Excerpted from A Road Through the Mountains by Elizabeth McGregor. Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth McGregor. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Note About The Seed of the Idea Behind A Road Through the Mountains
By Elizabeth McGregor
Like The Ice Child, this book is about a journey. Although I never consciously plan the books around my personal life, nevertheless these last two have turned out to be quite revealing. The Ice Child was written at a time when my twenty-two year marriage had come to an end and my mother had died, and I look back on it now and see that I was in the same sort of ends-of-the-earth landscape. Similarly, A Road Through the Mountains coincided with a period when I was looking back over my relationship with my father, who died ten years ago.
Dad was hard to know, never revealing any feelings. It wasn’t until I read an article by Oliver Sacks in which the writer drew a pen portrait of an Asperger sufferer that I realized I was reading an exact description of my father. Intelligent, off-the-wall, intensely focused, curiously critical: all of these described the person whom I had longed to be close to all my life. One memory in particular sticks to my mind: of the day of my wedding, when I clasped my dad’s hand as we entered the church and he immediately withdrew it. Asperger’s hate to be touched. Finding a way through to him was a near impossibility, like finding an unmarked road through the mountains.
I began to think about trying to get close to the ones we love. About what a parallel might be. And I came up with the idea of a couple who have been parted by a misunderstanding but who, ten years later, still love each other.
Sometime at this point of what I call “simmering”—which is when a book seems to cook itself slowly in my mind without my paying any direct attention to it—my love of gardening and trees suddenly chimed into the story.
I had read about Ernest Wilson, the plant collector who traveled 11,000 miles to find a single specimen of a new tree. All at once the stories wove into each other—passionate people trying to find the things they love, trying to bring something beautiful out of what seems like an impossible, unreachable landscape.
If anything, A Road Through the Mountains is about faith in the future. It doesn’t matter if the journey so far has been difficult; we can last that much longer, and find places that otherwise we might have missed. A Road Through the Mountains gave me an understanding of my father, and a relationship with him, that I had never had before.
Some of the settings in A Road Through the Mountains have a real resonance for me. Lewesdon Hill, described early in the novel, is about ten miles from my home, and is a real “heart-stopping cathedral of trees.” The stream in which David’s sister watcher her son playing exists, too, with its slow-moving chalk stream and abundance of stickleback fishes! The village that they live in is typical of Dorset: farming communities in idyllic landscapes that have changed very little since Thomas Hardy’s time. Dorchester is Hardy’s hometown, and every day, taking my dogs for their walk, I pass the field that Hardy used in Tess of the D’urbervilles—the summer field where Angel Clare finally falls in love with Tess.
The childhood home that Grace remembers is a real place, too: I owe a debt to my friend Liv Blumer for introducing me to it, a piece of paradise on the edge of the Appalachians.
Perhaps the chapter in the book that means the most to me is the one in which Sara remembers her father’s final days in the hospital: how a series of minor strokes release his inhibitions and show the real, loving man underneath. These scenes are taken directly from my own experience with my mother, who, just before she died, said some wonderful things to me—things she’d hidden or kept back for years. This chapter has the knack of always reducing me to tears, no matter how often I reread it!
I do enjoy the journeys that my novels offer to me. I hope the reader does, too. I really believe that, providing we have the will, no route in life is closed to us.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Both Grace and Anna raised their daughters essentially alone. What are the similarities and distinctions between the ways they experienced motherhood, and love?
2. In what way do Anna’s artistic sensibilities complement David Mortimer’s scientific ones? What was the basis for their initial attraction?
3. Discuss the ways in which botany makes for a rich backdrop in the novel, and in Anna’s paintings. Why was this an appropriate choice on the part of Elizabeth McGregor when she was crafting David’s character?
4. The concept of art as commodity drives much of the novel’s tension. Does James Garrett also see love as a commodity? What is his motivation in seeking power over Anna?
5. What parallels did you find between the story of Ernest Wilson’s experiences in China and David’s journey to America? What other forms of destinations and journeying are portrayed in the novel?
6. Discuss the landscape of Anna’s comatose world. Is its scenery completely foreign to her? What elements of familiarity and imagination does it contain?
7. What does the absence of Grace at the novel’s conclusion indicate about the role of fate versus willpower in the lives of these characters?
8. How does the author’s rendering of Oxford compare to that of Cape Cod and Boston? How does each locale suit the events taking place there? What cultural comparisons can be made between the novel’s American and English elements?
9. Why was Anna unable to stay in England? Do you attribute her departure to her pregnancy, or the fear that David would become like his father, or were there other unspoken factors in her decision? What drove David to leave his family?
10. Who appears to have had more power in the relationship between Anna and David? How did they change during the decade of their estrangement?
11. What does the novel convey about the physical world versus the one inhabited by the mind and soul? In what way does the portrayal of Rachel as a child living with Asperger’s syndrome reinforce these observations? Does Rachel’s struggle mirror her mother’s in any way?
12. Sara is an integral part of the novel’s concluding scenes. What was her role in guiding David?
13. Early in the novel, James Garrett’s early years are depicted. Was his upbringing very different from Anna’s? In what ways was he transformed by meeting Catherine Graham? Does knowing about his life before Anna affect your opinion of him?
14. What are James’ reasons for wanting to gain custody of Rachel? Does he have any capacity for loving her, or Anna?
15. What comparisons can be made between Anna’s art and the abstract work that launched James’ career (in particular the Mark Rothko painting he acquired from Catherine)?
16. To what or whom do you attribute Anna’s recovery?
17. Describe the metaphoric mountains you have faced. How did you find your way through them? Who was your primary guide?