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Caribou Island: A Novel
by David Vann

Published: 2011-01-01
Hardcover : 304 pages
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The prize-winning author of Legend of a Suicide delivers his highly anticipated debut novel.

On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unraveling. Gary, driven by thirty years of diverted plans, and Irene, haunted by a tragedy in her past, are ...

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The prize-winning author of Legend of a Suicide delivers his highly anticipated debut novel.

On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unraveling. Gary, driven by thirty years of diverted plans, and Irene, haunted by a tragedy in her past, are trying to rebuild their life together. Following the outline of Gary's old dream, they're hauling logs to Caribou Island in good weather and in terrible storms, in sickness and in health, to build the kind of cabin that drew them to Alaska in the first place.

But this island is not right for Irene. They are building without plans or advice, and when winter comes early, the overwhelming isolation of the prehistoric wilderness threatens their bond to the core. Caught in the emotional maelstrom is their adult daughter, Rhoda, who is wrestling with the hopes and disappointments of her own life. Devoted to her parents, she watches helplessly as they drift further apart.

Brilliantly drawn and fiercely honest, Caribou Island captures the drama and pathos of a husband and wife whose bitter love, failed dreams, and tragic past push them to the edge of destruction. A portrait of desolation, violence, and the darkness of the soul, it is an explosive and unforgettable novel from a writer of limitless possibility.

A Q&A with David Vann

Q: Set in Alaska, Caribou Island is the story of a marriage's unraveling and the tragic events it precipitates. How does your setting reflect and shape the novel's plot and the characters, especially Irene and Gary?

Vann: I think wilderness has no meaning on its own. It's a giant mirror. So as I was writing Caribou Island, I kept focusing on Alaska, and as I described the landscape I was indirectly describing and discovering the interior lives of Irene and Gary. The island and lake are constantly shifting in shape and mood, and even the storms that come down off the glacier feel like they belong to Irene. She resents taking care of this man for thirty years and receiving only his vacancy in return, and the desolation of the place increases the pressure on her. There are no distractions, and no escape is possible.

Q: You were born in Alaska and spent your childhood there. What was that experience like? What are your impressions of this state that has become such a focus of public consciousness?

Vann: Alaska is magnificent, and the cold rainforest of Ketchikan, where I spent my childhood, is still mythic in my imagination. In that forest, I always felt I was being watched, and we really did have bears and wolves. There was so much undergrowth and deadfall, I?d sometimes fall through the forest floor to a second floor and disappear completely. And the ocean was even more impossible. The first king salmon I caught was taller than I was, and my grandfather caught a 250-lb halibut. I remember watching it slowly rising to the surface, growing until it became bigger than my imagination. I write about Alaska because it's in that landscape that I can find some sense of self and possibility and freedom.

Q: You have been very open about your family tragedies, including your father's suicide. Was it difficult approaching such a sensitive topic? How has using the raw material of these events affected you?

Vann: It took me ten years to write Legend of a Suicide, and I threw away everything from the first three or four years because there was too much emotion on the first page. I had to learn to tell stories indirectly, and the writing had to become more than therapy. Writing and therapy are both about truth, but only writing is about the beautiful. What was ugly has to be transformed and become readable. In Caribou Island there are again several true family stories in the background, but farther away than my father's suicide, and my focus again was on seeing how the stories would shift and become something else.

Q: As a male writer, did you face any challenges capturing the voice of your female characters?

Vann: I didn?t expect to write about marriage, and I didn?t expect to write from the viewpoint of a woman, but I saw that Irene was the center of the story, and that her daughter Rhoda was also vitally important. I didn?t struggle with voice or point of view at all for some reason, perhaps because my sympathies were with Irene and Rhoda and less with Gary and Jim. To me, Irene and Rhoda make the best sense of the world and are the most honest, and this follows what I?ve experienced in real life, also. I was raised by women, and I trusted their accounts more than men's accounts.

Q: How would you assess your evolution as a writer from your award-winning collection Legend of a Suicide to this, your first novel? Did you find your voice naturally, or was it a struggle to find the right sound and rhythm?

Vann: With Legend of a Suicide, I was learning how to write. The book is a short novel framed by five short stories, and I was tremendously influenced by various writers during that ten-year period, so the style and voice vary from story to story and form a kind of debate. This makes sense for the material, because no one in my family could agree on who my father was, what happened, or what his suicide meant. There was no one story or one voice to find anywhere. But Caribou Island is a far more cohesive piece, and I wrote two pages per day in a kind of extended dream, hoping it would feel like it was written in one sitting. And I didn?t struggle at all with voice, because I think of writing as being mostly unconscious and out of control. All I have to do is get out of the way and avoid having plans and ideas. As long as I return each day to focus on place and character, the book writes itself. The final published version is almost exactly the same as my first draft, and it just is what it is. I don?t think authors really get to choose what they write.

Q: Who are the writers you admire?

