Monday, December 14, 2009

East of the Mountains

East of the Mountains by David Guterson
Hardcover, 279 pages
Harcourt Brace, 1999
ISBN-13: 9780788196423
very highly recommended

It is mid-October, 1997, harvest time in the Columbia Basin of central Washington state, a rich apple and pear growing region. Ben Givens, recently widowed, is a retired heart surgeon, once admired for his steadiness of hand, his precision, his endurance. He has terminal colon cancer. While Ben does not readily accept defeat, he is determined to avoid suffering rather than engage it. And so, accompanied by his two hunting dogs, he sets out through the mythic American West-sage deserts, yawning canyons, dusty ranches, vast orchards — on his last hunt.
The main issues for Ben as a doctor had been tactical and so it would be with his death. But he hadn't considered the persuasiveness of memory — the promise he made to his wife Rachel, the love of his life, during World War II. Or life's mystery. On his journey he meets a young couple who are "forever," a drifter offering left-handed advice that might lessen the pain, a veterinarian with a touch only a heart surgeon would recognize, a rancher bent on destruction, a migrant worker who tests Ben's ability to understand. And just when he thinks there is no turning back, nothing to lose that wasn't lost, his power of intervention is called upon and his very identity tested.
Full of humanity, passion, and moral honesty, East of the Mountains is a bold and beautiful novel of personal discovery.

My Thoughts:

David Guterson, also author of Snow Falling on Cedars, is a wonderful, elegant writer. This is a far more personal story of one man, Dr. Ben Givens, a retired heart surgeon who, after learning he has colon cancer, decides to plan a hunting trip as a ruse to cover up his planned suicide. His wife had passed away 19 months earlier and he wanted to spare their daughter the pain of his decline and death. He is a man on a quest, facing his mortality, overcoming challenges, all while remembering his past. The singularity and purpose of the storyline is what made East of the Mountains so very successful for me. The characters and the landscape are well drawn, and you can easily visualize them. Guterson's writing is just so beautiful even while he tackles a difficult question.
Very Highly Recommended


On the night he had appointed his last among the living, Dr. Ben Givens did not dream, for his sleep was restless and visited by phantoms who guarded the portal to the world of dreams by speaking relentlessly of this world. They spoke of his wife — now dead — and of his daughter, of silent canyons where he had hunted birds, of august peaks he had once ascended, of apples newly plucked from trees, and of vineyards in the foothills of the Apennines. They spoke of rows of campanino apples near Monte Della Torraccia; they spoke of cherry trees on river slopes and of pear blossoms in May sunlight. Now on the roof tiles and against his window a vast Seattle rain fell ceaselessly, as if to remind him that memories are illusions; the din of its beating against the world was in perfect harmony with his insomnia. Dr. Givens shrugged off his past to devote himself to the rain's steady cadence, but no dreams, no deliverance, came to him. Instead he only adjusted his legs — his bladder felt distressingly full — and lay tormented by the unassailable fact that he was dying — dying of colon cancer. opening

These past nineteen months, since his wife died, he'd returned to a haunting, autumn pastime: he'd hunted birds to shoot on the wing for the first time since he was a teenager. This was a pursuit that stole his soul shortly after Rachel's death, after he'd turned from his work as a surgeon and found himself with too much idle time.
His face was weathered and furrowed, his eyes two dark shields. His coarse gray hair looked permanently wind-tousled, and he walked a bit gingerly, with a bowlegged gait, to keep the weight from his instep. He was so tall that, without thinking about it, he ducked his head to pass through doorways. His patients, in past years, had admired his hands: precise, large, and powerful. When he palpated their chests or listened to their hearts, they were infused with his professional confidence. pg. 3

He had visited his family the evening before, eaten dinner with Renee and Chris, his grandson, in the pretense that everything was ordinary, but in fact to service his end-game ruse. He was going over the mountains, he'd said, to hunt for quail in willow canyons, he had no particular canyons in mind, he intended to return on Thursday evening, though possibly, if the hunting was good, he would return on Friday or Saturday. The lie was open-ended so that his family wouldn't start worrying until he'd been dead for as long as a week — so none would miss or seek him where he rotted silently in the sage. Ben imagined how it might be otherwise, his cancer a pestilent force in their lives, or a pall descending over them like ice, just as they'd begun to emerge from the pall of Rachel's death. The last thing they needed was for Ben to tell them of his terminal colon cancer. pg. 10

His cancer had metastasized, traveling from the mucosa of his colon to the lymph nodes close to his tumor, and from there to sites in his liver. Each day he fortified himself once again to accept this intractable state of affairs; each day he started over. He was, he knew, incurable; he had seen too much in his years as a doctor to delude himself that things were otherwise. He knew exactly what to expect and could not turn away from meeting. pg. 15

The biology of the body, which he'd confronted every day, had not in the least taught Dr. Givens to disbelieve in God. On the contrary, he had seen that the body was divine, and he had witnessed the ceasing of its processes often enough to know that something holy left the body at the very moment of death. pg. 16

A dense black shroud lay over his consciousness, and he felt that his brain had been jarred loose. At the same time, he felt startled awake, infuse with adrenaline, raw. There was the giddy exhilaration experienced by those who survive accidents intact; there was a sense of freedom and good fortune, of his place among the blessed. pg. 21

It pained him to think that with his death the narrative of his time with Rachel would disappear, the story of their love expire. He could not explain it to anyone. It would leave the earth when he died. pg. 34

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