing about
the rest of us in a condescending way. However, a couple of group members pointed out
that Stegners ability to state the problems convincingly and eloquently was probably
a good thing in that it served as a wake up call to westerners. Everyone
agreed that they didnt want the West to become like the East, therefore they did
want to protect the Wests environment. I
think most all of the group agreed that Stegner was successful in causing us to consider
in depth how why we think and behave as we do as westerners and that we needed to that
kind of self-evaluation.
is no shortage of information on Stegner of course, but an article in Newsweek ,
April 25, 1993 The Dean of Western Letters
gives a succinct overview of his life and work .
Hensley (Farson group)
Nine group members braved a severe winter
storm to attend this discussion group. This
seemed somehow appropriate as we wrapped up the Community and the Western Landscape series
with Stegners Bluebird. I
had gone prepared to field dissent and disgust, but instead experienced a group that was
not particularly interested in Stegner, but rather the themes he discusses in the several
essays in the book. This resulted in a lively
and animated and collegial discussion of issues relating to our being westerners in a
small arid western oasis town, using Stegners essays as starting and reference
points. This was a particularly rewarding
group for me, not only because of its topics, but because for the first time I experienced
an entire discussion meeting focused on a critical examination of the ideas
presented in the book discussed.
Some time was spent on the role and presence
of the federal government in our lives, and especially how some of its financial rewards
still promote destructive practices, especially the plowing and crop planting of the
prairie, and the largely unrestricted use (and depletion) of the aquifer water resources. This at the same time as the feds and the Wyoming
Game & Fish (but NOT the Wyoming Land Board) promote habitat reclamation (CRP, EQIP,
WHIP programs). As some of us in the group
are also ranchers, there was discussion of how we try to balance the economic needs of our
enterprises with the needs of the landscape and its preservation (and restoration).
Examples of large private expenditures to
build palatial retreats, which are still unregulated in the ways in which they use and
mutilate the landscape to make it into golf courses and private trout ponds, were
discussed: examples of how outsiders still view this landscape as a cheap,
readily available, and open and expendable resource.
In the same vein, Lusks recent Kellogg Grant that involved long range
community planning came to the conclusion that due to water limitations Lusk would need to
remain a primarily agricultural based community. Interestingly,
this introduced the boom and bust cycles of Lusk (it once had a population of 10,000,
which is now 1500), and Stegners boomers and stickers comments.
Finally, time was spent discussing what it
meant for each of us to be westerners, and how Stegners thoughts clarified some of
our thoughts and feelings about this. This
was broadened to include the series as a whole, which most considered to be a
wonderful series, with interesting and challenging books. Several people commented on how the series as a
whole, and Bluebird in particular, had helped us define ourselves as
westerners, in some cases because of our ancestry, but in all cases because of the unique
lifestyle that our landscape imposes on us, and its concomitant values. An increased sense of regional pride was
expressed, contrasted with feelings of inferiority many had experienced when living in
other areas of the country where the dominant cultural values are more based on eastern
intellectual life and European heritage. In
the context of Stegners comments about being a westerner and a specifically western
writer, one group member commented that she felt it was a privilege to live in the west,
both because of its natural beauty, but more importantly because of the effect on her as
an individual: It (the landscape) helps
me to see myself more truthfully.
Bob Brown (Lusk group)
was the last meeting of the Wheatland group for the year, and several participants
commented that Stegners Bluebird seemed the perfect book with which to
end the series. Most said that it was their
favorite book in the series, because it tied together so many of the themes that we had
discussed in the previous books: western communities; the history of shortsighted greed
and rapacity in the west relative to the unrestrained extraction of its resources; the
federal presence and roles in the west; what it means to be a westerner, especially a
westerner of the high plains. There were a
few comments about a perception of arrogance on the part of Stegner, but this did not
detract from the discussion of the themes about which he wrote.
current coal bed methane boom in the Powder River Basin was discussed as yet another
example of apparently unrestrained exploitation, without planning for or attention to
preservation of the surface natural resources of the area.
Stegners comments pertaining to the conflict between the states
(and especially their elected representatives) interest in short term maximization
of income versus the longer term need to preserve and conserve the landscape as a resource
lent appropriate insight into this current situation.
lively and interesting discussion closed with considerable time spent on the personal
experiences of each of us as westerners. This
included comments about each of the books in the series and how they reflected particular
aspects of living in the west, especially the isolation imposed by our geography and
climate, and our adaptations to this marvelous landscape.
We opened this discussion by reviewing various illustrations of
the western landscape's influence on individuals and community as seen in Cather's Death
Comes for the Archbishop, in McCormac's All the Pretty Horses, and in Tempest Williams'
Refuge. I then asked group members to locate passages that generated a strong response in
them, whether they found that section to be thought provoking or just particularly
provoking! (Thanks to Noreen Healy for the great idea!) Readers located and shared a wide
variety of passages. Some that produced much lively exchange:
* "If there is such a thing as being conditioned by climate and geography...the
West has conditioned me... (58)
* [people are] "a weed species living at the expense of every other specie and the
earth itself..." (118)
* "We are in danger of becoming scenery sellers...Without careful controls and
restrictions and planning, tourist can be as destructive as locusts - can destroy
everything we have learned to love about the West...We should all be forced to file an
environmental impact study before we build so much as a privy or a summer cottage, much
less a motel, a freeway, or a resort" (55)
* "I know about the excitement of newness and possibility, but I also know the
dissatisfaction and hunger that result from placelessness... I spent my youth envying
people who had lived all their lives in the houses they were born in, and had attics full
of proof that they had lived." (201)
* "Aridity, more than anything else, gives the western landscape its
character." (46) and "...what do you do about aridity if you are a nation
accustomed to plenty and impatient of restrictions and led westward by pillars of fire and
cloud? You may deny it for a while. Then you must try to engineer it out of existence or
adapt to it." (75) "Powell understood the consequences of aridity, as the
boosters did not, and still do not." (64) "you have to get over the color
* "Lawlessness...is attractive..." (107)
* "Take for granted federal assistance, but damn federal control...Get out and
give us more money." (66)
* "...the West has been raided more often than settled, and raiders move on when
they have got what they came for..." (202)
* "If you don't know where you are, says Wendell Berry, you don't know who you
are...But if every American is several people, and one of them is or would like to be a
placed person, another is the opposite, the displaced person, cousin not to Thoreau but to
Daniel Boone...explorer not inward but outward." (199)
* "Environmentalism or conservation or preservation, or whatever it should be
called, is not a fact, and never has been. It is a job." (132)
Both landscape and human influences on local and state issues such as "the
boom-bust" cycle (and Stegner's "boomers and stickers"), water use (and
misuse), public land issues, energy issues, and recreational /tourism issues seemed to
garner the most discussion. The dialectical tension between the sense of rootlessness and
the quest for belonging or community as part of the "western" identity sparked
discussion. Group members also noted Stegner's reflections on writing, specifically on the
relationship between fact and fiction. Some readers commented that his critical reviews
stimulated an interest in those writers, as well as in some of Stegner's other works. As
usual, this vigorous group explored a wide variety of ideas, sharing numerous (and
sometimes conflicting) perspectives during this stimulating evening!
After examining earlier comments and questions from other
leaders, I would have to agree with Norleen that Stegner's book makes a final concluding
book in the series, as it leads easily to summing up ideas and putting them all together.
Comparison with other ideas from other works abound, and we had a fine discussion.
Most found the book to be wonderful, but we did have a bit of dissent. An older
farm/ranch wife, whose son is putting in a center pivot sprinkler system for his hay
field, could not believe that any benefits could be derived from flooding, that irrigation
leaves alkali deposits, that damming waters is anything but beneficial, or that any
changes or considerations should be made in mineral extraction anywhere. After all, she
said, "we need the power."
However, others agreed with Stegner, and the good news was that the discourse remained
fruitful as we worked toward a compromise, the "middle ground" that at least one
Stegner critic found in Stegner's work. It was a lively and wide-ranging discussion.
Major ideas considered were the sense of place, which may be found in community as much
as in geographic place; finding a sense of place in the landscape and geography (several
comparisons made to other texts here); ways of recreating, or creating, place; the place
of "stickers" (we had some third-generation residents in attendance) vs. the
interlopers (Colorado, Texas, California, etc.); and, with the North Platte flowing
through town at a minimal level, a good discussion of water rights, in-stream flow, the
immediacy of water, and aridity. A good discussion.
I find around Wyoming that Wallace Stegner attracts a fair amount of
disfavor. Many readers object to this book in particular because Stegner spends
a lot of time editorializing, often in a manner contrary to readers’ opinions,
and because readers don’t understand why he wrote this book. Both of those
complaints, of course, make for good discussion fodder if they’re opened up like
Here are some very general discussion questions I’ve used for
1) Stegner is often thought of as the quintessential Western writer, but
he is of particular interest, it seems, to Western readers. What is it about him
that attracts or repels people who live out here in the West? What do you think
of his definitions of the West? What do you think about his descriptions of the
Western landscape, environment and culture? What do you think of his
descriptions of Westerners as individuals? What do you think of his depiction of
the future of the West?
2) Stegner talks about the West in terms of aridity, open space and a
sort of “interdependent independence.” How has your experience of living in the
West shaped your views of each of these things? How have they shaped you and
3) Compare the American West to other regions of the country which
have produced literary traditions, such as the Deep South, the Northeast, New
York, California and so forth. What is western writing like? Does Stegner do a
good job of describing it? How do regional writing traditions become
self-fulfilling mechanisms within their own cultures?
4) Is modern life in the West still a mirage, the way Stegner
describes it having been for past generations of westward migrators? Consider
growth regions, like Jackson Hole, Sun Valley and the Wasatch range. Consider
boom towns, like Rock Springs, Casper and Gillette. How much of your life
experience in the West has been a matter of believing in mirages?
5) Stegner was an early participant in and proponent of writing
schools, originally a singularly American phenomenon. What is the purpose of
writing schools? Can writing be taught, or rather which elements of writing can
be taught and which cannot? If your child wished to write fiction or poetry,
would you recommend getting an MFA from a writing school? What are the
interrelationships between the publishing business, academic literature and
writing programs and our national and regional literatures (in this case,
specifically, Western writing)?
