East of the Mountains
by David Guterson
Published by Harcourt Brace
1999, 288 pages
Buy it online
Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley
Guterson's wonderful first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars (1994), was a phenomenal best seller and a major motion picture based on the book will soon be coming to a theater near you. With that much pressure on a second novel, does East of the Mountains measure up?
While Snow Falling on Cedars was set in San Piedro Island on the west side of Washington state, East of the Mountains takes place in the sage and grasslands of the eastern side of Washington. Like his first novel, the setting itself is an important character of the book:
All the apples had been taken from the trees, the orchards brought to silence now, the transient pickers moving on, disappearing down the river road, leaving the country hushed and lovely: not even an evening breeze.
Guterson brings the atmosphere of a place to his literary table better than many writers. The readers are transported to this place, seeing what the characters see, breathing the same air.
It is harvest time in the Columbia Basin. Apples and pears are ready for picking. It is the place Ben Givens grew up and the place he has decided to end his life. His wife Rachel has already passed on. He has terminal colon cancer, and he, a retired heart surgeon, is determined to avoid suffering rather than engage it. And so he goes, with his two hunting dogs, to the place he grew up: the sage deserts and the sweet orchards of the Pacific Northwest.
His memories are all that he has. The promise he made his wife Rachel, the love of his life, and the haunting memories of World War II. On his journey he meets interesting people: a young couple who remind him of he and his wife so many years ago, a drifter offering advice, a kindhearted veterinarian, a cruel rancher and a migrant worker who tests Givens' ability to understand. It is a story of humanity and morality.
The book works on many levels, including the rugged setting, the character Ben Givens, and his journey down memory lane: the best example being his fighting days in WWII. Unfortunately, the book lacks in several areas as well. The reader doesn't get the fullest sense of Ben's love towards his wife Rachel. He makes little mention of their courtship or their married life. The plot flows like the Columbia until three quarters the way through, where it deteriorates into what can be described as "I-don't-know-where-this-story-is-going-so-I'll-throw-some-of-this-in."
Guterson is a fine writer with the keenest of eyes towards setting and character. When he branches off of that path, his work begins to suffer. But when he is on course, we float down his literary river of words, breathlessly awaiting the next bend. | April 1999
Jonathan Shipley is a graduate of Washington State University and the editor of the literary magazine Odin's Eye. Shipley works for The Seattle Times and anticipates the day when he'll write his own novel for others to review.