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  • Written by Mark Spragg
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On Sale: August 31, 2004
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-1-4000-4380-4
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

In an extraordinary tale of love and forgiveness, Mark Spragg brings us this novel of a complex, prodigal homecoming. After escaping the last of a long string of abusive boyfriends, Jean Gilkyson and her ten-year-old daughter Griff have nowhere left to go. Nowhere except Ishawooa, Wyoming, where Jean's estranged father-in-law, Einar, still blames her for the death of his son. Though Einar isn’t glad to see either of them, Griff falls in love with his sprawling ranch and quiet way of life, as she slowly gets to know his crippled old friend Mitch, the cats that lurk in the barn at milking time, and finally the grandfather she had lost for so many years. An emotionally charged story of hard-won friendship and reconciliation, An Unfinished Life shows a novelist of extraordinary talents in the fullness of his powers.

Excerpt

The sapwood snaps and shifts in the low-bellied stove, and the heat swells up against the roofboards and weathered fir planking, and the whole small building seems to groan.

It's the first cool night of the fall-a good night for a sweat-and Einar adjusts his wet back and ass in the webbing of the lawn chair. He feels the full weight of his seventy years and wishes he'd thought to bring a towel to drape over the webbing, but he was in here just this spring and hadn't remembered one then either. He scoops a dipper of water from the pail beside the chair and casts it across the stovetop where it sizzles and steams.

He wishes he'd have known this was the way it was going to be.

"Some old son of a bitch should've explained getting old to me," he says aloud and then bows his head against the wet pulse of heat. "Some old son of a bitch probably did and I wasn't listening."

The sweat drips from his nose and chin.

He reaches his denim shirt from where he hung it on a nail, soaks it in the bucket and then stands to wring it and mop his face and chest.

He spreads the shirt over the chair and sits back down, staring at the chair that stands empty before him, both chairs raised up on this platform into the heat.

Through the west window he watches the amber moonlight on the pasture and remembers the fall they skidded in the fieldstones and mortared them into the foundation under this board floor. The building was Griffin's idea. He'd said: "Dad, I need it. I really do."
"You need a sauna?" Einar had asked.
"I'm a Viking," the boy said. "It's what the Vikings did."

All of this twenty years ago, Mitch helping them frame the walls and the headers for the door and windows, and Griffin just a boy, but already used to working with the diligence of a man. And not a boy who'd ever asked for much.

They put in a south-facing window, this one to the west, and a square of double-pane glass in the slanting roof so they could see the stars. And a smaller pane low in the east wall for the benefit of the boy's dog, so Karl could lie on the porch and stare in at them.

When they were finished, Griffin took each man by a hand, standing between them, and bowed his head. "God bless this place," he said. He was serious, original, not just repeating something he'd heard.

"Is there anything else you need?" Mitch had asked.

The boy shaded his eyes, looking up at the man. "You could sit in here with us." Mitch's face shone even blacker in the sun, like wet obsidian. "Even though I'm no Viking?" He bent down over the boy. "Even though my great-granddad was an African man?"
"Does that mean no?" Griffin asked.

Mitch shoved him away playfully, the way men roughhouse with boys. "I guess I won't," he said. "I believe I've sweated enough in this life already."

Einar smiles at the clarity of the memory. He works his jaw, and his ears pop as if he were descending from a great height. The old dog fidgets on the porch, then settles its grayed jowls on its crossed forepaws and stares in through the little window. His name's Karl, but it's not the original Karl, just another dog taken from the town shelter, worked and fed and given a place to rest and grow lame. The first Karl lies buried behind the barn. Dead and buried like his son, Griffin, and his wife, Ella.

He straightens in the chair and wonders if the dog wishes it had a boy for company. Not his boy, just some other kid. He wonders what it is that dogs long for, or if they long. Maybe they just wait patiently for some improvement in their lives. He thinks he's a man who knows something of waiting, but the heat's gotten to him and he feels his stomach come up and shorten his breath. He cracks a window and sucks at the draft of night air. He drops his head back and stares through the window in the roof.