The group enjoyed "Bluebird," but generally agreed there are probably other
books by Stegner that would better fit the book list. "Bluebird" is a collection
of odd pieces the publisher bound into a book--it was not conceived of by
Stegner as a book. My vote for the series would be Big Rock Candy Mountain.
I began the discussion by playing "Big Rock Candy Mountain" from the Oh,
Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. We discussed the utopian myths in the
West and "real" issues covered by Stegner--water, weather, landscape, economics,
family, drifting, etc. The discussion was good, but the book didn't have the
cohesion we would have liked.
The Crowheart group did not like Wallace
Stegner’s book very much. A few people who had read Stegner’s novels compared
this book to those and felt it didn’t match up.
In general they found Bluebird preachy and
fragmented. They felt it lacked a binding theme, and seemed like something of an
afterthought. They didn’t feel it was a paean to the West so much as a somewhat
bitter critique of the West.
One reader commented that Stegner blames damage
on the settlement history of the West and the attitudes of pioneer Westerners,
rather than on the simple fact of the numbers of Western settlers, the quantity
of people who have come and are still coming West.
Since Stegner is remembered as a great teacher
of writing, we discussed at some length the teaching of writing. I shared some
comments from some of Stegner’s books and interviews about the problems and aims
inherent in teaching creative writing, and one participant pointed out that the
only problem with teaching writing is solving the problem of how to grade the
output of the students.
Our final discussion in Alta was great. Most every participant came to the
session with an abiding love of Wallace Stegner, so the dialogue carried a lot
of energy from the outset.
Participants who had grown up in the West talked about feeling like aliens in
their own land. In Teton Valley, rapid growth and change is a perennial dilemma,
and unsurprisingly the discussion centered for the bulk of the evening on the
changes taking place in this community. Clashes between traditional uses and
conservation, between old-timers and newcomers, between Mormons and non-Mormons,
between rural and urban mentalities, were brought up and explored in fine
detail. Stegner’s collection of essays allowed the group to take a bird’s-eye
view of their own situation, and many participants waxed philosophical.
A wrap-up discussion centered on the comment made by one participant that
there is great risk inherent, as the West changes culturally, in supplanting old
myths with new ones if we are unaware of the myth-making process.
I started the discussion with some background on the writer, as well as on some of the areas in which the events took place. The book was quite well-received. The main criticisms were that there was a lack of character development and a lack of resolution in the end, but both of these were attributed to ideas that the story was more important than the characters and that the issues brought up in the book were still not resolved. We talked about how Native Americans have been treated by the U.S. Government over time, and some of the issues surrounding treaties and fishing rights that are still very contentious in Oregon. Many members used their own knowledge of various reservations, from Wind River to the Seminoles, to talk about other current issues.
Even though there wasn't resolution, members agreed that Lesley did leave us with hope at the end of the book. Jack and Velrae were mentioned as the ones to look at as bringing hope, because they were young but were being educated in both the traditional ways of their ancestors and current politics. I read a quote from Lesley about teaching, which he has been doing for twenty-five years and is something he says he loves to do. We felt that the importance of education in Lesley's life showed up as part of the novel.
Time was another major issue. I asked the group about the way in which the dominant group in America sees time as linear with a definite past, present, and future, compared with a more circular way of looking at time in the book, in which ancestors talk or appear to people living currently. This led to talk of showing up "on time" or not, and how we might not see things differently after all, but might give different names to it. For example, we might still talk to deceased loves ones in the ways that take place in the book but we might not talk about it in the way that Danny does.
This was my first discussion and I enjoyed it. People were enthusiastic and talkative, and I feel we were able to make many connections between the book and ourselves. Lesley left people feeling that it is important to make connections and learning about other cultures, and many expressed interest in wanting to read more by him.
The Casper group met to discuss Craig Lesley's River Song. Many group members felt the novel was incomplete without a true beginning, middle, and end. So we began discussing the sense of time in the novel. This major theme focused our discussion on linear and cyclical points of view. Some of the other themes we touched upon were spirituality, community, and views about money and possessions. I gave some brief information about the author and the Nez Pearce's plight in the 1800s. Most participants felt the book had many literary qualities but most had more questions about unresolved issues about the Stick Indians and who sabotaged Willis's fishing area. We concluded with some discussion about how world religions and stories have many similarities such as rituals, burial of the dead, and traditions.
Although it was a small group, the discussion of Craig
Lesley’s River Song was intelligent and lively. The discussion focused
mainly on the sense of family and tradition and Danny’s attempt to recapture and
learn some of the traditions of the Nez Perce, and his effort to pass those
traditions on to his son. We discussed Danny’s visions and his attempt to
understand them. We did not come up with a definitive answer.
Mostly the discussion focused on family – on both Danny’s
and Jack’s attempts to come to grips with Loxie’s death and their relationships,
on Danny’s efforts to keep Jack from making his father’s mistakes in riding the
rodeo circuit. The group mentioned that so often their “kids” do not want to
know the past, and they were impressed with Lesley’s attempts to get Danny and
Jack to know their past and their effort to do so. They acknowledged that in
the lives of these characters and in their own lives that there were tremendous
changes, and we discussed those changes in their communities and families and
how they related. We did not spend much time on the landscape because most of
us are not familiar with the Pacific Northwest. We began and ended with the
concept that while the novel ended, it was not finished; it left them
with questions, and they wanted the story “finished;” they wanted a closure they
did not feel. Many of them expressed a desire to read the pre-quell
Winterkill. Overall, it was a provocative discussion which was not
Linda H. Ross, 4-19-04
Because the author is not native American, a couple of
readers were disturbed by his writing credibly about the Indian experience,
which brought up a small discussion about who has the right to speak for whom.
Nobody felt Lesley was racist. Of all the books in the series readers agreed it
was the most fitting for the topic – i.e., there was a definite community
portrayed and that community was dependent on the land. The group discussed
Danny as a heroic figure, or at least as a character who does redeem himself
under less than nurturing circumstances. Ironically, considering Danny’s age,
they also saw it as a coming of age novel. One reader felt the book was
influenced by Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats and the character Danny by that
novel’s protagonist. Most of the readers were unaware of the fishing rights
issues and treatment of the Indians and were genuinely concerned. We also
discussed the sacred relationship to the land as depicted in the novel and
agreed that it was successful in conveying the spiritual connection the
Connie Wieneke, Jan. 2004
Our discussion centered on cultural issues, specifically
the extent to which Lesley’s characters were stereotypical or cliché – as well
as the broader implication of the insider/outsider narrative. Participants
agreed that Lesley had done his homework, that the book was informative, and
that it was informed by a political agenda. Participants were divided on the
literary merits of the book.
Kevin Holdsworth, Feb. 2003
Study Questions on River Song by Craig Lesley
- What are some of the major themes of the book?
- Some have said that Pudge is the strongest character in
the book. Does she hold the family together? How?
- Do you think the narrative is overly burdened by the
tendency of Lesley to write ot inform rather than simply writing?
- Does the book have a political agenda? How does this
affect its impacts?
- Does the book present stereotypical views of Indians –
look especially at the first two pages – or does it move beyond stereotypes?
- Discuss the importance of dreams and visions in the
- In what ways is the book a journey story?
The group found Lesley’s portrayal of
modern Native American life in
Oregon realistic and good reading for the most
part. Several thought the socio-economics of the Native American tribes
depicted in the book were accurate , in particular
the demise of the traditional fishing rites of the Yakima Indians on the
Columbia River. Many sympathized with the Indians in their struggle against
modern white culture - whose values were rooted in money and pleasure
(windsurfers) rather than communal and spiritual. The discussion grew
particularly intense when we looked at the
spirituality depicted in the novel. Some participants had difficulty
comprehending the shamanistic and visionary elements that punctuated the plot’s
climax and resolution. The discussion turned from the novel to
a lively debate on the nature of reality and the role of cultural practices and
beliefs. Interest was also keen on the Native American reverence for place and
eventually land rights issues and historical conflicts between Native Americans
and whites. One surprising topic raised was that of the Chinese massacred in
1887 and how this event and the desecration of the massacred Nez Perce by a
rival band broadened the scope of Lesley’s portrayal of the relationship between
Danny Kachiah and his seventeen year old son (of
whom he has only recently acquired guardianship). Participants noted that the
generation gap and preservation of traditional values were problems endemic to
modern American society, no matter what its ethnic make-up.
Burton M Bradley
For once, everyone liked the book! I began
by asking what they saw as significant themes in the novel; these were ones that they
--the value of stories and story telling
--family (someone said all families have "weirdo types", rebellious kids,
irresponsible adults, etc!)
--journey of self discovery
These led into other good discussion. I was
pleased that several people mentioned how disturbed they were by the contradictions in the
novel between the spiritual connection with "place" and the blatant disregard
for taking care of their environment (throwing trash in the river, beer and pop cans out
their cars). This is characteristic of reservation life today in many places we all know.
The question is why. One wonderful suggestion from a member of the group was that this may
be symptomatic of people who have lost their spiritual center (I was so pleased because
that is, of course, what the novel is about). A great discussion group -- they really
don't even need me!
One problem I encountered was trying to find
ANYTHING on Craig Lesley. I tried a number of places and came up empty handed. Has anyone
else found anything useful?
Regarding materials on Craig Lesley, I
also remember it being difficult to find things. I was able to find just a couple articles
(other than book reviews) and thought I'd share those sources:
Davies, J. C. "Euro-American Realism Versus
Native Authenticity: Two Novels by Craig Lesley." Studies in American Fiction,
Autumn 1994 v22 n2 p233(15). This article contained some excellent critical
insights, focused on Lesley's authenticity as a white American writing about Native
Then there was an interview with Lesley in vol.
19, n 3 of the Northwest Review. (My photocopies don't have the journal's date.)
We discussed River Song last Sunday
in Atlantic City. Response to this book is very favorable, especially after Stegner, who
was not very popular among the readers there.
As a "last" discussion, we
talked about the variety of landscapes in the series; and since I helped to plan this
series, I talked about the plan to "cover" the west in terms of landscape. We
spent some time on the sense of family in the book--grandfather/father/son;
mother/daughter. Also, the subject of labor is an interesting one. Our discussion
frequently touched on economic issues.
I found the book to be an excellent
last book for the series.
