In Washington State, a widowed doctor suffering from cancer takes a hunting trip, the real purpose of which is to commit suicide, which he will masquerade as an accident. But Dr. Ben Givens' resolve is tested by several events which reaffirm the joy of living--he cheats death by fighting off wolves and helps a girl give birth.
Guterson's skill at using natural settings to emphasis internal conflict is great. The novel covers a period of only a few days, but Ben's journey covers a lifetime.
A thoughtful, provocative novel of immense beauty - this is one I can recommend.
Like the author's Snow Falling on Cedars, I enjoyed this book tremendously. I have read many books in which I have become immersed and this is definitely one of them. It is not to be quickly forgotten. This story is so real and so profound that I became
Ben Givens' past memories of the simple but hard life, however loved and valued by him, reminded me somewhat of my own. I found the war and his feelings and experiences of it horrifyingly graphic and real. His nonjudmental attitude of other people and his physical vulnerability was also very realistic. As a human being, this story depicts the soul that does not age even as our bodies do. The eternal questions about death and dying were achingly apparent in this story. For a young author to understand humanity in this way, that life is fragile but the human spirit inherently courageous, is refreshing.
David Guterson is a treat to read. His writing is simply beautiful. The story is so sad and contains all of the elements of life along with being realistic on the points of dying. His prose brings to the reader some wonderfully vivid mental pictures and the feel of apple country in the eastern part of Washington State. The horrors of the transient fruit pickers and the protagonist's illness I did find very distressing but necessary to the narrative and I felt more hopeful at the end of the book than at the beginning.
This book is one that will be read by me many times.
The story centres on Ben Givens, a retired heart surgeon who has recently lost his wife, and is now dying of colon cancer. Givens, an outdoors person all of his life, decides that he will go on one last bird-hunting trip with his two dogs, and make his death look like a hunting accident to spare his daughter the anguish of coming to grips with his suicide. But the best laid plans ‘o mice and men...Ben has an accident on the highway that wrecks his vehicle; he is rescued by a young, footloose couple in a VW van who take him to a nearby town, and thus begins what can only be described as his Odyssean journey from a determination to end his life, back around to an appreciation of the value of maintaining it despite the grim prognosis. (The Odyssean theme is eternal; witness the success of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (97:36).) Like Odysseus, Givens meets a number of people who help or challenge him: the young couple who help him after the accident and who remind him of the fervent love he felt for his wife; the hitchhiker who introduces him to the glories of marijuana which he uses to dull the pain in his side; the young woman on a bus who challenges him to help an obviously ill itinerate worker; the veterinarian woman who patches up his dog after a fight with coyote-chasing wolfhounds; the owner of the wolfhounds who steals Givens' shotgun as compensation for Givens having killed one of the dogs; another itinerate worker whom Givens befriends and finds a job apple-picking and who leads him into a situation where he is called upon to save a teenage girl having a very difficult birth; the woman who then befriends him and drives him back home to Seattle. Throughout there are flashbacks to Ben's life on the apple-farm, the early death of his mother and its affect on his father, and his experience in WWII (undistinguished, but which led him to medicine).
Guterson has an eye for scenery and loves to dwell on his descriptions; he has also done a lot of research on the practice, challenges and heartbreaks of fruit farming which he uses to effect. Givens is a good character: well-developed and sympathetic and Guterson describes well the conflict and journey that Givens travels as incidents and reminders of life continually interrupt his plans to kill himself. The other characters are not well developed; they are stock-pieces that serve their purposes in the story and then disappear. I didn't think the novel was as well structured or as deep across a number of characters as was Snow..., but I enjoyed the writing and the struggle with the eternal questions of the value of life and love.
The connection with the land that Guterson gives his main character, Ben Givens, is one of the best depictions of a love of nature in a work of fiction that I've ever read. What sends Ben off on the story's journey is the cold hard news that he has terminal cancer. Ben Givens is a good man in a hard place. This aged doctor and recent widower makes an important decision. He heads off into the American West with his two hunting dogs. This is to be the trio's last hunting trip. The beautiful descriptions of the different landscapes that they move through are only rivaled by the blunt and thoughtful way that the author writes of Ben's feelings.
I was sick for a few days while reading this book. When I feel sick, I tend to wear my favorite shirt and eat my comfort foods; East of the Mountains filled the bill as a very comfortable place (a disturbingly comfortable place) for my mind to be traveling. While there are several disturbing things that happen in the novel, it was the writing that just captured me. Some reviewers have said that the story is just a small little tale--ignore these people. There are many strong emotions very close to the surface all through this book. This book had everything that I expect from a strong novel.
A engrossing tale about how life keeps on happening, despite our plans. Like Odysseus, Ben meets strange characters on his way "home" who star in mini-episodes of the journey. Dialogue is Hemingway-style--spare and elliptical. Details are convincing, characters act in true and meaningful ways that impact Ben's trajectory.
Guterson remains objective; no preaching here. I feel that the story could have ended differently; it seemed that to be true to his nature, Ben himself decided to remain "east of the mountains", where the sun rises.
9 out of 10 Highly recommended to all!
Guterson has written beautifully of the Washington orchards and mountains. His portrayal of the various small towns through which Ben passes is consummate. And he captures the isolation and solitude of the area and of his main character. The pace of the novel is slow and measured and there are no loud and climactic moments as Ben wanders through the detailed landscape of his beginnings. This is not action-packed; rather it is a peripatetic and thoughtful journey about mortality and humanity. The narrative focuses almost solely on Ben and his internal life during the 48 hours which he has determined to be his last. The quiet flow of this story will not be for everyone but for those who are in no rush to overlook the beautiful descriptiveness contained within these pages, this is a haunting and melancholic read. Recommended with reservations.