Pegasus has risen in the dark sky, poised as if for a run of magic, or that's what he used to think. Now he looks at the stars and sees only a silent, uncaring witness, and tonight feels this press of steam-thick heat, smells the odor of living wood reduced to ash. No magic.

He pops a wooden match with his thumbnail and lights a candle on the shelf by his elbow. He shakes the match out and looks down at his shriveled thighs and worn knees. His legs are white as summer cloud, blue-veined. At least his arms and shoulders are still strong, and he tightens his chest, the muscles in his neck. To the empty chair he says, "I've always been puny through the hindquarters, from the get-go. That's not news."

He scoots forward on the chair and takes the quart Mason jar from the shelf, holds it below him and pisses it half full before setting it down by the water bucket. He thumbs the sweat from his eyebrows and blinks at the walls and shelves, at the fist-size chunks of agate and quartz, the petrified wood and half a dozen of the boy's favorite books. There're the hawk feathers he'd hung on the walls. The skull of a black baldy bull. A map of Norway cut out of a National Geographic, carefully, with a razor blade. One of Iceland. The picture of a bearded man in a horned helmet, and another of a tall black man with a spear, balanced on a single leg. Both from National Geographic, the Norseman and the Senegalese hunter. The boy saw himself as dangerous, raised as he was by the descendants of warriors.

Einar stares down at the dog again and thinks it would be a fine thing to have that kind of focus. To have a small window, with something to stare at on the other side. He wishes for his own window and wonders what he might see. He wonders if Mitch has gone to sleep for the night.

He pushes out of his chair and opens the door. He carries the jar at his side and steps to the edge of the porchboards and sloshes the piss out into the darkness. He stands steaming in the cool air. The dog shifts but doesn't rise, its hips so brittle with arthritis that it moves only when it must. Einar turns back to the doorway and says, "Just like old times."

The dog blinks its clouded eyes and yawns, and Einar thinks this is an animal that should be called out into the tall weeds and shot in the head and buried next to its namesake. But he knows Mitch would never stand for it. Mitch believes in suffering as a right, a burden, even sacred, for both man and beast.

Two

She sits on the side of her bed and reaches back to run the flat of her hand over the sheet. She'd slept on her back, legs straight, arms at her sides. She can feel where the fabric's cool and where it's warm, just there, where her fingertips edge into the outline her sleeping body has made. She imagines the warmth whispering softly that she was here, but in a minute or two there'll be no proof she was ever in this bed, or even this trailer house, like she's invisible. She likes thinking that she can't be seen. It makes her smile.

She listens. There's the noise of her mother in the kitchen, the gurgle of the coffeemaker, water running at the sink. She stands and smooths the wrinkles on the bottom sheet, pulls up the top sheet and cotton blanket and tucks them tight, then fluffs the pillow at the head of the bed, her small hands working in the dim light. She climbs onto the bed and edges a fingernail under the heads of the thumbtacks pressed into the wallboard above the window. The tacks hold the brown bath towel she puts up every evening for a curtain, and they've worn divots in the wallboard, and little particles always fall out when she removes them, like sawdust, but she doesn't think the wallboards are made of wood. She doesn't fool herself about much. She knows everything in this trailer's fake, that it just tricks you into thinking it's real.

The window faces west, and she started putting the towel up in the summer so the setting sun wouldn't overheat her bed. But now it's the end of September, and she's grown used to sleeping in the darkened room. She folds the towel and places it on her pillow. Outside, a tractor is pulling a machine along the edge of a field, the cornstalks falling as it passes. She thinks she might ask Roy what this machine is called, not today, but sometime later. Roy puts guardrails up along the county roads, and since he needs machines to do that she thinks he might know what this one is called.