To add to the several excellent points raised by Jane, I
suggested including this book in the series in order to provide an American Indian
perspective about landscape and community. I believe that the spirituality that infuses
Lesley's description of community and landscape contains different (and similar) elements
to those described in the other books in the series written by Whites. Part of the
difference stems from the longer history of living in the landscape, the stories that have
evolved over many generations as a result of this prolonged contact, and the 20th century
experiences of the Native Americans. On the other hand, the struggle to maintain the sense
of community and ties to the landscape are somewhat similar to the ones described in All
The Pretty Horses. It may interesting to compare what each of the series' authors believe
are the forces that undermine community and what salvages it (if they indeed do).
[Explanation of why some groups reading this series did
not read River Song]
The series initially offered River Song, but the book was
out of print when we ordered more books to handle the larger than expected demand for the
series. Thus, we substituted Winterkill, Lesley's earlier work. While River Song has
generated mostly positive comments and good discussions, Winterkill has been generally
Re River Song, one of the more interesting articles I ran
across in researching this book appeared in Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 1994 v22
n2 p233, by J. C. Davies. The general theme of the article was the hopefulness of Danny's
journey and how it sends a positive message concerning the relationship between spiritual,
tribal knowledge and self-actualization. But the interesting irony -- and this surprised
me -- is that Craig Lesley is actually Caucasian. Davies discusses Leslie Marmon Silko's
contention that it is a "racist assumption" that "the white man...has the
ability to perceive and master the essential beliefs, values and emotions of persons from
Native American communities." Davies concludes that the text is true to N.A.
experience and valid, but this was an interesting point of discussion in our group.
Some of the other points that came up: the vitality of
Danny's spiritual life and how it contradicts the notion of the "vanishing
Indian"; the many (unfavorable) juxtapositions of the White and Indian worlds; the
notion of inherited spiritual access and the role landscape plays in creating
spirituality; the importance of having a tribal past --how, through it, Danny transcends
his mean existence; how the continuity of a culture can offset grief. (Like Mike, I found
myself searching for the hopefulness in this and in all the narratives, and over and over
I came up with the importance of having a communal sense of the past.)
This wasn't one of my favorite books to read. It seemed
somewhat awkward in spots and left some character issues hanging (Danny's intriguing
aversion to Velrae, for instance), but it was a lot of fun to discuss.
A brief comment and discussion questions
from Martha Clark Cummings (Thermopolis group):
The group thought this book fit well with the
other books in the series. They thought it worked better in its depiction of a culture out
of balance than did A Yellow Raft on Blue Water. We discussed the meaning of the
contradiction between claiming to revere the earth and littering at great length.
1. What are the major themes of this book? How
are they similar to/different from the themes of the other books we have read?
2. One reviewer said that Pudge is the strongest
character in the book, the one who holds the family together. Do you agree or disagree?
Why? If you disagree, who do you think is the dominant character?
3. What does this book do to perpetuate or change
the stereotype of the Indian on the reservation?
4. One reviewer said, "Some of the
information is so interesting that, even in a work of fiction, a reader pauses now and
then to think about what he is learning." For you, was there a lot of new information
in this book? If so, give some examples.
5. This description was in a review of another
book (On the Rez by Ian Frazier). Does it work for River Song as well? "History on
the reservation is a matter not of books and monuments but of relics dragged out of
closets in trailer homes, idle reminiscences over coffee, and accident markers next to two
lane highways. From, the days of Chief Red Cloud and Wounded Knee down to the evening a
few years ago when the girls' basketball team took the state crown, tribal memory is a
jumbled garage, with no one quite sure where to find what he's looking for, although he's
certain it's there."
Martha Clark Cummings
This was a wide-ranging discussion dealing with the nature of
people and the sense of place. We spent some time trying to decide whether Jack was a
wanderer or if he truly felt a sense of place (or places). As part of this discussion, the
attendees reflected on their own sense of place and belonging, many deciding that the sky,
rather than land, gave them a sense of place, which obviously allowed us to tie this to
THIS HOUSE OF SKY. Other directions involved the nature of believability, considering that
Lesley is non-native. About half the group looked at the characters as individuals, and
the other half wanted to see them as representative of a cultural group. Fortunately,
there was little expressed "typical Indian" sentiment. The final large
discussion involved dreams and their place in the human endeavor. All in all, a solid
Wayne Deahl (Torrington group)
We had good attendance for the discussion of
River Song. One woman brought her husband who
was interested because he had grown up in the area of Oregon where the novel takes place
and has read a great deal about the Nez Perce Indians. He assured us that Lesleys
depiction of the country and of the Nez Perce history was consistent with his experience
and knowledge. This was reassuring since
several people said the fact that Lesley is not an Indian caused them to question the
credibility of his writing. Most, however, were not bothered too much by the idea of a
non-Indian writing from the point of view of an Indian as long as he had researched well,
which they felt Lesley had. They commented on how much they learned about Nez Perce
history, about the life of contemporary Indians and about the fishing rights controversy
in the Pacific Northwest. One person thought
it was the best book of the series, another thought it was the weakest, everyone else was
somewhere in between. One woman was so
offended by Dannys treatment of Pudge that she had trouble reading the book.
The discussion touched on several
significant ideas. The issue discussed most
had to do with how Native Americans way of thinking is so different from that of
Anglos with people citing various examples from the book.
We discussed the extent to which Dannys character grows in the novel. The group thought that Pudge was the character who
had best adapted to white culture and that she was a good influence on Danny and Jack
because of this. They agreed that Willis was
the best example of an Indian living so that he honored the old ways and felt that he
provided a positive role model for Danny, while Que, and Red Shirt represented the worst of what Indian men could
become. Group members saw parallels between
themselves and the characters in a couple of ways. First,
they identified with Dannys attempts to introduce his son to the familys
Indian heritage. They felt that too often
whites also have disassociated with their families histories and that family
heritage is not being passed on from one generation to the next. Second, the issue of having your rights infringed
upon by outsiders resonated with group. The
Indians fishing rights infringed upon by sport fisherman and wind surfers was
compared to ranchers rights to use the land being infringed upon by hikers, and
westerners rights of access to public lands being infringed upon by unreasonable
federal restriction. We discussed the
spirituality of the book, the visions and rituals and felt that we all should be more
attuned to the realities of the parallel universe of the spirit.
We didnt talk much about specific
parallels to other books, although we did contrast the way early Indian life is depicted
in Cathers Death Comes for the Archbishop to
the way modern Indian life (after a long history of Anglo influence) is depicted in River Song. Other themes of the series such as the
influence of landscape on the culture were imbedded in various parts of the discussion.
Everyone felt the book gave them a keener awareness of how difficult it is for Indians
today to live in the modern world without losing their native heritage. Several group members plan to read Winterkill on their own and report back to us.
Group leaders might want to check out the
Fall 2000 issue of Western American Literature
Journal which has an article on Craig Lesley: Money, Memory, and Territory in
Craig Lesleys Winterkill by David Brande.
It includes excellent
pictures of the platform fishing at Celilo Falls before the Dalles dam was built and of
the platforms later used below the dam.
In general, participants found Lesley's descriptions of
reservation life interesting, and challenging to any universal stereotypes. This was
particularly true in discussing the different generations of the Kachiah men and their
individual relationships with ancestral culture and their contemporary experiences of the
reservation. One participant brought up a recent NPR report on the successful
reintroduction of sea-run silver salmon by the Umatilla Reservation. Many were interested
in finding the locations of the book, using large atlases provided by the library. The
group was appreciative of Lesley's bringing in, without being blatantly political, stories
of historically accurate racism, exploitation, and dishonesty by the white communities
that have interacted with the American Indian peoples of this geographical area.
They found the stories of visions and dreams and the role they played in the personal
growth of Danny especially interesting, and thought that he would continue to grow in his
involvement with more traditional tribal customs and rituals. The importance of rituals to
personal growth and transformation was discussed. After the group discussed the literary
style of the book, which some found problematic, I shared Peter Anderson's comments from
his conversation with Lesley about his writing as the telling of stories within stories
within stories, which was responded in a positive way.
We concluded our series with an energetic discussion of Craig
Lesleys River Song, as well as a variety of insightful comments on the
series itself. Readers found Lesleys
novel to be engaging, despite some who reported reluctance to even begin reading as they
found the cover (of the older edition) to be off-putting and others who said
theyd become bored with the theme. However,
most stated once they actually overcame that disinclination, they were glad theyd
read the book as they found it to be the best of the series, finding the
characters intriguing and the plot to be a page turner. Readers also found the modern perspective of life
in the western community and landscape to be an effective closing to the
series, as it clearly reflected themes and images emphasized in the previous readings. Group members noted that the diversity of the
western landscapes as well as the assorted characters (both fictional and
real) in the series illustrated that neither the people nor the places in which they live
may necessarily adhere to a popular image. Readers
declared River Songs characters to be engaging and realistic, who not only
illustrated the struggles and conflicts of a specific group, but who also depicted the
triumphs and failures of human beings in general. Some
of the themes and motifs we touched on:
- the nature of
people and the sense of place
- lost in the
wilderness / heros journey or quest
- oral traditions
- conformity /
- family / cultural
continuity / sense of self
- traditions vs. new
ways / lifestyle perspectives
- spirituality &
- dreams and visions
- nature of
- concept of motion
(a western trait according to Stegner?)
I shared copies of petroglyphs from the Columbia River found on
the Internet (hunter and elk, twin figures, and She-Who-Watches). This prompted comments on the similarities these
figures have to petroglyphs found in Wyoming and to aboriginal figures in Australia. (I found those images in an article titled
Washingtons ancient rock art attracts the curious and the
vandalous by Greg Johnston in the June 3, 1999Seattle Post-Intelligencer post at
The article notes some of the petroglyph history and the challenges
associated with its preservation, which relate well to many topics raised in this
Another site offering many images but no explanatory
commentary or discussion:
Group members also commented on the resemblance the petroglyph She-Who-Watches
has to certain images from ancient South American, Mesopotamian, East Asian, and African
figures and images.
