“East of the Mountains” by David Guterson is my neglected book. This poor book didn’t get a “first impressions” post, I didn’t even take a picture of it. I thought I did, but nope. I started reading it on August 17 and my first notes were, “I’m not liking this. Too sad and lonely.” And then, “Pages of memories, just nostalgia.” By page 108 I had almost had it, “Romantic and sentimental. Barf.”

East of the Mountains book cover.

Why am I so averse to sappy memories and sob stories? I get it! You’re dying. You’re old and have a lifetime of memories! Blah!

Other people’s sadness, pain, “What’s the point of all this?!” feeling, is something I steer clear of. I don’t deal with my own very well and I guess I just don’t know what to do with theirs. I’m not one to break down and tell my story through anguished tears. I hate sympathy. When I do, because I just can’t carry it anymore, I feel like an ass. I’m embarrassed and ashamed of myself. Reading stories like this…ugg…

So why did I finish it? I don’t know. I had to know how it ended, I guess. Where was he going with all this? I’m still not sure.

The story-telling devices he used were interesting. I don’t want to give it away too much, but he makes a plan to kill himself instead of suffering through his last months of cancer. In the process, he has some “adventures” that give him a chance to look back on his life and make some discoveries. I liked how that was done. I got to know him, but I still never really liked him.

“East of the Mountains,” reminded me of something that has come up over the years, especially recently. We have a very strange relationship with death. We live as if it isn’t coming, as if, somehow, we can avoid it. It’s a tragedy when it comes along, a complete surprise. We have no rituals, no philosophy that helps lead us to our end and deal with it gracefully, not for our own end or the end of those we love around us.

But the truth is, we will all die. No one gets out. Some of us leave this world sooner than others. And not one of us knows what will happen when we close our eyes forever.

We do know what happens to us when someone we love dies before us though, and I think that bothers me more. When I worry about my own death, I’m more concerned with how my family will go on without me, not that they won’t be able to take care of themselves. I know they can and will. I’m more worried about them being sad and not being able to cope with it. We’ve even talked about it several times.

Do you talk about death? Do you make plans about what you’ll do when your end comes? This seems to be the best way to deal with it. We drag that monster out from the darkness and lay it out before us. Suddenly, it’s not as scary as it was. Sure, we still can’t know what happens after we die, but we can deal with the reality of what will happen right here with the ones left behind.

The main character in this book was concerned that he would be a burden to his children as he died, and that triggered some memories of conversations I have had with my grandpa and my mom. I don’t understand that thinking. I look at it this way. When I was born, I was a burden, a big one. We all are. It took nearly twenty years for me to become less of a burden and take care of myself. Through all of that, my parents were there. What kind of an ass would I be not to return that care at the end of their lives?

This is where I start to look at our culture and wonder what happened. Where are the things that bring us together in a family? Where are the traditions that help us move through the stages of our lives and those of others? I used to be one that poo-poo’d traditions and rituals. Who needs a graduation, a wedding, a baby shower, a funeral, etc.? They had become only reasons to spend massive amounts of money on stuff we don’t need. But now I wonder. What if they didn’t used to be? What if that’s what we’ve reduced them to?

People complain about the lack of participation in national affairs and community, but I believe that it started with a lack of participation in family affairs. I’m guilty of it myself, but I believe our culture has evolved into this and created these circumstances. We don’t get married and have children, take care of those children, with the help of our extended family, help our grandparents as they get old and be there when they die. Our children live and grow up in institutions with other children. The adults live in the working world with other adults. The old live in retirement homes with other old people, to live out the rest of their lives and most likely die alone. We’ve separated ourselves into sections that no one moves between, and I think we’re starting to feel the effects of that.

A lack of empathy and understanding that started in our homes is now moving into the community and the nation. The lack of family bonds has evolved into a lack of community involvement. We don’t have time to know our children, to take care of our parents, let alone even know our neighbors. Besides, we have social media to keep up with what they are doing, why do I need to spend time with them in person?

In “East of the Mountains,” Ben, the main character in this story, is attempting to go off and die on his own so that his family doesn’t have to carry the burden of caring for him as he dies. On the way, he begins to see (I hope) why that is so wrong. My thoughts on reading this swirl around memories of my grandma’s Sylvia’s death, my grandpa Ray’s decline into dementia, and the trauma in our family resulting in differing opinions about how to deal with it.

Maybe it’s just me getting old, but I’m starting to think that maybe family is far more important than our culture leads us to believe. In the end, and at the beginning, it’s all we have to hold on to. If we can’t, we’re lost.

Have you read “East of the Mountains” by David Guterson? I’d love to hear what you thought of it. Let me know in the comments.

Hop over to my “Autobibliography” page to see my reading list. It’s not fun to read alone. Leave me a comment about your thoughts on any of these great books!