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East of the Mountains Hardcover – April 19, 1999

3.5 out of 5 stars 250 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

David Guterson's first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, was a true ensemble piece, in which even a high-stakes murder trial seemed like a judgment passed on the community at large. In his eloquent second novel, however, the author swings dramatically in the opposite direction. East of the Mountains is the tale of a solitary, 73-year-old Seattle widower. A retired heart surgeon, Ben Givens is an old hand at turning isolation to his advantage, both professionally and personally: "When everything human was erased from existence except that narrow antiseptic window through which another's heart could be manipulated--few were as adroit as Dr. Givens."

Now, however, Ben has been dealt a problem entirely beyond his powers of manipulation: a diagnosis of terminal cancer. With just a few months to live, he sets out across the Cascades for a hunting trip, planning to take his own life once he reaches the high desert. A car crash en route puts an initial crimp in this suicide mission. But the ailing surgeon presses onward--and begins a simultaneous journey into the past. Between present-tense episodes, which demonstrate Ben's cranky commitment to his own extinction, we learn about his boyhood in Washington's apple country, his traumatic war experience in the Italian Alps, and the beginning of his vocation.

Guterson narrates the apple-scented idyll of Ben's childhood in a typically low-key manner--and orchards, of course, are seldom the stuff of melodrama. Still, many of his ambling sentences offer miniature lessons in patience and perception: "They rode back all day to the Columbia, traversed it on the Colockum Ferry, and at dusk came into their orchard tired, on empty stomachs, their hats tipped back, to walk the horses between the rows of trees in a silent kind of processional, and Aidan ran his hands over limbs as he passed them with his horse behind him, the limbs trembling in the wake of his passing, and on, then, to the barn." The wartime episodes, however, are less satisfactory. Clearly Guterson has done his research down to the last stray bullet, but there's a second-hand feeling to the material, which seems less a token of Ben's detachment than the author's.

There is, alas, an additional problem. Begin a story with a planned suicide, and there are exactly two possible outcomes. It would be unfair to reveal Ben's fate. But as the forces of life and death yank him one way, then another, Guterson tends to stack the deck--particularly during a bus ride toward the end of the novel, when Ben's fellow passengers appear to have wandered in from a Frank Capra film. Yet East of the Mountains remains a beautifully imagined work, in which the landscape reflects both Ben's desperation and his intermittent delight. And Guterson knows from the start what his protagonist learns in painful increments: that "a neat, uncomplicated end" doesn't exist on either side of the mountains. --James Marcus

