Review of David Guterson’s East of the Mountains

East of the Mountains Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999

This is the story of a voyage of personal discovery. I needed to read this book and reading it on Yoga Retreat in Bali was exactly right.

Briefly, Ben givens is 73 years old – the same age I am now. He is a retired heart surgeon of some renown. He has terminal cancer of the colon. Thank heavens I do not. This is his physical journey that takes him through parts of the American West that I’ve never heard of, but now I feel I know. We’re talking about the Columbia Basin of Central Washington State.

The spiritual journey is difficult, more difficult than the physical although both are harrowing. If I relate the story to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I find that there are some allegorical similarities. Where the symbolism in East of the Mountains reflects the hardships and the enlightening moments, the reader is able to identify with Ben Givens more so than one may with Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. This reader was able to identify, maybe not all readers.

Memories of death, fear of pain and the reality of pain stalk Ben Givens. His medical background as a specialist heart surgeon gives him practical insights into the progress of his own mortality. This is not necessarily a good thing.

The disconnect between Ben Givens’ love of his two hunting dogs and his killing of birds and animals gives me pause for thought. His saving of lives in his career as a heart surgeon serves to emphasise the incongruity. There is a complexity in this story. There are stories within stories, narrative within the narrative. I believe a slow, intense reading of the book is required to retrieve full meaning.

Apart from anything else, I learned some interesting historical facts about this area of the United States. For example, in the early days, African camels carried freight in the area. And “Rich kilted Scotsmen ran ten thousand sheep herded by indomitable miniature dogs and by men who spoke the Basque tongue”. (Page 66).

Above all, there are strong women in this story. All the women are strong, all of them.


Review of David Guterson’s East of the Mountains