Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Two Journeys: David Guterson and Charles Frazier

Over the past couple weeks I finished two excellent novels, Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier (also wrote Cold Mountain) and East of the Mountains by David Guterson (also wrote Snow Falling on Cedars).

The stories these authors tell are soft and lonesome. Not sad, really, but meditative. Frazier writes of a man, Col. William Cooper, who loses his parents at a young age and is handed over to an aunt and uncle. They subsequently bind him over to the owner of a western trading post. It is a story of a boy who never stops longing for his parents; who is taken in by Bear, an Indian chief; who falls in love with a woman married to a despicable Indian; who befriends a horse named Waverly; and who winds up as the legal spokesperson for an entire Indian nation. Though Will (his shortened name) does a fine job as lawyer, real estate investor and Washington lobbyist, his success becomes his undoing. Worse, he is never able to entice the elusive Claire to marry him, even after her husband dies.  In the end, Will loses all but the home he built.
Guterson’s story is told by a heart surgeon in his seventies who is dying from colon cancer. Dr. Ben Givens lost Rachel, his dear wife, six months before the story opens and cannot get past it. He determines that, rather than burden his two children with the care of a dying old man, he will take his two hunting dogs into the Washington plateaus to hunt chukkas. He chooses a place east of the mountains where he now lives. It is where he was raised…full of apple orchards carved out of the desert and nourished by giant irrigation machines.  His plan is to feign an accident that takes his life.

Constantly, Ben is fighting his illness…his pain often unbearable. In one of his hallucinatory states brought on by marijuana he remembers The War. It was his experiences there, in the trenches, that convinced him to become a heart surgeon.

Ben does have an accident but not the one he planned. He then spends several days attempting to return to his original plan. During that time he loses one dog to a pack of wolfhounds and his other is critically injured. Ben encounters several strangers who become instrumental in helping him not only get over Rachel’s death but to find answers to life’s mysteries that he didn’t know he was seeking.

Both authors have a very lyrical command of language. Words that flow like silken water over smooth river rocks. Their stories are passionate. They are loaded with characters you will not forget. And they portray personal journeys laced with a morality that is both moving and inspirational.

Here are some quotes that I loved.

From East of the Mountains:

“The drifts (driftwood) burned white and smokeless enough that they could sit close behind them in a bright womb of heat.  The world beyond disappeared. Darkness lay behond the firelight. The stars appeared awasy in pale ether.” 101

“His mind raced, his thoughts were rich, his memories vivid, graphic. He felt he could touch the past.” 60

“He had manipulated the hearts of human beings, and he thought he understood that when we speak of love, we speak of something transitory, something gone when we go. The heart, for Ben, was tangible--and nothing tangible remains.” 203

“He recalled reading once that the Hindus saw life in four progressive stages: twenty years a youth, twenty years a fighter--one needed nothing martial to pursue this phase--twenty years as head of a household and twenty in the cultivation of the spirit.” 138

“How long (had he been) afraid of its (death) coming? Outwardly he’d been stalwart and stoic, but privately he’d quaked like a child, trembled in apprehension, lived with a constant, quiet fear below the surface of everything.” 254

“It was not life of the spirit at all, in which mortality inspires a course of right action and humility. It had been instead a willful turning from the true conditions of existence. But now he found--he’d known it since Rachel’s death--that this forgetting couldn’t sustain him to the grave. The interludes of ignorance had grown shorter. And now there were none, there was only knowledge, and he wasn’t ready for it.” 255

In the next chapter Ben saves the life of a migrant girl and the baby she cannot deliver. It is stuck in her birth canal. Soon after he meets up with an old neighbor who tells him a dying father is not a burden to his children, that suicide is unimaginable. “It is good,” Bea insisted. “’Seeing you die, it’ll make them compassionate. It’ll help them be more compassionate.’” 273

From Thirteen Moons:

“I asked him one time how he knew to suse the law in his favor. He said that the law is an axe. It cuts whatever it falls on. The man that wins knows how to aim the sharp edge away from himself.” 14

“Bear believed writing dulled the spirit, stilled some holy breath. Smothered it. Words, when they’ve been captured and imprisoned on paper, become a barrier against the world, one best left unerected. Everything that happens is fluid, changeable. After they’ve passed, events are only as your memory makes them, and they shift shapes over time.” 20

“There are many who can make new selves at a moment’s notice. Slough a skin, dismiss memory, move on. But that is not a skill I ever acquired.” 202

“It was my Lancelot moment. Hesitate to get in the cart, and you are lost. Maybe every life has one moment where everything could have been different if you’d climbed on the cart.” 218

“There was no justice in the world anymore. All you could do was try to go on living as a form of vengeance, to keep your memory alive as long as possible.” 258

“He (Bear) talked a great deal about several new opinions he had developed in my absence, one of which was that we come to value the fall of the year more and more as we age and decline. It is easy in youth to become emotional at the overwhelming symbolic autumnalness of withered peaches and reddened honey-locust pods. Later in life, though, the season becomes more actual to us, not sentimental, just sadly true.” 320

“Alarming, really, how all the wheels of the world--the days and nights, the thirteen moons, the four seasons, and the great singular round of the year itself--begin spinning faster and faster the closer we get to the Nightland. We’re called to it and it pulls us. And the weaker we become, the harder and faster it pulls” 321

Towards the end of the novel Bear relates a hunting story. He had regretted, in his old age, how the animals of the forest had been systematically eliminated by gun toting fur traders and persons like him who needed to survive. He said he once came upon a buck badly wounded by three bullets and was too weak to move. Bear looked into the buck’s eye as it watched him coming to cut its throat and sell its skin for a dollar. --“There’s not a prayer for that, he would say.”

Turns out Random House lost a huge amount of money on their publication of Thirteen Moons, recovering a fraction of the $8 million they advanced to Charles Frazier. I cannot say why the book did not sell better. I thought it was fantastic.

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