On the north side of the cornfield there's the interstate, with the cars and big trucks heading east and west filled with people who know nothing about her. She wonders if anyone ever looks her way, or imagines what it's like to live here. If they even notice the three crooked rows of old trailer houses, whose trees aren't big enough yet to climb or to shade the flat metal roofs. The dog next door barks, and she remembers it's Thursday and the garbage truck has turned in off the lane. She's never heard the neighbor dog's name.

She kneels by the bed and pulls out her suitcase and lifts it up on the blanket. Its clasp is rusted, its corners scuffed and peeling.

The first Thursday morning she saw the garbage truck she thought it looked a lot safer than the trailer houses, and all summer she prayed that if a tornado came it would be on a Thursday morning when she could hide in the garbage truck. Then the tornado could crumple this fakey trailer and suck Roy right up from the broken trailer parts and put him down somewhere else. She knows there's no use in killing the man who lives in the trailer. Dead or alive, her mother would just replace him. Before Roy in this trailer in Iowa there was Hank in the trailer in Florida, and before Hank there was Johnny in the little house that smelled like cat pee, and before Johnny there was Bobby. She can't remember Bobby very well, but there've been four. Everybody's mother is good at something. Her mother's good at finding the same man, no matter where she lives.

Her mother tells her that children are a calendar. She says it at least once a month, like it's some new idea she thought up all by herself. Her mother says that if she, Griff Evans Gilkyson, had never been born, never learned to walk, dress herself and speak, then she herself could still think she was a young woman. Griff thinks her very own calendar is her mother's men. Four men. About a year and a half for each one, and before that she was too little to keep track. She shrugs and whispers, "So, I'm nine and a half."

She strips off the T-shirt she slept in and folds it and lays it in the bottom of the suitcase. The suitcase smelled of mothballs and mildew when her mother bought it at the John 3:16 thrift shop, and it still does. She opens her hands flat and presses down against her chest. No titties, she thinks. She's still safe. She thinks that one morning she'll wake up with breasts, maybe the start of hair between her legs, and everything will begin to go wrong. Just like things have gone wrong for her mother. Breasts attract trailer houses and pickup trucks and lots and lots of tears. She wishes her father were still alive. If he weren't dead it would be safe to let her titties grow.

She puts on a pair of tan corduroy pants, a ribbed cotton chemise and a striped polo shirt. She laces her tennis shoes and opens the bottom drawer of her dresser. The dresser and the desk are made of the same pressed particleboard, and she likes them because they don't even try to look like wood. The drawers stick, so she has to be careful to keep them quiet.

She empties all the dresser drawers into the suitcase, every piece of clothing she owns. When she gets a bigger suitcase she'll get more clothes. No sense in owning something she'd need to leave behind. That wouldn't make any sense at all.

She slips her schoolbooks and notebooks into a small backpack. The backpack is orange, with zippered pockets on its sides for her pencils, pens and Magic Markers. Roy bought it for her. He told her orange was a good color for Iowa. "You'll be easy to spot whether there's snow or not," he'd said. "Some hunter won't think you're just a little brown rabbit and shoot you for dinner." She hates the backpack. She prays the tornado will get that too.

She kneels beside her bed and slips her hand between the mattress and box spring. When she feels the coolness of her diary she stops and listens. There's still just the sounds her mother's making in the kitchen, so she slides it out. The cover is lavender patent leather, so shiny she can see her reflection in it. She sits at her desk and opens the diary to its last page: THINGS I HATE ABOUT MY MOTHER.

1. I hate that she's pretty.
2. I hate that she thinks she's not pretty.
3. I hate that she works at the dry cleaners. (But I like Kitty, her boss.)
4. I hate that she doesn't know karate.
5. I hate that she likes the same music Roy likes.
6. I hate that she doesn't believe in God or angels.
7. I HATE that she makes us live in Iowa.

And this morning she adds:

8. I hate it that she's not really, really hairy. So hairy that only kangaroos would fall in love with her.

She's always especially liked that kangaroos travel with their own little pouches, like luggage.