Vann: My favorite writers focus on landscape. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. These writers extend literal landscapes into figurative landscapes. In Blood Meridian, for instance, we find mountains ?whose true geology was not stone but fear.? We focus on the real mountains and then they slip and shift and describe what we fear and desire and who we imagine ourselves to be. We shape ourselves through place.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


My mother was not real. She was an early dream, a hope. She was a place. Snowy, like here, and cold. A wooden house on a hill above a river. An overcast day, the old white paint of the buildings made brighter somehow by the trapped light, and I was coming home from school. Ten years old, walking by myself, walking through dirty patches of snow in the yard, walking up to the narrow porch. I can’t remember how my thoughts went then, can’t remember who I was or what I felt like. All of that is gone, erased. I opened our front door and found my mother hanging from the rafters. I’m sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed the door. I was outside on the porch again. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. Caribou Island opens with Irene's recollection of her mother's suicide. How does this set the tone for what follows? How did this tragedy ultimately define Irene's life and her relationship with her husband, Gary? Could events have unfolded for her differently?

2. Also at the novel's beginning, Irene tells her daughter, Rhoda, "your father wants to leave me, and the first step is to make us move out to that island. To make it seem he gave it a try." Is Irene correct? What was the significance of the cabin and Caribou Island for Gary?

3. Examine the characters and their personalities. Focusing on one or two, use examples from the book to create a profile. Did you like any of the characters? What were the motivations for their actions: What drove Gary to build the cabin on Caribou Island? Why did Irene go along with him? Why is Rhoda dating Jim? Why is Carl in Alaska? Why does Jim risk everything to be with Monique? What did each of them want—would they be happy or content if they got it?

4. Alaska has long been considered our last wilderness. What are your impressions of Alaska? What role does the setting play in the novel? How is our idea of masculinity tied into notions of Alaska and the frontier? What does "being a man" mean to Gary, Jim, and Carl? How would Irene, Rhoda, and Monique define what a man is?

5. How would you categorize Irene and Gary's marriage? What kept them together? Why didn't one or the other leave? Irene also tells her daughter, "We all have rules, Rhoda. And your father's main rule is that he can never seem like the bad guy." Do you agree? What "rules" did Irene live by? What about Rhoda and Jim? What about yourself or others you know—do you have rules?

6. Compare and contrast Irene and Rhoda and analyze their bond. When Rhoda breaks the news about her engagement to Jim, how does Irene react? Should she have kept her opinion to herself or does she do the right thing? Does her advice stem from bitterness or love?

7. "Gary knew he should feel lucky, but felt nothing except a mild, background terror of how he'd get through the day, how he'd fill the hours. He'd felt this all his adult life, especially in the evenings, especially when he was single. After the sun went down, the stretch of time until when he could sleep seemed an impossible expanse, something looming, a void that couldn't be crossed." Why might a man who feels—and fears—such emptiness, be drawn to a place like Alaska? What did Gary think he would find there? What did he ultimately find? Use examples from the story.

8. Shortly after they begin building the cabin, Irene is plagued by debilitating headaches. Were the headaches real, or a manifestation of emotional distress? How does the family react to her distress?

9. One of the themes of Caribou Island is change. Neither Gary nor Irene recognize the person they are today compared to who they once were—as Irene says, "each new version refuting all previous." Do the events that impact us over the course of our lives change us that much? Is it possible to retain the core essence of self despite life's vicissitudes? Do these characters have that core or is its absence the root of their problems?

10. Late in the book, Irene muses about the years past. "It hadn't been a bad life, on the surface. Something elemental about it. Something that could have been true if it hadn't been all just a distraction for Gary, a kind of lie. If he had been true, their lives could have been true." Why does she think this? What isn't "true" about Gary and why weren't their lives "true" in Irene's eyes?

11. As for her husband, Gary calls Irene "a mean old bitch" and accuses her of destroying his dreams. Are they both right? Are they both wrong? How much are each of them responsible for the state of their marriage and their lives?

12. Could Irene's denouement have been prevented? How did you feel at the end? What do you think happens to Rhoda?

13. What did you take away from reading Caribou Island?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "A very literate, well-written but ultimately depressing tale"by Mary B. (see profile) 05/18/11

"Caribou Island" is undoubtedly very well written. The characters are authentic, the descriptions of the scenery are very poignant and realistic, and the symbolism of the cabin as it relates to the failed... (read more)

  "Do NOT waste your time"by Ellen t. (see profile) 04/30/11

this book was touted as an "epic"read--and it was horrible. Why spend hours reading about horrible people? Not one of the characters had an ounce of sense, except maybe Rhoda, and she was an idiot not... (read more)

  "on of the world's worst books"by E T. (see profile) 04/30/11

Wow. Awful. The characters were horrible people--selfish, stupid. The writing was OK, but I think he was trying to be Hemigway-esque and not succeding very well (writing in short choppy dialogue with... (read more)

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