In their summary comments, group members noted that certain books in
the series seemed to look to the past
- Cathers Death
Comes for the Archbishop
- Doigs This
House of Sky
- Stegners Where
the Bluebird Sings at Lemonade Springs
while others seemed to have a forward-looking perspective grounded in
- Williams Refuge
- McCarthys All
the Pretty Horses
- Lesleys River
All seemed enthusiastic about the series ability to generate
reflection on our lives in the west, on how our environment may shape our perspectives, on how the stories we tell ourselves are shaped by
that very landscape, and finally, on how those stories shape how worldview.
The Alta group enjoyed this book quite a
lot. Commentary ran the gamut from “wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where
small indigenous cultures didn’t have to be erased by incoming dominant
cultures?” to “white people believe knowledge is to be given; Indians believe
knowledge is to be earned” to “many indigenous cultures seem to want to have it
both ways -- the honor of tradition and the comfort of modernity.” Needless to
say, these areas of discussion were interesting and enlightening for all of us.
I pointed out that the book begins in
fire and ends in water, and is thus positioned as a story of loss and
redemption, but this model immediately brings up a central problematic
consideration. This work represents a white author using a European mode (the
novel) structured on a Christian motif (although it could be argued the motif is
Jungian) to tell a story of Native America. I raise the question in this form:
Can art penetrate the boundaries of race and culture?
Leslie Marmon Silko, for instance,
attacks the Enlightenment belief that there is such a thing as the “universal
man,” and suggests the ability of the novel to locate such a universality is at
best limited. She would doubt that it’s possible for a group of white readers
(like our reading group) to gain access to the Native American experience by
reading a novel, especially not a novel written by a non-Indian.
We spent a fair amount of time in lively
debate of this fundamental cross-cultural quandary.
“One of the gentlest books I’ve ever read,” a
participant described this novel early in the discussion. Most ensuing comments
on the book were equally positive.
We discussed the river and all the things it
symbolizes, as literary emblem and cultural reality. We talked about the
displacement of the Indians along the river, as well as across the West, and how
white people have come to shift the meanings applied to landscapes. The
discussion didn’t verge into a flagellation of white culture so much as a
straightforward conversation about the differing qualities of cultures.
A reader commented insightfully, “This story has
no antagonist, just a protagonist,” which sparked some great discussion of the
particular qualities of the story. I raised the point that the novel begins in
fire and ends in water and thus positions itself as a story of redemption,
imposing a foreign conceit on a novel ostensibly about natives.
I called up Craig Leslie at his
office at Willamette University and he was kind enough to chat for about twenty minutes
about, among other things, his writing and the things he hopes a discussion group might
explore in his work. I took several things from that conversation: the sense of how
different the problems of life appear to the very poor and sorrowful than to the
complacent middle-class; the sense of loneliness and clinging to little scraps of hope and
memory; the sense of the richness of storytelling (he writes stories about stories about
stories). I think I was aware of all these things in his writing prior to talking to him,
but it was nice to hear them brought out by the author himself. I think our discussion in
Pinedale touched on all these things. I didn't, as I usually do, take careful notes as the
discussion progressed (we met at a restaurant for our last discussion, and I was too busy
eating to write).
We did talk about Native American writing, its
characteristics and the generalizations applied to the so-called genre (even though Leslie
isn't technically Native American): respect for the land; a sense of history and
tradition; the power of storytelling; spirituality. We talked a lot about life as we
understand it to be on reservations around the West. Several members of the group have
spent time on reservations for one reason or another, and they shared their tales. We
neglected to spend time at the end of the gathering, as I intended, summing up our
feelings about "community and the western landscape." But the group was so happy
with the opportunity to get together and discuss books that they planned to keep meeting
over the summer. I think that says something positive about the series.
Peter Anderson (Pinedale group)
The Riverton group liked Winterkill a lot! Helsha Acuna,
Native American Studies instructor at CWC, led the discussion, which was lively and fun.
One topic I remember was the different ways money is thought of in the cultures: the
Native idea of generosity-- I will give to you when I have some, because it will come back
to me when you have some. Live for today; tomorrow will take care of itself.
Also we went into the aspect of "payback" -- it
isn't really what we think of. Perhaps it is a corruption of a tradition in warrior
society, whereby captives were taken to replace (physically or spiritually) those who were
killed. The mourning wars occurred when the loss of someone in the tribe let to the taking
of another life; the widow then wiped her tears on the enemy scalp. No anger, just balance
(or something like that!).
Ten people joined me in Laramie to discuss Terry Tempest Williams' "Refuge," and the group expressed nearly unanimous enthusiasm for the book. The group also agreed that at times this book was difficult to read for long stretches because of the somber details of Williams' mother's and grandmothers' deaths. But overall the group was moved and inspired by Williams' attempts to find solace in her suffering and cherish the time she had left with her mother and grandmothers.
We spent a good deal of time discussing Williams' wonderful descriptive passages of nature, taking turns reading our favorite passages out loud. We also focused on Williams' close connection to the place in which she lived and how a person develops such a connection. A big part of it, we thought, has to do with having time (or finding time) for solitude. Williams continually sought solitude and had learned to make it a part of her life from her family.
The idea of community was also a focus of our discussion. Williams' family served as a tight-knit community for her, but she also frequently saw herself as a part of Salt Lake City's Mormon community and struggled with the traditional roles for women advocated by this community. Perhaps most importantly, Williams considered the natural world around her to be an integral part of her community, particularly the Great Salt Lake and the birds of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Overall "Refuge" stimulated an insightful and productive discussion about the connections between family, community, and the natural world.
The eight discussants from the Casper group reacted to Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place in a variety of ways, ranging from extreme dislike to extreme pleasure. Many of the women in the Casper group related to Williams' experience with cancer. One man in the group said his first reaction "Why am I reading a chick book?" almost caused him to quit reading, but he did finish and explained that he believes this book will stick with him because many of the passages were so memorable.
We discussed biographical information about the author and then concentrated on the text's major themes such as: death, the life cycle in nature and for humans, humans desire to control nature and disease, community, landscape, and refuge to name a few. We closed the discussion by comparing this text to the previous texts in the series.
I began by giving some background on Williams as an environmental writer and of her testifying before the U.S. Congress concerning the A-Bomb tests in the Nevada desert. I also mentioned why she felt compelled to write this particular book. I then mentioned that this book is many-layered, reflecting a person's and people's intimate experience of landscape. The book blends natural, regional, familial, and religious history tightly together.
We then began discussion of the meaning of "refuge," the overriding metaphor of the book. They identified where they find their refuge: one had joined the navy because of a rather dysfunctional family situation; many found and find refuge in reading, in books. The discussion "took flight" from there. They discussed the various layers of meaning in each story: ornithology, mother's disease, refuge in family, Mormon history and the Great Salt Lake Refuge for birds, Williams' seeking refuge there. They also discussed the idea of being silenced and that Williams refused to be silenced even though the Mormon religion and culture often attempts to silence women, just as the government attempts to silence those protests against the disastrous effects of A-bomb tests. They saw Williams as escaping through her connectedness with nature, especially with birds. They wanted to know how freedom and silence were related, so we discussed that, determining that sometimes we have to escape to survive, that in our escape we might find silence even though we are not necessarily silenced.
When I introduced the idea of Williams' reliance on the natural world, they wanted to know why the word unnatural was in the title. They determined that two unnatural events occurred at the same time: the unnatural rise of water in the Great Salt Lake during 1983 and the discovery that her mother had another cancer, this time ovarian cancer. Others in her family had died of the same disease-unnatural. We looked carefully here at the Epilogue-"The Clan of One-Breasted Women"-where Williams mentions the female members of her family who had had mastectomies and who died from cancer.
They related this book to Doig's This House of Sky and determined that they were connected through family, place, landscape (although differing in each book), and community-the larger community beyond family, including in Williams' book, religion. They also determined that while the Mormon religion is something of an underpinning in the book, it does not take a building to feel the presence of God. The Earth provides a healing grace. Spirit, landscape, community, and place tie us all together.
Linda H. Ross
For the most part, the
people at Wright did not particularly like Refuge: An Unnatural History of
Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams. They thought it was lyrically
and beautifully written and one woman who likes birds loved her depiction and
descriptions of them, but overall, they thought the book had a defeatist
attitude. For some it was a book of acceptance but disturbing to read. One of
the participants who had a mastectomy in January and had just finished
chemotherapy two weeks earlier thought it was sort of whiney. They all saw it
as very much “a woman’s book.” It was a varied, interesting discussion, and we
did not all agree upon most of the points that were introduced.
After we finished
discussing Refuge, we attempted to put all the books into perspective in
terms of the theme “Community and the Western Landscape.” I gave them three
words: community, landscape, and refuge – and we discussed those in connection
with each of the books in the series. Then, we ate homemade apple pie and went
Linda Ross 5-10-04
This small group engaged in a very spirited and intense
discussion, with more intimate personal observations and thoughts offered and
discussed. Unlike other groups, these people loved the birds and
identified with Terry’s use of them both in the book and in her personal
struggles with the changes brought about by the cancer deaths of her mother and
grandmothers. Personal refuges were discussed. Also, these five enjoyed the
irony of the scientific chamber of commerce attempts to control the natural
phenomenon of GSL using, and its reversal just when the projects to control it
came on line. Similarly, this group appreciated the adaptations of the Fremont
peoples and compared these with their own much more inflexible adaptations to
landscape and weather. This was to be my last meeting with Wheatland/Guernsey
BDP people, so it had a particularly warm and community feel.
Bob A Brown, 3-9-04
The discussion of
Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge was the most emotionally-charged of the series.
People were drawn into the beauty of Terry's writing, as well as touched deeply
by her account of the deaths of her mother and grandmother from cancer. It was
a story all could personally relate to. Two people noted that they read other
books in conjunction with Refuge to keep themselves from being depressed; one
read Mary Oliver's New & Selected Poems and another, who knew nothing about
birds, checked out books from the library and retreated to those when she wanted
to know what the specific birds looked like. Taking a cue from Terry's line,
"There are those birds that you gauge your life by," the group discussed this
and how we in the West were more linked to nature than people in urban
situations. The group also discussed the strong spiritual connection that Terry
felt to the land, to her family and to her Mormon culture, and how they felt
there was something sacred in those things for them, but wondered why it seemed
to be missing for so many people in our culture. Because Terry's avowed purpose
in writing the book was to find "refuge in change," the group discussed this in
terms of the ways in which the birds and Fremont people responded to change and
how that differed from the "normal" American/Mormon way of reacting and how "we"
had become a sedentary people, unable/unwilling to follow a seasonal path. For
most of the attendants Refuge was voted as their favorite of the series.