She closes the diary and puts it in her suitcase and cracks her door open, then steps into the hallway and holds her breath. She listens. Her mother shuts off the water in the kitchen. Her mother and Roy's bedroom is at the end of the hallway and the door's closed. The bathroom is the next room toward the kitchen.


From the Hardcover edition.
Mark Spragg|Author Q&A

About Mark Spragg

Mark Spragg - An Unfinished Life

Photo © Virginia Spragg

Mark Spragg is the author of Where Rivers Change Direction, a memoir that won the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers award, and the novels The Fruit of Stone and An Unfinished Life, which was chosen by the Rocky Mountain News as the Best Book of 2004. All three were top-ten Book Sense selections and have been translated into fifteen languages. He lives with his wife, Virginia, in Wyoming.

Mark Spragg is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)

Author Q&A

A Conversation with

M A R K S P R A G G

Q: You’ve said that the idea for this book began with the image of an embittered old man sitting alone on his porch. Where did this scene come from?
A:
For me, most stories start as a single scene that refuses to leave my imagination. I’ve often wondered what prompts them, because they rarely–when they first start up–appear to be connected to anything that’s going on in my life. In this case, the scene was a man approaching seventy, sitting tightly in a chair on a porch, surrounded by a mob of half-feral cats. He kept reappearing in my mind–occasionally in my dreams–and inevitably I started the process of questioning myself about him. Why is he embittered? Does he own a chance for personal redemption? Who else shares his suffering? It’s the process of questioning that ends up defining some sort of story.

Q: Is the character of Einar Gilkyson, which this man became and who anchors the novel, based on anyone?
A:
Einar wasn’t fashioned after any particular man I know, but his dedication to his daily work, the land he husbands, his family–whether blood or not–I’m sure has been influenced by the old men that participated in my upbringing: the old cowboys that worked my family’s ranch and with whom I lived in the ranch bunkhouse. None of them were anything like the cartoon notion we have of redneck, small-minded, bigoted working men. They were whole and complicated men, and for the most part reliable to themselves and those with whom they worked. They were well-traveled, almost all had fought in a war, all were at least bilingual. They were loyal, usually open-minded, unusually adaptable to new situations, and mostly democratic in their views. They valued honesty, and yes hard, reliable work from their fellows, and as a boy, they stood at the very center of my life.

Q: One of the most memorable voices in the book is that of Einar’s 10-year-old granddaughter. You don’t have children (and you’re a guy)–how did you write from her point of view so authentically?
A:
I’ve been lucky enough to have godchildren in my life, and to have been close with them, to be trusted enough by them to hear their unguarded concerns; to occasionally be allowed to help with their problems. I believe we observe more closely that which we love, and so I’ve had these kids, once removed, that I’ve loved quite a lot. And I purposely made Griff of an age that is pre-sexual. She’s a tomboy, she’s very brave and must act older than she is, and yet she has the same fears and dreams and hopes of other ten-year-olds–whether boys or girls. I think there’s a lot of Griff in the way I remember myself at ten.

Q: You also write from the point of view of the girl’s mother, her abusive boyfriend, and Einar’s best friend, a black Korean War veteran. Which character was the most difficult to capture?
A:
It was the abusive boyfriend that was by far the hardest. To try to accurately find his voice; his sense of being misunderstood, his burning righteousness, his sentimentality of violence. And then to make some attempt to represent his confusion and tilted view of life was, every time, enormously unsettling. Some days I would walk for hours, and I mean, up to three or four hours just walking on the prairie, trying to work myself up to writing a first draft of a chapter that might be convincing from Roy’s point of view.

