Book Club Discussion: ‘East of the Mountains’ by David Guterson

If you were faced with a terminal illness, what would you do? Would you go on living the life you have left, taking advantage of every minute, or would you want to end it, on your own terms?

For Ben Givens, the answer seems obvious. As a retired heart surgeon, he knows full well what his diagnosis of terminal colon cancer will entail. He wants to avoid it at all costs. So he plans one last hike with his two hunting dogs in the mountains. What he doesn’t expect is for anything to get in the way of his well thought-out plan.

When I started reading this book, I had no clue how it was going to turn out. We know right from the start what Ben’s plan is and there are only two ways it could end – he live or he dies. So now, as a reader, we have to go on this journey with Ben whether we like it or not.

As one book club member pointed out. “People make plans and God laughs.” Ben thinks he has it all figured out. He has planned an elaborate way to die and nothing is going to get in his way. That is until he goes on this journey and through the people he meets and the things that occur, he realizes that dying is easy, living is a struggle. We are faced with death around every corner of our lives. When we drive a car, we can get into an accident. When we are out hiking, we can’t get injured or run into dangerous animals. Those we love can die for no rhyme or reason. So the only thing we can do is accept that we are going to die at some point and continue to live our life until that time comes.

Many in book club, while they liked the book, thought the characters were thin and the dialogue was a little stilted. The biggest criticism was the over description of the places Ben was going that reminded them more of a travelogue than a fiction book. Others called it more episodic. There were great moments in the book but they were left hanging without any ties to each other.

I argue that the author didn’t care about the other characters or necessarily how they interacted. This whole book was Ben’s personal journey. He wanted to die and through these interactions, it made him question whether he was making the right decision. Ultimately I thought it was well done.

This is the second book I have read of Guterson and it is completely different from his first book, “Snow Falling on Cedars” since that book is a crime plot that highlights on the discrimination against Japanese in the United States after World War II and I absolutely loved it. Even though “East of the Mountains” isn’t my favorite, it has stayed with me.

Have you read “East of the Mountains”? What other books provide a reflection on life and death? Let’s discuss?

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