From Publishers Weekly

A good and decent man's passage through life as reflected in his memories and his experiences on what he intends to be his last day on earth is the burden of Guterson's (Snow Falling on Cedars) deeply felt, honest and quietly powerful new novel. Dr. Ben Givens, a 73-year-old retired thoracic surgeon in Seattle, has terminal colon cancer, a fact that he has kept from his daughter and grandson. Widowed recently after a loving marriage, he decides to forgo the ordeal of dying in stages, and instead to commit suicide in what will look like an accident during a day of quail hunting in the apple-growing country where he was born. But fate interferes with Ben's plan. His van is wrecked when he runs off a slick road, and he is rescued in the first of several encounters that turn into a two-day ordeal. During the cold October night in the sagebrush desert, the narrative rises to a harrowing crescendo when Ben's two dogs are the victims of a marauding pack of Irish wolfhounds. With subtle symmetry, Guterson uses Ben's darkly picaresque misadventure to provide graceful segues into the events of his past. A series of poignant memories occur in flashback?Ben's mother's death; his tender courting of Rachel, who became his wife; his soul-lacerating experiences in combat in WWII and his life-defining epiphany at an army field hospital in Italy?which chart the growth of a man with a strong sense of humanity and responsibility and a steadfast work ethic. The novel begins slowly, and at first one fears that Guterson's attempt to establish a sense of place will result in a dense recital of geographical names. But his unsparingly direct, beautifully observed and meticulously detailed prose creates an almost palpable atmospheric background. At the end of his journey, Ben achieves an understanding about the meaning of life and the continuity of commitment. Wise and compassionate about the human predicament, Guterson's second novel confirms his talent as a writer who delves into life's moral complexities to arrive at existential truths. Agent, Georges Borchardt. 500,000 first printing; $500,000 ad/promo; Literary Guild main selection; author tour; rights sold to U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Holland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark; simultaneous release by BDD audio. (Apr.) 1999.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 279 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Company; 1st ed edition (April 19, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151002290
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151002290
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (250 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,729,244 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Audio Cassette
I just finished listening to Don Hastings' reading of "East of the Mountains" and felt compelled to write an on-line review for the first time ever. Maybe it was the excellent reading skills of Mr. Hastings or maybe because it has been a while since I read "Snow Falling on Cedars" that I thoroughly enjoyed wandering and wondering through this thought-provoking tale of one man's search for meaning in his life and/or his imminent death. Or maybe it is because I listened to the bulk of the story while walking my dog in Western Washington that I felt the full significance of Ben Givens' quest, for surely this tale is a hero's quest. Ben may not be all that endearing at times, but neither was Odysseus. Guterson may have included graphic details to the point that many people were turned off by the images, but so did Hemingway. Did anyone else get the religious symbolism in Ben's venturing into "the wilderness" and in the group of "wanderers" that accompanied him as he "healed" those along the way? And what about the symbolism of "going over the mountain" from an area of lush life to a place more desolate and lonely? Those folks who read the book and were put off by the lack of "action" completely missed the point. The "action" should have occurred in the mind of the reader as he or she interpreted the meanings of Mr. Guterson's words. There is much here to consider, but it is a different kind of consideration than is required of "Snow Falling on Cedars." Give this book a try on its own merits, not as a follow-up to a major commercial success.
Special kudos to Don Hastings, who deserves mention for his compassionate reading of a difficult text.
I also recommend "the country ahead of us, the country behind" by Guterson for additional insight into the many themes that emerge in "East of the Mountains."
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Format: Hardcover
Like so many others, I bought this novel because of my captivation with "Snow Falling On Cedars", but delayed reading it when the air became filled with negative responses. There is a lesson here: if you relate to an author's way with a story, stay with him. Ben Givens, while a carefully drawn character in this novel, is really the creature that represents the spectre of mortality. By gradually letting us get to know this crusty old retired surgeon, revealing the pain of his loneliness, the agonies of his youthful experiences in war, his growing into the choice of Medicine, his lingering regrets for the tragedies of life that haunt him and make him choose to terminate his own cancer ridden body rather than burden his family with his dying...all these elements the author merges into a hero of compassionate understated nature. Guterson can describe a countryside, natural and unnatural vistas, draw passing characters with such clarity that we hate to see them depart at a chapter's end. But finish this book in an evening or two and you are rewarded with an understanding of why we exist on a planet populated with our own brethren.
After starting to read this book I thought about not finishing it: it didn't have near the atmosphere or universality of "Snow..". But thankfully I trusted the author and I grew into his far more personal journey. There is much food for pondering in this tender book.
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Format: Hardcover
It'd be hard to top Snow Falling on Cedars, and D. Guterson hasn't quite done it with East of the Mountains. But it's definitely a worthwhile read, a quiet exploration of the meaning of life set against the certainty of death, whether it comes naturally or by suicide, which is the crux of this book. At the beginning, the protagonist, Ben, a retired surgeon, has been diagnosed with cancer, knows it's terminal, and sets off toward his childhood home in the Cascade Mts for the purpose of committing suicide. Like most of us, he dreads a slow inevitable decline in which he becomes a burden to his family. As he moves forward toward what he expects will be his death, at the same time he moves back in time to his past. Like a film rolling backwards in a story that's moving forward, readers are treated to the history and analysis of his whole life, the choices he made, and how those choices continue to affect him. The odd people he meets along the way contribute to his saga with their own incomplete stories. He is yanked back and forth between life and death decisions, hard choices, philosophically faced, reasoned with, and decided upon.
Beautiful rhythm and flow to the quiet, low-keyed writing, as well.
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Format: Paperback
East of the Mountains is a simple story. Ben Givens, a Seattle-area doctor in his 70s, learns he has terminal cancer. Knowing the horror of the disease's course, he decides to take his life but to make it look like a hunting accident so his family doesn't have to know about the disease or that he took his life. The book takes place over the next few days as he tries to carry out his plan but is foiled, first by a car accident that ironically nearly takes his life, and then by a series of quests to rescue his hunting dog and to aid some migrant farm workers. He treats these events as diversions that interrupt but don't deter his goal, and yet there is an odd incongruity in his concern about the daily details of life when one would expect him to be letting go.
Like Guterson's earlier book, Snow Falling on Cedars, this book is beautifully written and a pleasure to read. The main character, Ben Givens, is very richly described. He comes to life both through a series of flashbacks that flesh out his history as well as through the detailed description of his matter-of-fact reactions to the events occurring in the present. The other characters in the book play only small roles, and yet most of them felt real, each one adding interest to the story. Givens has a gift for portraying characters succintly through choice details. Consider this introduction of the veterinarian who helps save the dog:
"The veterinarian was a solid young woman with the sturdy hands and face of a farmgirl and thick, soda-bottle glasses. She spoke in the direct, firm way of the country, with the vigorous practicality and certainty that had remade the sage desert into fields.
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