Q: The contrasting voices–young and old, male and female, black and white–all contribute toward creating an updated picture of the contemporary American west, where the story takes place. Have other books accurately portrayed this part of the country or do we still tend to romanticize life there?
A:
I believe we tend to romanticize our lives everywhere we live, and that we become expert in romanticizing lives that aren’t our own. It’s akin to claiming that the problems in your marriage belong to your partner and are not yours. And, of course, to label any region–or the literary representation of a region–as legitimate or apocryphal, is best left to the polemicists. I know I hugely admire the novels of Haruf, McMurtry, McCarthy, Momaday, Welch, Harrison, Silko, McGuane. They all write from the western part of this country, and in my experience, they all seem to be telling the truth. Their books are very different but never seem contrived. But, I could say as much about authors who write from other areas about which I know very little. Charles Baxter, J.M. Coetzee, Charles Frazier, Tim O’Brien, Larry Brown, Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s no doubt the authority of the voice that makes the story creditable.

Q: You grew up on the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming, a family business set on a remote stretch of the Shoshone National Forest. Tell us about your responsibilities on the ranch and how you broke away from the family business to become a writer.
A:
My responsibilities were to the care and safety of the hundred and some horses we had, to the men and women and children from around the world we took into the greater Yellowstone wilderness on pack trips, and of course, to the land itself–which translates to working from roughly four in the morning until ten at night through the late spring, summer, and fall. I was lucky enough to love the work, and to work with men and women who did as well. As to breaking away from that business to become a writer, I guess I never saw writing and working on the land as exclusive. I kept journals as a boy, read frantically from my father’s library of over three thousand books, and always had aspirations to become a writer. If my parents had not sold the ranch, I like to imagine that I might be still happily living there, working the place, and writing books as well.

Q: What life lessons did you learn growing up out west, so in touch with nature and out of touch with pop culture?
A:
At times, I look back on the place where I was raised as though it were from another century, and certainly in that we had no radio or television reception, a twenty-five mile drive to the one-room schoolhouse, and a fifty mile drive to the nearest small town, it was a sort of strange island that isn’t much representative of the childhoods of Wyoming men and women my age. But, it was the childhood gift I received and I loved its quietude, and then as a young man became anxious to experience a more urban life. I moved to New York City. I was excited by the new tempos, the mix of ideas, hungry for the museums and galleries I’d only read about, but I’ve always felt drawn back to vast and unpopulated places. I’m in my early 50s now and have lived around the country, and traveled when I could in Mexico and South America and Europe, but it is the wilderness areas of the West that have always seemed a refuge for me; a place I know well, where I can find solace. If that peculiar upbringing gave me anything that differs a great deal from what other adults take away from their childhoods it is that longing for a more profound sense of quietude. I do believe that growing up inside thirteen million acres of unfenced, never-husbanded land set up different rhythms in me.

Q: In your memoir, Where Rivers Change Direction, you write about your mentor and ranch bunkmate John, a WWII veteran and cowboy. Why was he so influential in your life? Does he show up in any characters in this book?
A:
There’s quite a lot of John in the Mitch character. And I suppose I loved the man because he so obviously cared for me, and cared that I might become useful in the world. I was raised by parents, and men like John, who, through a combination of belief and necessity, felt that a childhood was an apprenticeship–suffered if need be, enjoyed when possible, but not necessarily celebrated. They believed that my formative years were just that, formative to the adult that I would some day be. I was aware that they held the man I was becoming in their mind’s eye, and geared my daily life toward the construct of that man. It was clear to me that if I were a studious and diligent boy I could sooner be useful in the world. In reviewing the journals I kept as a boy it’s also clear how anxious I was to become that man they imagined; to take on a man’s role in the world, to carry my own burden, even to become capable enough that I might be trusted to help others. John, and the other men I grew up around helped me to feel full of possibilities. I longed to quit being merely a boy. I wanted to be like them.