Jennifer Sorensen, who teaches Western American Literature
at WWCC … was the guest discussion leader, as she teaches Refuge in her
classes and is a Utah native. The group engaged in long, animated discussion of
cancer, family, the politics of place, religion, women’s roles and western
political realities. The group tended to find agreement on the premise that
Refuge is perhaps most a “women’s book” and that Terry Williams weaving of
the three main stories proved successful and compelling.
Questions for Refuge Discussion
- What do the birds represent in each chapter of the book?
- Terry Tempest Williams is sometimes compared to Mary
Austin. In what ways are they similar?
- What is a refuge? What is your refuge? How do Diane,
Mimi, and Terry find refuge in change?
- What do the family traditions represent in the book?
- What does the color red symbolize in the book? (Terry’s
red shoes, red in nature, etc.)
- Discuss the seasonal cycles and the life cycles in the
book. How are they reflected in the levels of the Great Salt Lake in each
- What role does authority play in the book?
- What is the liquid lie of the West?
- Discuss how the two narrative threads—the rise and fall
of the lake level and the progression of Diane’s cancer-- are interwoven in
the book. Note the lake level at the beginning and end of the book.
- Discuss Terry’s need to spend a lot of time alone and
her mother’s need to have more solitude.
- What is the significance of the prologue and final
chapter of the book “The Clan of One-Breasted Women?”
- What are some of your favorite lines in the book?
- This year is the 75th anniversary of the Bear
River Migratory Bird Refuge.
gift of being alone. I can never get enough.” (p.15)
days on the river were a meditation, a renewal. I found my strength in its
solitude.” (p. 29)
is in the mire.” (p. 45) We are a part of the place where we live.
‘em- we’ll cook ‘em.” (pp. 46-47)
urban wastelands are becoming wildlife’s last stand.” (p. 54)
a water problem in the West, build a dam.” (p. 59)
geese are my favorite birds.” (p. 192)
The group was virtually unanimous in their praise
of Terry Tempest Williams’ book Refuge:
An Unnatural History of Family and Place. All were moved by her portrait of her
mother, citing the latter’s extraordinary personality of intelligence, wit,
pathos, and compassion. They marveled at her strength and at her ability to
seek new paradigms of consciousness with regard to health, death, faith, nature,
and self. One participant, however, interpreted this shift in the mother’s
world from a traditional Mormon perspective as an indication of her inner
turmoil and loss of faith. Others argued against this view by citing Terry
Tempest Williams’ dictum concerning her investigation of other “faiths” actually
strengthening her Mormon values. Further discussion centered on the “feminist”
perspective Williams employs in her criticism of L.D.S. dogma, as well as the
American government. Interestingly, few felt as moved by the wildlife/bird
portraits or of Williams’ historical-political depiction of the
Great Salt Lake. And one participant admitted, lightheartedly, that she had a
deep-seated fear of birds though she read the entire book,nonetheless.
Still, the bird portraits, the group admitted, helped define the larger issue of
landscape and community in the West and the ongoing struggle between the natural
world and the human. Refuge, all
agreed, is indeed a book about unnatural history of family and place defined by
its lyrical descriptions of natural beauty and calamity.
Burton M. Bradley
The group thought Refuge one of the best
books they’ve read. They liked the interweaving of the birds with the other
story lines, and talked about their own refuges in difficult times: the prairie,
church, family, caring for livestock, hunting, and many more that they shared
and discussed. They also discussed the irony of the politicians’ efforts to
control the flood cycle of the Great Salt Lake, and laughed at the further irony
that the lake reversed its flooding naturally, just when the millions of dollars
of projects kicked in to “control” it. Several remembered a radioactive cloud
coming across eastern Wyoming after the Nevada nuclear weapons tests, and
discussed other effects of living in an “unpopulated” area.
Bob A Brown
Our most probing discussions centered on the ongoing search the family's women were
engaged in. None of them, it seemed, had reached a state of equanimity concerning their
roles as family members and as individuals. This ambivalence, we agreed, provides the
spark that makes this memoir an ongoing effort, on Williams' part, to figure out her life,
and it also makes it relevant to our own lives. (Most of the participants in this group
are women.) We were taken by the paradoxes--these extremely forward thinking, apparently
liberated women who wanted to see their church treat women equally, but who seldom
challenged or rankled at the male authority in their households. In a similar vein,
Williams clearly abhors environmental destruction but only obliquely addresses the harm
done by her own husband's construction business. Although she at times does intentionally
and provocatively juxtapose her environmental sensitivity with references to her husband
Brook's business, she seems generally uninterested in exploring her own complicity. While
all participants greatly appreciated Williams' achievement as a daughter and as a writer,
some pointed out other, similar incongruities. Most agree, for instance, that the
mentality in the Dia de los Muertos chapter was shallow and "new agey" in
comparison to the depth and subtlety of the observations in the remainder of the book.
Because Terry Tempest Williams has taught
classes in the Pinedale area, and because of the general proximity to Jackson Hole, where
she teaches every year, a number of people in the group were already familiar with her and
this book. Only a couple participants, in fact, hadn't already read Refuge. One man (one
of the few men in any of my discussion groups) said his
kids had urged him for years to read Refuge, and
this was his first time. He hated it. He found it vaguely interesting but so poorly
written as to make it almost unbearable (in his words). This created a curious chemistry
among the group, since for several other readers, Refuge is among their all-time
We spent a lot of time talking about the final
section of the book, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women." A couple readers felt
that the section was an inessential addition to the memoir about her mother, an
explanation which would have been better if it had been woven into the narrative. We
shared a lot of information about the history of nuclear testing.
Our third book in the Western Landscapes
discussion was Refuge. Asking the readers to come with a passage or quote from this book
works well because there are so many possibilities. We started our discussion with having
each person share a quote and tell how that related to their general response to the book.
Interesting how many of us had marked the same passages. I love this book. so I had to
really contain myself! Some were put off by all the "bird stuff" but otherwise,
they all seemed to find something for themselves in the text. As someone pointed out, most
everyone has his or her own cancer story, and can relate to this one. We thought the
author's sense of the sacredness of place related to Cather's in our first novel, and
discussed how Williams develops this. We had an interesting discussion about the conflicts
--being a woman/being a Mormon, denying/accepting death, becoming one with/trying to
control nature, etc. One person commented about the difference between the style in the
last book (All the Pretty Horses) which was understatement compared to the
"dramatic" style of Terry Tempest Williams.
I had to leave them with a recommendation for one
of my favorite books that has lots of parallels: The Woman at Ottawa Crossing by Frank
Waters (actually I don't know if this book is still in print even).
Everyone liked the book and many
considered it their favorite. The discussion ranged from experiences group members had in
settings Williams described--one person was in SLC when the city was flooded from the
lake's rise and another was in school in the town where the nuclear tests were done. Many
of us were moved by the story of Williams' mother's and grandmother's suffering with
cancer and had our own stories to tell about loved ones. Williams' willingness to share
intimate details of her life gave our reading group a new closeness. We shared stories
about the death of loved ones and talked about funeral rituals.
1. In this group, we read THIS HOUSE OF SKY by
Ivan Doig, DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather, WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS TO THE
LEMONADE SPRINGS by Wallace Stegner, ALL THE PRETTY HORSES by Cormac McCarthy, RIVER SONG
by Craig Lesley, and REFUGE by Terry Tempest Williams. Would you recommend any of these
books to a friend or loved one? Which one's) and why? Did you want to read more books by
any of these authors? Which ones and why?
2. Both REFUGE and WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS TO
THE LEMONADE SPRINGS deal with environmental issues in the West but the writers approach
this topic very differently. Which style appeals to you most and why?
3. Williams writers, "Refuge is not a place
outside myself." She also writes, "Great Salt Lake. My basin of tears, My
refuge." For her, refuge is both a place in the he world and a state of mind. How
would you define "refuge?" What helps you find refuge in your life?
4. REFUGE includes letters, poems, dream.
Childhood memories, family events, the deaths of loved ones. Details about Great Salt
Lake, trips to the desert, work with archaeologists. And a great deal of information about
birds. Out of all this, what images and stories are the most memorable for you? What did
5. "What would you have me know?"
Williams asks her great-grandmother. "Faith, my child. It is the first and sweetest
principle of the gospel." Describe a person who had a profound effect on your world
view or whose advice helped guide you through difficult times.
Martha Clark Cummings (Thermopolis)
Overall, there was a very positive response to Refuge, with one
participant intensely disliking it and one put off by all the birds. This contributed to a
very productive discussion on the topics of community (church, family, residence area)
& the western patriarchal attitude of "conquering" nature. The
"unnatural history" of the title presented a motif that helped keep the
discussion focused. Interestingly (to me), as Williams references the myth of Demeter and
Persephone, I told the story of the myth to the group, and referenced its use by Jungians
as a carrier of the archetypes of negative masculine (the patriarchy) and its effects on
the fertility of the earth. . .a cogent metaphor (I thought) for the "control"
attitudes vs. Williams's relatedness to the earth and its natural cycles. not much
response to this. . . .I lost the interest of most, probably not due to the myth or
development, but because it shut off participation. An enjoyable 1st group in Lusk!
Bob Brown (Lusk)
[Note: Wayne included the comments of a member of his group who
couldn't attend but provided a written response to the book as a possible "discussion
starter." He indicated this was the largest group to date in Torrington
and then went on to describe the discussion as follows:]
Major ideas discussed involved
1) Introspection. One participant found the book "maudlin," and one who had to
be gone wrote a commentary which found the book "morbid and self-pitying" (see
attachment). Others found the introspection to be a wonderful way to examine a reaction to
death and dying,
2) the natural cycle of life and death,
3) The question of whether this is a feminine book, and related to that, male and female
responses and reactions to death and dying,
4) This led to a comparative discussion with This House of Sky, our first book, and the
two stylistically and emotionally different responses to the death of loved ones,
5) The paradox of strong women in a patriarchal society (and utter confusion on the part
of a Mormon participant who had "no idea where these women come from."
