Reading Group Guide
East of the Mountains
By David Guterson
About the book:
Ben Givens is a retired heart surgeon who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Deciding to takecharge of his own demise, Ben travels into the wild country of Washington state with his two dogs and
his father’s Winchester, to hunt one last time and then to end his life on his own terms. But, as with all
quests, the Fates intervene. A car wreck introduces him to various helpers and hindrances, and graduallyBen undertakes a journey back through his own past. As he nears the apple-growing country in which hegrew up, he recalls the signal events of his youth and manhood-especially his wartime experiences andhis profound love for his wife of fifty years. Ben is transformed into an American Odysseus as heconfronts the many sides of his own nature in a novel that radiates with the glories of the natural worldand the mysterious permutations of the human heart.
What is the importance-literal and symbolic-
of Ben’s movement eastward? What qualities are
associated, through image and direct statement, with the concept of "east"?
Most quest novels feature young men or women on journeys of discovery. What effects result from
Guterson’s presentation of a dying seventy
-three-year-old man embarking on a journey of rediscovery?What does Ben Givens (re)discover?
Do you think that coi
ncidence and chance occur too often in the novel? What might be Guterson’spurpose in countering Ben’s lifelong "judicious deliberation" and "attention to all particulars" with the
accidents and chance encounters he experiences? What is the significance of the several references tomiracles?
If "Suicide was at odds with the life he knew, at odds with all he understood, of himself and of theworld," why does Ben plan such a carefully thought-
out, staged suicide? How would you describe Ben’s
"of himself and of the world"? Does that understanding change during Ben’s three days
east of the mountains?
"He had been born in the cradle of apple orchards," Guterson writes of Ben, "and it was this world hewanted to return to." How important to Ben is this return to the apple-orchard country of the Columbia
Basin at the height of the apple harvest? Given Ben’s views on death and dying, why does he want toend his life in this "cradle"? What is significant in the fact that Ben’s view of his family’s
old orchard isfrom a moving bus while he is busy with the ill migrant picker?