Q: Publishers Weekly has commented that your writing “weds the venerable Western tradition of frontier exploration of self and nature with the masculine school of writing stretching from Hemingway to Mailer.” What writers did you read when you were young? Which have most influenced your work?
A:
I was awfully fond of Hemingway when I was a boy, no doubt for obvious reasons, but when I found Faulkner it changed my whole sense of the possibilities of language. I suppose everything I’ve tried to write since then has been an experiment in how best to structure a convincing narrative suspended between those two poles. I read, and reread, Welty, O’Connor, Lee, Capote, Steinbeck, a little later, Gide, Kazantzakis, Garcia Marquez, Hesse, Rilke, Miller. In short, I read every damn thing I could get my hands on. I do remember being greatly influenced by Lawrence Durrell. Also, from the time my brother and I were nine until we were in our mid-teens, my father required that we read a book a month of his choosing, and that at the end of the month we give an oral and written report of that book. My dad read largely for argument–and so his reading list included Darwin and Kant, Kierkegaard. Rousseau, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Emerson, Franklin, Plato, Marcus Aurelius. There were many others. There was a lot of chest-pounding and foot-stomping in our discussions. He told us that there were only two great themes. Our deaths, that is, our concerns about a possible afterlife, and our couplings in the face of that inevitability. I once asked him–it was when I was solidly a teenager–whether a truly great writer shouldn’t concentrate his efforts on necrophilia. He didn’t laugh. He suggested I reread Kierkegaard.

Q: The writing of this book is unusual in that you and your wife co-wrote the screenplay for Miramax’s film version of AN UNFINISHED LIFE, which will be released this fall, at the same time you were writing the book. How did the writing process work?
A:
The outline of much of the book, and nearly all of the movie, happened over a year of car trips with my wife, Virginia. We talked for hundreds and hundreds of miles about these characters, their motivations, their disappointments and achievements. When we had that all done she went to work on the screenplay and I started to write the novel. Over the next several years Virginia edited my working drafts of the novel, and together we wrote the various drafts of the screenplay. It was a fascinating process, in that there were so many decisions about how best to present a single story through two different mediums. We tried, the best we could, to let the mediums determine the texture of the stories.

Q: How similar is the movie to the book?
A:
I believe they both tell essentially the same story. It’s a story of family, and of forgiveness. It’s a story of extended family, of how our love extends to our dead; of our wondering about whether they might love us back, indeed, value us.

Q: Please tell us a little about the making of the film.
A:
I honestly believe that Robert Redford has given the performance of a lifetime, that Morgan Freeman is one of the best actors of his generation, and that it shows in every scene he’s in, and that Jennifer Lopez embodies absolutely everything we’d hoped for in her character. Lasse Hallström, and his producing partner, Leslie Holleran, were absolute dreams with which to work; always inspiring, open, and deferential to the themes and language of the screenplay. I had admired Lasse’s films as much as any director working today, and Virginia and I have come out of this process with an even greater admiration for him as a director, and truly, as a man. Leslie has become like family. On a personal level, I don’t know what else we could have hoped for.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