6) finally, several wanted to look at the book in light of the recent Bill Moyers' Journal
on death and dying. All in all, a wide-ranging and solid discussion.
The attachment: (i.e., the participant's written response):
I'll start by saying I didn't like the book and if it hadn't been for taking the class,
I'd not have finished reading it. I thought it morbid and self-pitying. To me, the mother
and father became the most true. They let their anger show, and if you haven't been there,
it is very real. Perhaps my thoughts on the book are colored by my own experience. I've
lost two older sisters and a brother to cancer, and I can still remember the intense anger
I felt as I watched my lovely, loving, vibrant sister, always the most fun-loving, go
through Hell. I was not angry at her, but at the terrible thing that was killing her and
devastating my whole family. Williams only showed anger at the destruction of the
Burrowing owl habitat. Perhaps in writing the book that was the only way she could bring
herself to express it.
The descriptions of the Great Salt Lake itself, in all its seasons were wonderful, and
I'd like to have seen the Refuge itself. Williams' descriptions of the birds, their
habitats and lives were very good, but for me, often ruined by her morbidity. I hope she
feels better and more at peace with herself after writing this. I'll remember it for a
long time, I'm afraid.
[The writer expressed regrets for missing the discussion.}
Wayne Deahl (Torrington)
This time I started in a little different way. I gave each person
an index card and asked them to write two things on it: a question about the book they
would like for the group to discuss and something they particularly identified with in the
book. This took about 10 minutes. A couple of the people couldn't think of specifics to
write down, but the others readily did so. We started with one person who volunteered to
ask her question, discussed it, then as their questions related to the direction our
discussion was taking, each person added their questions and observations.
It worked well with the small group we had this time and even the people who couldn't
think of anything to write had plenty to contribute. I liked it because it allowed me to
see what interested the group and let the discussion flow in that direction rather than
imposing my own interests on the discussion. I had plenty of opportunity to add additional
information I had found and my points as the topics came up. A good resource is Terry
Tempest Williams' web site, especially the interview with her titled " The Politics
of Place." I gave the group copies of some excerpts from it that related to Refuge.
Everything about this book intrigued the group. They were really involved with the
text, could recall or had made note of significant passages which we referred to
throughout the discussion. The first question had to do with the role William's family
played in her life, especially in developing her love of nature. From there we talked
about the role of her Mormon heritage and what they saw as her conflicted relationship to
it. This led us into a discussion of the role landscape played in shaping the lives of
Terry and her family.
We discussed what Williams was seeking refuge from (change in the form of her mother's
illness, the flooding of the Great Salt Lake) and where she sought to find that refuge
(family, religion, nature) and where she actually found it ( in her capacity to love and
the fact that the lake finally returns to normal --"My basin of tears. My
We had a fruitful discussion about the subtitle of the book "an unnatural history
of family and place." What natural things were happening and what unnatural things?
Sorting that out led us to some good insights. One member of the group who teaches biology
was intrigued by the science in the book, while others were struck by its poetic quality
and we agreed that this unique coupling of tone was one of the intriguing qualities of the
book. The topic that most interested the group, one we kept returning to, was the mother
theme (the relationship between Terry and her mother and grandmothers, the earth mother,
nurturing quality in the women, Terry's feeling of giving birth to her mother's
death/life) This led us to the idea of earth as our "mother" and how that
differs from the classic masculine view ( subdue the earth, control it ) and that took us
back to her rebellion from her religious heritage and to the issue of downwinders and the
nuclear testing she protested. Oh yes, we even talked about the birds. Only one person was
turned off by all the birds. Several agreed that Williams' love of the Bear River Bird
Refuge made them want to spend some time at the Seeskadee Wildlife refuge which is close
to where we live. Another commented that she had never paid much attention to birds, but
now she was more aware of them. Usually the group has run out of things to talk
about by 8:30pm, but this time we were all still thinking of things we wanted to discuss
until 9 and beyond. The group thought this was our best discussion yet.
Marcia Hensley (Farson group)
We enjoyed an animated discussion of Refuge; it was
clear all enjoyed the book, although for widely varied reasons. Some expressed
appreciation for the natural history or regional history details, while others noted they
especially liked the spirituality conveyed in the text. Several commented that the women
in the text expressed a strong faith, yet these same women also expressed a certain amount
of suppressed rage at the limitations imposed on them as a result of that faith. One idea
that emerged was that the women were complex, sometimes in conflict and in contradiction
with themselves, which might be said to be an illustration of the landscape and of the
community in which they found themselves.
Questions that focused our discussion (thanks to previous discussion leaders!):
1. The book uses a wide variety of materials, including ornithological information,
geology, botany,details about the Great Salt Lake, regional history, the author's
philosophical and political musings, childhood memories, dreams, and family events. Out of
all this, what images and stories are most memorable for you? Why?
2. Much of the book is about change -- in the lake, in the wetlands, in the bird
populations, in the author's family, in her own beliefs. She says (p. 178) "I am
slowly, painfully discovering that my refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother, or
even the birds of Bear River. My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to
love death then I can begin to find refuge in change." What is your reaction to that?
3. The reader learns a great deal about the Williams family -- several generations, in
fact. How has their family been affected by the landscape in which they find themselves?
How are their family stories inextricably linked to the landscape of Utah? How might their
personalities (or "inner landscapes") have been shaped by that landscape in
which they live and work?
4. How has this particular landscape affected the author's spirituality? How has it
affected other family members? What is your reaction to Williams' somewhat unorthodox
views? (see p241)
5. What concern do you see between Williams' concern about ecological or environmental
issues and her concern for her family? How does the archetypal "earth mother'
image play out in this book? How does that image convey some of Williams' ideas? Is her
description of the sculpture in the desert on pp.266+ in seeming conflict with her
6. Illness and death may be difficult to deal with. How does this family try to cope?
How are their efforts complicated by societal expectations?
7. Williams' great grandmother, in response to the question, "What would you have
me know?" replies "Faith...It is the first and the sweetest principle of the
gospel...Faith without works is dead." Does Williams have faith in anything? Does she
act on that faith? What about other women in the book?
A comment from Williams " With love of the land comes a fierce
responsibility...(people in Washington talk about the West) "in terms of economics.
But what about the spiritual resources? We don't have the language in this nation to speak
of these things." found in an article titled "A fierce responsibility" by
Stephanie Mencimer, at http:/www.motherjones.com/mother_jones/MA94/mencimer.html
Of course, Williams' story prompted many to share their stories in dealing with a
family member's terminal illness,and in dealing with changing landscapes (external and
internal!) A thoughtful, wide-ranging and stimulating discussion, as is usual with this
Ebba Stedillie (Douglas group)
I find it difficult to write a summary of this very animated and
interesting discussion. The book evoked strong responses from everyone, yet didn't seem to
permit the same type of focused discussion that the other books in the series have done.
Some of this may have been a function of the fact that the group was arranged around a
very long and narrow table, so that those of us at either end had difficulty hearing the
comments at the other end, and member comments addressed to particular people were lost to
others. This led to more than one discussion going on at a time, all of which seemed
germane to the book, yet was difficult for me to track. There was a mixed response
to Refuge among the group. Some were offended by what they experienced as ostentatiously
flowery and pointless prose, while others responded to the style as being consistent with
their strong positive feeling for the book. In a curious way, the discussion about liking
or disliking the book seemed a useful and particularly western means of exploring the
ideas and themes that Williams discusses. Those that disliked the book found it to be much
too long to express the ideas and motifs effectively, and thought it to be badly
organized, with much of the material on birds and personal "poetic" experience
superfluous. Those that liked it were impressed with the waxing and waning of the words in
harmony with the patterns of the lake, the cancers, and Williams's grief. The section on
nuclear testing and "downwinders" led to comments about the need for
individuals, especially here in the isolated west, to remain vigilant to the machinations
of the coastal controlled federal government, and its ignorance of and indifference to our
Four of the group members had read a book by Caroline Marwitz, "Naming the Winds:
A High Plains Apprenticeship," and enthusiastically suggested it as a more
appropriate book for this series. This led to an interesting and lively discussion of the
Wyoming wind and its effects on each of us, and the absence of wind as a motif in Refuge.
The group seemed energetic and
enthusiastic about the book. One reader did point out that the experience
(losing someone to cancer) was too close to home for her, and found herself
unable to engage the book because of that. The painful presence of this book
always seems to hit some readers especially hard.
We had some great discussion regarding
the West as a comfortable place to live (or not). We discussed the way some
people are naturally attracted to western landscape and others are repelled or
frightened by it. One participant commented that the openness of the landscape
requires people living in it to deal more openly and honestly with themselves --
landscape as mirror.
Here are some discussion points I used:
1) What’s the interrelationship between faith, nature and community
described in this book? In your own experience?
2) In what ways do people project their
problems onto nature?
3) What does this book seem to be saying about personal responsibility
and social responsibility? How can we relate this conversation to current
4) This book talks a lot about change.
What does it feel like to change? Are you undergoing change right now? Is the
country, or, more broadly, our culture?
5) In the east, people tend to talk
about the west in terms of economics, politics or occasionally in what might be
called “spiritual” terms. How do you talk about the west?
6) How are the experiences of illness
and death modified or modulated by culture, both for the person dying and for
7) How have your own family’s
“fortune’s” been affected by living in the west, or perhaps by the western
8) What is woman’s highest or most
important role in human civilization? Williams suggests it may be as mediator
between nature and human society. Do you buy it?
In general a strong discussion. We spoke about
the cathartic nature of the book and spent a lot of time discussing death,
including our personal experiences with it and the effects of culture on our
perceptions of death.
We spoke some of the western landscape and how
it feels to live here, in relation to life cycles like birth, maturation and
With only a few exceptions, this book
was roundly appreciated by the group.
Readers liked the sense of rootedness Williams brings to the narrative.
They liked her interweaving of several themes, and thought it was extremely
well-handled. We spoke a lot about losing loved ones. We also dwelled on the
relationship between understanding nature and understanding death.
The book was discussed to some extent as
a feminist text. Readers reacted positively to Williams’ description of the
correlations and divergences between the men in her family and the women,
especially regarding their varying approaches to death and power (or the lack of
Each of us shared our feelings about our
personal refuges, the places, literal or figurative, we go to repair ourselves -
made for a warm, intimate discussion atmosphere.
