East of the Mountains by David Guterson

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East of the Mountains Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,533 words.)