Reviews of Mark Spragg's An Unfinished Life"Ever since I became the books editor at The Kansas City Star in March 2000, folks have been asking me to recommend a reading experience as clean and sharp as Kent Haruf's Plainsong. . . . Finally, I have an answer. His name is Mark Spragg, his new novel is An Unfinished Life." –John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star"Spragg writes in the man's man literary school of Hemingway and Tom McGuane, where valor, brevity and minor epiphanies still count for something, yet An Unfinished Life's strength lies in its characters. It's best one is the irrepressible little girl, Griff, barely beating out the two old coots, bitter Einar and handicapped Mitch, who talk with winning honesty while struggling through their ablutions and medical ministrations. . . . An Unfinished Life makes you yearn for more of these characters and their prescient talk." –The Oregonian
"Wyoming, its winds and distances, never quits. What a pleasure it is to watch a few of its hard-forged citizens stay with the task of forgiving, cherishing and caring for one another. Mark Spragg has got the territory dead right in this moving testimony to seeing things through." –William Kittredge"Spragg, with consummate skill, uses people and places we don't know to teach us something about ourselves. He explores human bonds, the difficulty of core change and ultimately the need for forgiveness if a person is to be emotionally whole. . . . An Unfinished Life is a deft contemplation of completion, of change and of coming home." –The Denver Post"Intensely human, gently probing the longing for family and the inescapable grip of the past. Swiftly shifting perspectives lend the novel a pleasing dynamism." –The Christian Science Monitor"Rich with ancillary characters worked into his elaborate plots. . . . When all the scattered elements of the story coalesce in strange and wondrous ways, so logical yet so unexpected, we are tempted to use a western idiom and state that Mark Spragg has put his brand on realistic Western novels in our time." –St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“I can’t get more than a few pages into a novel unless the prose is good. In Mark Spragg’s An Unfinished Life the writing is of considerable grace and beauty, plus there’s a compelling tale of the New West which at times is an uncomfortable page turner where you are standing on the sidelines rooting for your heartbreaking favorites.” –Jim Harrison"Spragg has the remarkable ability to establish voices that feel indelibly genuine and true, yet belong to characters as different from each other as a sensitive and adventurous pre-pubescent girl, two aging ranchers ravaged by different kinds of pain, a confused and self-protective young mother and a man with a hair-trigger anger and a dangerously twisted concept of love, entitlement and family." –Santa Fe New Mexican"The tension lies in the interior life Spragg creates for his characters. They are believably raw and wounded. And, above all, redeemable." –New York Daily News"Mark Spragg invents characters that are as richly drawn and lovingly rendered as the landscape in which he sets them down. An Unfinished Life is honest, engaged, deeply satisfying, and full of an uncanny grace that resides both in the beauty of the language and in these valuable lives." –Pam Houston"An Unfinished Life has dysfunction and menace and clipped, big-sky dialogue that's as spare as Cormac McCarthy's work but with a warmer patina. The carefully placed story hides surprising flashes of humor inside telling detail." –USA Today"Packed with descriptive detail that pays tribute to Wyoming's harsh splendor, An Unfinished Life shows the power of place to save us." –The Boston Phoenix
"Mark Spragg's An Unfinished Life is a tremendously accomplished, elegantly written and paced tale of love and loss, the bonds of grief and blood, and the complex turnings of the human heart. This is a heartbreaking yet uplifting novel that is most deeply satisfying. These characters, these people, will remain with me a long, long time." –Jeffrey Lent"One of those once-in-a-blue-moon type novels that takes convention and stands it on its head. . . . Filled with often poetic meditations about the love we hold for those who have died--what sort of role their memories play in our lives--and the importance of laying the past to rest while moving into the future." –St. Petersburg Times "Masterly . . . Highly recommended."--Bette-Lee Fox, Library Journal, starred review
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Spragg unfolds a marvelous, unsentimental family story.” —The New York Times

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Mark Spragg’s An Unfinished Life, a moving and memorable story about a family’s search for forgiveness.

About the Guide

Jean Gilkyson works in a dry-cleaning shop and lives with her boyfriend, Roy, in his trailer in Iowa. Her ten-year-old daughter, Griff, has made her mother promise that the next time Roy beats up Jean they will leave him. So Griff is relieved when she and her mother finally drive away alone, determined to start a new life. When the car breaks down and the money runs out, Jean takes Griff to a place she’s never told her about before: her hometown in Wyoming. For years, Jean has been running away from the night when her young husband, Griffin, died in a car accident while she was driving. And for his part, Griffin’s father, Einar, has never forgiven Jean for the accident that took his son’s life. A widower, Einer is alone now except for his friend Mitch, and the two men, now old and without family ties, have become each other’s lifelines. When Jean and Griff arrive on his doorstep, Einar’s bitterness is heightened, but as he learns to love his granddaughter he is forced to come to terms with the destructive grief that he harbors. With grace and determination, and driven by the need to salvage her own young life, Griff unites these suffering adults in the hopes of creating two things she has never known—a real home and a stable family.

Immediately compelling and constantly surprising, rich in character, landscape, and compassion, An Unfinished Life shows a novelist of extraordinary talents in the fullness of his powers.

About the Author

Mark Spragg is the author of Where Rivers Change Direction, a memoir that won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, and The Fruit of Stone, a novel. Both were top-ten Book Sense selections and have been translated into seven languages. He lives in Cody, Wyoming.