This House of Sky
The Laramie book group had a lively and wide-ranging discussion on Ivan Doig's "This House of Sky." We spent a great deal of time discussing the western landscapes and communities depicted in Doig's book and how our own experiences compared and contrasted with Doig's. We also had some debate about Doig's writing style: many found his dense descriptive passages to be beautiful and moving, but others found them to be too verbose at times, to the point of hindering understanding.
This was our second consecutive memoir, after Terry Tempest Williams' "Refuge." Our discussion of "Refuge" seemed more focused on the book itself, while at times we had more difficulty engaging with specific elements of Doig's book. However, we did spend some time discussing the family dynamics in Doig's life, especially the unique relationship between his father and maternal grandmother.
In general, Doig's book served as a strong jumping off point for some very interesting discussions of the themes of our series, community and the western landscape, in terms of our participants' own lives. People shared their experiences of living in the three locales featured in our first three books: the desert Southwest, Utah's Great Basin, and the mountains of Montana. We discussed our preconceived notions and misconceptions about these places. We also discussed the different ways in which landscape affects community in other parts of the country with which we were familiar. These discussions were very lively and entertaining and, most importantly, deepened our sense of just what it means to live in "the West."
The Casper group discussed Ivan Doig's This House of Sky. We began with some brief biographical information about the author and then delved into some thought-provoking ideas. We discussed the "non-traditional" family. Many group members believed the unusual relationship between Ivan's father and maternal grandmother shaped the text as well as the author's life. Some members wanted to know more about other family members. Most group members enjoyed the visual descriptions while other members thought the language was artificial and forced. We spent a great deal of time discussing the motivation Ivan had for leaving Montana to become a free-lance writer. The discussion ended with some thoughts about how the place a person grows up in impacts his or her future relationships with landscapes. Most group members enjoyed the text and are looking forward to the rest of the series.
I began the discussion with some general information on
Ivan Doig and the area(s) in Montana where he grew up. I had a map of Montana
and a picture of the area. The four women who attended (five with me) gathered
around and looked at both. Then I asked some questions I had prepared, and the
discussion took off. The group was absolutely enamored with this book! They
thought it “rang true” to some of their own experiences and reminded them of
their families and past. We spent much time discussing the characters and the
communities in which Ivan grew up – the saloons to which he went with his
father, the various places he stayed to go to school. They were really eager to
discuss Charlie and Bessie and really liked Bessie. They indicated that they
saw Ivan as a “sponge” soaking up all his experiences and the people, especially
his penchant for family and for developing “families” in the various places he
lived. They also commented on the wide-open landscape which seems to create a
greater sense of tolerance and friendliness. They feel that in their own lives
since they, too, live in “big sky” country. We ended by their saying that this
book is a “tapestry,” “a gift,” and one that will become a classic if it already
isn’t. It was a most lively, enlightening discussion.
Linda H. Ross, 4-5-04
Unlike the other groups’ responses to this book, no one in
this group had grown up in a setting or life-style similar to what Doig
describes in this memoir.
Interestingly, this seemed to allow a greater emphasis on
Ivan and the adults who raised him: Charlie, mother Annie, stepin Ruth, and
indomitable grandmother Bessie. Thus, the values of Bessie and Charlie and
their long term relationships and raising of Ivan kept the group energy focused.
The effects of the landscape and weather on the family, and especially Ivan,
provided a backdrop for discussing lives currently lived in small prairie/plains
towns like Guernsey and Wheatland (and Lusk), and the predictable exodus of the
young people after high school.
Bob Brown, 1-13-04
Despite a couple of people’s frustration with the structure
of This House of Sky – narrative broken up so that chronology unclear,
interjection of italicized sections – the response was positive. Generally Doig
was respected for his descriptions of people and the land and because of his
unusual use of language, for instance nouns employed as verbs. One person
addressed the reason to read a memoir of somebody who had such an ordinary life,
and rather a “poor” one at that, which brought up discussion of autobiography in
general and changes that have occurred in that form. Aspects of community in a
rural place were discussed: social interaction of the bars, the ranches
themselves as small centers of community, sticking together and helping
strangers. In comparison to McCarthy’s character J. C. Cole, it was noted that
Doig’s western narrator did not want to be a cowboy and that he did not
romanticize the “western” myth of independence, i.e., nobody really was
abandoned in Doig’s world. Interestingly, one person brought up the fact that
religion was no part of This House of Sky, but no one could say why,
i.e., was this an important feature of Montana life in that valley.
Connie Wieneke, Dec. 2003
Everyone thought This House
of Sky to be the best book of the series, and the perfect book with which to
end. We discussed the principal characters and their admirable values, but
predominantly members reminisced, using scenes in the book as reminders of their
own lives in the west.
Many had been born and raised
in this part of the west. There were some hilarious tales, and some that were
more melancholy. I asked about Doig’s opening lines about his being a relic,
and the group responded almost unanimously that they identified with this,
discussing various changes in these high plains that have taken place in their
own lives, all of which seem to be degrading both the landscape and the
communities within it. Although this certainly offered an opportunity for the
group to end the year with some despair, they brought to this part of the
discussion the same generosity and appreciation of their lives in this west that
they found to be a recurring motif in the book.
Bob A. Brown
We discussed gender roles in
Doig and the meaning and value of work.and
family, roots, Western identity, and air. Many
reflected on how Dooig’s story was like/unlike their
own and how it was essential for
Doig to leave the West to understand his own
westerness. One pointed out the lack of
religiousness in the characters. Overall, the group responded to the books’
optimism and clear value to readers.
Martha Clark Cummings (Thermopolis group)
sent in a resource suggestion for this book, as well as a set of discussion questions that
may be useful to those of you doing the Western Landscape series this year. I'll just
quote her for the suggestion and then add the questions after that:
I was greatly helped in developing my discussion
questions by the Public Radio program called Storylines Northwest broadcast in March,
1998, which was a discussion of this book including call-in questions to the author who
participated over the phone from Seattle. This program was available on two cassettes at
the Hot Springs County Library, and I think it is available at many other Wyoming
libraries. Parts of it could be played to a discussion group and then talked about.
1. Ivan Doig has said that in
writing this memoir, he wanted to write the true story of life in western communities
instead of the myth of the cowboy. He especially wanted this book to be the story of
blue-collar working people. Do you think he has succeeded in portraying ranch life and the
lives of people who work in small towns? Give examples from the book and/or from your life
to support your opinion.
2. This House of Sky is also a
story about leaving home. By the end of the book, Doig has left Montana to live in Seattle
with his wife and become a freelance writer. Some people see Ivan Doig's choice of
lifestyle as a rejection of his roots in ranching. One reader, however, notes,
"Doig's choice to try his hand at writing was consistent with what he learned as a
child on the ranch, that life is full of risks and hardships to be faced."
How do you feel about Doig's
leaving Montana? How would his life be different if he had stayed?
3. In This House of Sky the
land and the weather shape the lives of the people, their characters and values. Describe
how the land and the weather have shaped your life, the lives of people you know, or the
lives of characters in other books.
4. Reread from page 217,
"But as soon as the Mexican crew. . . ." to the top of page 222, "As much
as any one instant in my life, I can say: here I was turned." Can you think of a time
in your young life when you knew which path you were going to follow because of an event
or person that changed the course of your life forever?"
5. Critics have admired Ivan
Doig for the way he portrays women as complex and strong. Which women in this memoir stand
out for you? Do you agree that Doig has a deep understanding of women's lives?
6. Some readers feel that This
House of Sky looks at Western history and its connections to the present optimistically.
Do you agree?
7. This House of Sky describes
a "non-traditional" family--a father, son, and grandmother--that evolves into a
closely knit unit. In this book, Doig contemplates what makes a family and how we become a
family. What's your definition of a family? Compare this family with your own or with the
families in other books you have read. [This group discussed the Family Photographs series
last year. Judy, WCH]
I assumed this would be a book everyone
liked, but not so. One person was quite lukewarm, and two didn't like it at all claiming
it was superficial. The rest, who loved the book, were outraged by the disclaimers, so we
had a lively discussion about the merits (or not) of the book. Some of the topics we
discussed we discussed were as follows:
-the nature of the genre--how a memoir differs
from an autobiography
--the tone of the book
-- nostalgia and historical realism
--the blend of irony and romanticism-- lots of
--obviously how their "place" shaped
the people in the book
--the tension in the book, e.g., if Montana was
so grand, why did Doig leave and never return to live? how might other people view his
father? What about that second marriage?
--the way Doig used photographs to evoke
understanding about his people
--of course Doig's craftsmanship -- even
detractors had to admit the man can use words!
A particularly nice aspect of the evening was
that most people shared memories the book brought back to them about their childhood in
A great conversation. We started in on a
long discussion of what growing up in the West is like, and spent a lot of time examining
the broad issue of what constitutes the so-called West. We discussed distance and
isolation. Most interestingly, we got into a debate about whether living in the West
erases "femininity" in women. Mildly heated, as you'd expect.
A number of the group spent time wrestling with
the question of whether or not they felt they were "Westerners," especially
those who had been born elsewhere. We segued from that into deeper dialogues about the
values of living out here, and about Western landscapes, physical and psychological.
Participants tend to like this book a lot. It
leaves them feeling uplifted, and liking Doig very much. No one actually complained about
the book, or said they didn't enjoy it, which is unusual.
I began this first meeting with some background comments about
the role of the WCH, and its goals in making the different book series available to
discussion groups. The discussion was lively, and to some degree was serving the purpose
of people getting to know one another, as there were several new group members, and this
was my first meeting with the group.
One participant commented that this book was a "no-brainer" in its relevance
for all of us as westerners. The discussion introduced and began to develop the theme of
how our western landscape (including the weather) has influenced us as individuals, as
well as our isolated communities.
Individuals shared some personal history and experiences about being westerners,
including the "immigrants" from other geographic areas of North America.
Interestingly, three of the participants, retired Wheatland schoolteachers, had only seen
the notice about the group the day before and didn't know what it would be or what the
book to discuss was. They became active and very interesting contributors to the
discussion of the west and its role in our lives and families. This was a very enjoyable
and interesting group and discussion.
