East of the Mountains

by David Guterson

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1533

The habit of life is hard to break. Dr. Ben Givens, the central character in East of the Mountains, suffers from loneliness, old age, and terminal cancer, so it makes sense to him to plan suicide. A retired Seattle heart surgeon, he drives east over the mountains to Washington’s apple country, where he was born and where he plans to blow off his head with a double- barreled shotgun in a staged hunting accident, but his plan runs into all kinds of difficulties. First, he has a serious automobile accident and is almost killed. Then his life is threatened by another hunter who takes his shotgun. Finally he almost expires from cold, fatigue, and other hardships as he wanders about the landscape and small towns of the apple country. It seems that people wanting to end their lives miss all sorts of good everyday opportunities.

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The other characters in East of the Mountains also thwart the doctor’s plan: Except for the nasty fellow hunter, they are unanimously kind, gentle, and helpful. Among them are a young hippie couple in a Volkswagen van, Kevin Lamont and Christine Reilly, who come to his aid when he crashes his car in Snoqualmie Pass. Another is an unnamed drifter who gives him three marijuana cigarettes that he at first refuses but that later come in handy for relieving his cancer pain. Still another is Catherine Donnelly, a graduate student from Washington State University, who talks about philosophy and literature with him on the bus. Finally there is Bea Harden, the nasty hunter’s sister-in-law, who drives Dr. Givens all the way back home to Seattle. She balances her brother-in-law, William C. Harden, who seems an isolated, unhappy person loved only by his wolfhounds. Overall, these characters and others in the novel give an impression of universal human sympathy and goodwill.

After a while, Dr. Givens joins in the spirit of brotherly love himself. At first, fixated on his suicidal purpose, he is concerned only to hide the nature of his death from his daughter and grandson by making it look like an accident. Otherwise, he does not give much thought to how they will react. He seems even more callous toward his dogs, Tristan and Rex, who will be abandoned to their fates in the wilderness after his death; he thinks vaguely that maybe they will find and take up with some other hunter. His dogs are his closest link to life, and after the nasty hunter’s wolfhounds kill Tristan and wound Rex, Dr. Givens’s desire to get Rex to a veterinarian helps to divert him from his original purpose. Eventually Dr. Givens returns to saving, assisting, and bringing forth human life: He calls an emergency squad to pick up an illegal but seriously ill migrant worker, he treats another illegal migrant worker to food and a job, and he delivers the baby of a young migrant-worker couple.

All of these random acts of kindness develop an ethos of human caring in the novel that is the context for Dr. Givens’s ultimate choice to live, even if he faces only the pain of terminal cancer. Other people care for him, such as his daughter and grandson, and it is his responsibility to go on living for them as well as for himself. Even watching him die will help them “learn,” as Bea Harden says: “Seeing you die, it’ll make them more compassionate.” Also implied is a philosophical commitment to life, a responsibility one owes the rest of the world. Reversing one’s philosophical stance at the end of life sets a bad example, especially for a doctor.

Dr. Givens has consistently chosen life over death before, so it is no surprise that he finally does so again. A long flashback shows him as a young soldier serving in Italy during World War II. He is sickened by his killing of a German officer—a memory he cannot get out of his mind. In contrast, his witnessing of a life- saving field operation on his wounded buddy inspires him to become a heart surgeon. As a heart surgeon, he has dedicated his whole adult life to saving other human lives. In his own case, he is tempted only briefly to reverse himself and deny the values by which he has lived. His temptation leads to even deeper dedication: In a symbolic gesture at the novel’s end, he gives up the lifelong pleasure of hunting, of shooting little birds, and turns over his gun to William C. Harden, whose wolfhounds represent the true Nazi instinct.

Dr. Givens’s gun is a family heirloom, also symbolizing the four generations of family history that are recalled when he returns to the apple country. If he is going to kill himself, he has picked the worst place to do it. His renewed contact with the land and its people becomes another life-sustaining force, reminding him that he is part of a chain of life whose meaning he has no right to deny. He also realizes, however, that the chain of life in the apple country is artificially supported by irrigation, which draws on the Columbia River to turn the desert into orchards. His realization, while indicating the fragile nature of life, suggests that life, like death, should be on a sound ecological basis.

In East of the Mountains, David Guterson seems to recommend an ecology of dying radically different from Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s assisted suicide. Guterson’s alternative recommendation is not too clear: The book ends with Dr. Givens’s return to Seattle, where he still faces the pain of terminal cancer. The book at least calls attention to the need for another approach to dying, if even doctors can consider suicide acceptable. From the book, a reader could assume that a more humane approach might combine a retrospective look at the meaning of one’s life, the support of family and friends, and any painkillers available.

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Although his subject might be death, David Guterson’s affirmation of life in East of the Mountainsis impressive. Sometimes called the Boy Scout of contemporary literature, Guterson appears to be writing in pure reaction to postmodernism. Enough fashionable, self-pitying pessimism, he seems to be saying. Enough narrow, whining minimalism. Let literature get back to the job of defining, in detail, what makes human life rich, meaningful, and enduring.

Guterson reinforces such positive messages through his quietly evocative style. A good example of Guterson’s style is his description of the rainy interstate Dr. Givens takes out of Seattle; the doctor’s limited vision and the big trucks whooshing by are the ingredients of an accident waiting to happen. Another good example is Guterson’s description of the nasty hunter on a motorcycle chasing his coursing wolfhounds across the desert at night. Strictly speaking, no one with any sense would be riding a motorcycle across the desert at night, but symbolically the description fits, evoking, without being insistent, some bizarre scene out of a nightmare or the unconscious. Guterson’s evocative style can also be seen in his titles, such as the title of his earlier novel,Snow Falling on Cedars (1994). The title East of the Mountains resonates with associations—to the rising sun, to a different landscape, to the place of his birth—that go along with the renewal in Dr. Givens’s life.

Guterson’s style suits his characters, who tend to be simple and direct. They give a sense of a world somewhere out there that is genuine and caring. They are not urban types but people from the small towns and countryside who still live close to the land. Even Dr. Givens fits this category. Overly critical readers might argue that he does not seem like much of a heart surgeon, or at least one they would let operate on them, but his skills as a surgeon are no longer the issue here. The issue is how well the surgeon will adjust to the status of terminal patient.

Readers looking for surgical procedures will find one or two described here in heart-stopping detail, all meticulously researched by the author, as are his descriptions of the apple country. Guterson’s extensive list of acknowledgments at the end of the novel shows that he did not only his reading but also his field studies. The result is description that is as impressive as Guterson’s positive attitudes and that supports them. The description gives an undeniable reality to the novel. For example, the way strangers communicate on the doctor’s Greyhound bus ride has an authentic ring. So also does the way strangers comment on his disheveled appearance and black eye. Even the doctor’s occasional twinge of lust at the sight of a shapely female form is somehow, despite his condition, believable (the women remind him mainly of his wife). However, Guterson saves his most loving description for the weather and the landscape. Through such description, Guterson forms a backdrop against which human life seems meaningful to the very end.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (January 1, 1999): 792.

Library Journal 124 (February 15, 1999): 183.

New York 32 (April 12, 1999): 82.

The New Yorker 75 (May 17, 1999): 89.

Publishers Weekly 246 (January 11, 1999): 51.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 11, 1999, p. 23.

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