Discussion Guides

1. Near the opening of the novel Griff thinks, “Everybody’s mother is good at something. Her mother’s good at finding the same man, no matter where she lives” [p. 8]. How has Griff been affected by witnessing Jean’s abuse at the hands of her boyfriends?

2. What does Griff’s diary tell us about her feelings for her mother? What is good about their relationship? Which scenes indicate that Jean is a good mother? What does Griff admire about Jean?

3. How important are routines in the lives of Mitch and Einar? How is their humanity revealed in their daily activities? Does the novel suggest that it is routine that keeps them alive? How does the arrival of Jean and Griff alter these routines, and who benefits most from the changes?

4. How does the mood and tone of the novel change when the setting switches to Wyoming? What is the effect of Wyoming life and landscape on Griff?

5. As he massages Mitch’s shoulders, Einar “knows if he shuts his eyes he’d forget they weren’t the same man, that he wasn’t working the liniment into some scarred part of himself” [p. 21]. Why is the bond Einar feels with Mitch so profound?

6. How do details like Mitch’s dreams and his antler carvings illuminate aspects of his character? How is Mitch’s personality a counterpoint to Einar’s, particularly in their dealings with Griff?

7. When Starla, the sheriff’s receptionist, offers Jean a pistol, what stereotype of battered women does she reveal she believes in? How does Jean respond? What acts of bravery does Jean commit to create a better life for herself and Griff? How accurate is the novel’s depiction of domestic violence?

8. What is the significance of the bear in Mitch and Einar’s relationship? Why does Mitch want to set the bear free? Does the bear have a symbolic as well as literal presence in the novel? Why is the series of events involved in setting the bear free so important?

9. What does Jean’s return home reveal about her character? What do we learn of her relationship with Griffin? Why does she put her box of belongings back into the hole in the closet floor [p. 172]? What does it mean for her “to believe in chance as random as weather” [p. 172]?

10. The story proceeds at a quick pace, with some details about the characters’ pasts implied but not stated directly. For instance, how long ago was Mitch attacked by the bear? When did Einar start drinking heavily? What was Ella like, and how did she die? What other questions does the plot raise? Does it matter that these questions aren’t answered?

11. Which scenes and details best express the way Einar reacts to the realities of aging? How does he attempt to combat the aging of his body and for what reasons? Why has Spragg chosen an excerpt from Mark Strand’s poem “Not Dying” for the novel’s epigraph?

12. Describe the most admirable elements of Griff’s character. In which scenes does she seem indomitable, and in which scenes is she vulnerable and scared? In what way does Griff seem wiser than a typical ten-year-old, and how has she become that way?

13. How do power and control define Roy’s relationship with Jean? When is Roy most dangerous? If the novel can be said to have two dangerous antagonists, Roy and the bear, which—the human or the animal—is more threatening?

14. What characteristics did Einar value most in his son? In what ways does Griff remind him of Griffin? If Griffin’s life was “unfinished” [p. 43], as his father emphasized, does Griff represent a chance for its completion?

15. How does Jean’s guilt affect her life and relationships? How does Einar’s grief affect his life and relationships? What does the novel suggest about people’s need to hold on to their pain? How do Jean and Einar change over the
course of the novel?

16. Discuss the novel’s structure and narration. In what order is the story presented? From whose point(s) of view is the story told? With which character(s) does the reader become most intimately acquainted?

17. Describe Mark Spragg’s writing style. Is there a relationship between his style and the emotional impact of the story?

Suggested Readings

William Faulkner, The Bear; Ivan Doig, English Creek; Richard Ford, A Multitude of Sins; Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain; Ernest Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories; Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster; Kent Haruf, Plainsong; Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion; Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove and Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West 1950 to the Present (editor); Annie Proulx, Close Range; Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here; Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose; Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life.

  • An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg
  • August 09, 2005
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9781400076147

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