While time was spent on Doig's book and his father and grandmother, his story was more
a vehicle for introducing group members and the themes of the series.
Bob Brown (Wheatland)
Everyone who attended the discussion was enthusiastic
about the book and eager to add to the discussion. We discussed why the book appealed so
much to all of us. The major reason seemed to be that everyone could identify so strongly
with the characters and situations in the book.Several mentioned that the reading was very
emotional for them because Charlie Doig reminded them so much of their own fathers. As the
discussion progressed it became clear that we also identified with the high mountain and
desert landscapes of the book, with the challenges of ranching life the Doigs experienced,
with the kinds of people and community life depicted.
Some of the issues and ideas we discussed were:
- The group
felt Doig's reasons for leaving Montana were the same that many young people today are
leaving the West: lack of job opportunities, not wanting to work so hard for so little
- The question
of truth and perspective in memoir: the loving and supportive family that Ivan, Charlie
and Bessie eventually became in counterpoint to the undercurrent of bickering and conflict
in their relationships. Doig's nostalgic presentation of his childhood overshadows their
hardships and difficulties. Although Doig described the dysfunctional aspects of his
family, he did so in such a loving way that their lives didn't seem that bad.
- We discussed
the significance of the book's title and thought of ways that the sky was Ivan's home. He
had no one house to identify with in his childhood, but the sky was a constant. People
could relate to this "sheltering" aspect of sky in their own lives (how they
miss being able to see the sky when they are in environments with trees and buildings for
example). Doig's own comments on p. 106 are a good place to start.
Also I shared
the following passage with the group It is a long passage but I will include it because it
took our discussion to a different level, really challenged the group to think of the
themes of community and western landscape both in the book and in their own lives.)
From "Voices and Spirits: Doors to Our House", by William Kittredge (published
in Northern Lights - sorry I don't have the issue or date) "In the northern West
certain writers have built for us a texture of metaphor around sky - THE BIG SKY, WIND
FROM AN ENEMY SKY, THIS HOUSE OF SKY - so it might be said they have found for us a way to
claim emotional ownership of the word and its implications in our part of the world.
Titles are names for whatever a book is about, and among other things these books are
about infinity and shelter, prospect and refuge, individualism and community."
paragraph from the essay:
"The jolt of recognition so many of us experienced when we first read A.B. Guthrie's
THE BIG SKY had much to do with that title and what the book told us about the
difficulties of staying humane when confronted with the enormities of actual distances
which often look to be unmappable. In the northern West we are always in danger of
submitting to the implications of those distances, and allowing ourselves the ruinous
privilege of believing they are real and inevitable on a moral as well as
physical level. We are always tempted to find the
difficulties of maintaining community too burdensome, and translating our physical
isolation into indifference to the fate of others.
This lead us
into a fruitful discussion of ways the Doigs dealt with the issues of isolation and
community and ways in which isolation and the failure to maintain community have affected
us in our community. A couple of examples: how some ranchers feeling invaded by the
government and environmental agencies in recent years have developed isolationist views,
people in small communities feeling that what goes on in the world doesn't affect them.
Kittredge says about this book specifically: "When Ivan Doig titled THIS HOUSE OF SKY
he was taking on big medicine, reaffirming and at the same time amending such notions in
his story about the importance of that shelter which is family, and the ultimately
coherent self that grows out of family."
We used the remaining time to discuss general questions about community and landscape I
gave the group last time. They could think of many ways landscape had affected community
in the novel and many ways environment had shaped the characters and events. They thought
that the different work ethics depicted by immigrant groups (the Scots, the Hutterites,
the Mexican sheepherders) were examples of people imposing their traditions on the land
and people. They noted the lack of organized religion as a cultural influence and
speculated on the role both landscape and distance played in minimizing its importance,
noting also that westerners seem more likely to find God in the natural world than in
church. The discussion ranged widely, ending with deciding that as westerners we,
like Doig, sometimes are "very much aware of our "relicthood" (Doig vi)
Since a storm prevented the group from meeting in November to discuss
Death Comes for the Archbishop, we began this meeting with a brief discussion of
the groups thoughts about it. I went
over some biographical material on Willa Cather, then the group chatted about
the book. There was a lot of energy here, but
this meeting was to discuss This House of Sky, so I segued from Archbishop to House
with quotes from each about the omnipresence of sky as a central theme in each.
In an attempt to anticipate this groups proclivity for personal
anecdote and chat versus critical examination of the themes of Community and the Western
Landscape, I had prepared about 50 bullets with quotes, hoping to use them as
readily identifiable motifs that the group might pick up on. This met with limited success in terms of
critical dialogue, but did seem to serve as connecting links to shape the discussion (I
think I used about five of them). There
seemed to develop a slight split between the country/ranching participants and those who
live in town. The former readily identified
with Doigs descriptions and tales and the relationship with the land and weather of
western agricultural families. The latter in
general identified themselves as westerners, but felt that small western towns (e.g.,
Lusk) had no particular differentiation from any other community, and in some instances
lesser appeal than more populated places (e.g., the Colorado Front Range). There were a number of ideas about different local
communities within Lusk and its surroundings, and I feel that this motif may allow further
development in the last two meetings.
With 16 participants, the group engaged in lively discussion,
with many family anecdotes. They expressed a
good feeling about the book, especially in the context of its description of the high
plains and small towns and the sky. At the
end of the meeting, discussion spontaneously returned to Cathers book. I regret that the group missed the opportunity to
discuss this book in detail.
Bob Brown (Lusk group)
Blizzard conditions and closed roads
the previous week prompted a postponing of the discussion until this night, Feb. 14,and
seemed to set the stage for our discussion of This House of Sky. Everyone could definitely relate to Doigs
descriptions and anecdotes related to weather and landscape! Most readers were enthusiastic about the book with
one reader declaring the book to be her favorite of the entire series. A few found the reading to be slow and
difficult to get into due to the poetic style.
These contrasting responses prompted some discussion on the authors
style and voice, as well as comparisons to other selections in the series.
Our discussion centered on several
· How did this landscape affect Charlie and Ivan Doig? (How did it shape their personalities, their
values, their lives?) What was its impact on
· Doig has said he wanted to write the true story of
life in the West. Has he? Is this story typical of the western experience?
· Has Doig accurately captured the women in the West? Does he have real knowledge of Ruth? What about Bessie Ringer?
· How does this Montana landscape affect community and how
individuals establish that community? What
is the relationship between the idea of community, the reality of
community and the concept of family as presented in This House
· Doigs descriptions paint a proudly majestic, if sometimes
harsh, portrait of the Montana landscape and the people who live within it. Do you see any contradiction or conflict in the
attitude reflected in this memoir and Doigs desire to leave Montana? Is he rejecting his roots?
· How might Doigs childhood and teen years of ranching and
shepherding have prepared him for a career as a writer?
· Ivan obviously loves and admires his father. How might others have seen Charlie Doig? Is Charlie an illustration of the mythical
· How have human cultural traditions affected the landscape?
As has become customary, this group engaged in lively conversation regarding the
books content and ideas it presents. Reflecting on that discussion on the drive home, I thought of
Stegners comments on his sense of rootlessness and quest for a
sense of belonging as part of the western identity.
I wonder if the family in This House of Sky illustrates that tension
or contradicts it. That question or at
least the focus on the dialectical tension as integral to western identity -- may be our
starting point when we meet to discuss our final selection, River Song.
We had an great discussion of Doig’s
memoir at the Alta library, including a number of colorful personal stories and
Several readers commented that they had
to struggle to get beyond Doig’s trademark poetic diction in order to enjoy the
story (which is not what we usually hear from reading groups). These
observations sparked a long debate about the nature of the craft of memoir. We
discussed the sound of words, the effect on the reader of lofty language and the
sensations of reading carefully-rendered prose. One reader commented on the fact
that, once you turn a corner (somewhere in the middle of the narrative), the
book becomes relaxing, a comforting lullaby.
We talked about how Doig seemed to be
describing how the landscape molded him, and how it has molded each of us. We
also talked about sudden, enlightening change and how epiphany seemed to come to
Doig somewhere on the plateau (with the sheep during the storm) and how it has
come to each of us at various times in our lives.
I also mentioned that this book was used
by the Kitsap County Library in Washington as the text for a promotion in which
the whole town of Port Orchard was urged to read the same book simultaneously
and then engage in discussion of it, which opened our dialogue to the nature of
reading and the role of literary discussion in building communities.
Several readers found it difficult to get into this book. They found
Doig’s style florid and meandering. Others loved what they feel is the poetry of
Those who were put off by the memoir found Doig’s depiction of his
childhood as melancholy, hard, sad and isolated. Those who liked it seemed to
appreciate, among other things, the book’s sense of history, prophecy and warm
We discussed the relationship between settlement history in the west
and our views of the land and what we expect of it, or of living here.
I noted that this book has been used as a “community reading” text in
several towns - sort of a large-scale book group, where the whole town joins in.
We discussed the aspects of this book that might make it a good discussion text
for any small western community to read and share.
We were in heavy competition with the Olympics, as downtown Evanston resembles
a mini Olympic village and many security personnel are based there. Hard to
compete when there's a Jumbotron across the street showing the last miles of
the torch run, but we had a better turnout than I expected. One reader grew up
across the Big Belt Mountains from the Doig place and she added a good deal to
discussion of place and even some of the people in the memoir, including Doig
himself. The group felt the book was pretty flawless and we spent most of the
time reading favorite poetic passages from the book until we reached a sort of
'nuff said agreement. Both the Kemmerer and Evanston crew were surprised that
next month's selections are this list's last--still a lot of winter left down
“What’s with all the words?” one reader demanded
right out of the starting gate, and many participants concurred that they had
struggled, by and large, with Ivan Doig’s writing style. All but a couple of
participants expressed frustration with Doig’s pleonasticity.
But readers also embraced his descriptions of
life on the high western plains, of family closeness, of loneliness and the
sense of community in small towns and of sheepherding.
We talked a bit about personal epiphanies, such
as the moment Doig describes that he knew he was bound elsewhere. This reading
group, like most in Wyoming, is composed largely of people with deep roots in
the west, and Wyoming in particular. We spoke a lot about what it feels like to
grow up in western rural areas, to leave, to come back.