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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.

You said that? Rhoda asked. You said you were sorry?


Oh, Mom.

It was long ago, Irene said. And it was something I couldn’t see even at the time, so I can’t see it now. I don’t know what she looked like hanging there. I don’t remember any of it, only that it was.

Rhoda scooted closer on the couch and put her arm around her mother, pulled her close. They both looked at the fire. A metal screen in front, small hexagons, and the longer Rhoda looked, the more these hexagons seemed like the back wall of the fireplace, made golden by flame. As if the back wall, black with soot, could be revealed or transmuted by fire. Then her eyes would shift and it would be only a screen again. I wish I had known her, Rhoda said.

Me too, Irene said. She patted Rhoda’s knee. I need to get to sleep. Busy day tomorrow.

I’ll miss this place.

It was a good home. But 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.

That’s not true, Mom.

We all have rules, Rhoda. And your father’s main rule is that he can never seem like the bad guy.

He loves you, Mom.

Irene stood and hugged her daughter. Goodnight, Rhoda.

In the morning, Irene carried her end of log after log, from the truck to the boat. These are never going to fit together, she said to her husband, Gary.

I’ll have to plane them down a bit, he said, tight-lipped.

Irene laughed.

Thanks, Gary said. He already had that grim, worried look that accompanied all his impossible projects.

Why not build a cabin with boards? Irene asked. Why does it have to be a log cabin?

But Gary wasn’t answering.

Suit yourself, she said. But these aren’t even logs. None of them is bigger than six inches. It’s going to look like a hovel made out of sticks.

They were at the upper campground on Skilak Lake, the water a pale jade green from glacial runoff. Flaky from silt, and because of its depth, never warmed much, even in late summer. The wind across it chill and constant, and the mountains rising from its eastern shore still had pockets of snow. From their tops, Irene had often seen, on clear days, the white volcanic peaks of Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna across the Cook Inlet and, in the foreground, the broad pan of the Kenai Peninsula: spongy green and red-purple moss, the stunted trees rimming wetlands and smaller lakes, and the one highway snaking silver in sunlight as a river. Mostly public land. Their house and their son Mark’s house the only buildings along the shore of Skilak, and even they were tucked back into trees so the lake still could seem prehistoric, wild. But it wasn’t enough to be on the shore. They were moving out, now, to Caribou Island.

Gary had backed his pickup close to where the boat sat on the beach with an open bow, a ramp for loading cargo. With each log, he stepped onto the boat and walked its length. A wobbly walk, because the stern was in the water and bobbing.

Lincoln logs, Irene said.

I’ve heard about enough, Gary said.


Gary pulled another small log. Irene took her end. The sky darkened a bit, and the water went from light jade to a blue-gray. Irene looked up toward the mountain and could see one flank whited. Rain, she said. Coming this way.

We’ll just keep loading, Gary said. Put on your jacket if you want.

Gary wearing a flannel work shirt, long-sleeved, over his T-shirt. Jeans and boots. His uniform. He looked like a younger man, still fit for his mid-fifties. Irene still liked how he looked. Unshaven, unshowered at the moment, but real.

Shouldn’t take much longer, Gary said.

They were going to build their cabin from scratch. No foundation, even. And no plans, no experience, no permits, no advice welcome. Gary wanted to just do it, as if the two of them were the first to come upon this wilderness.

So they kept loading, and the rain came toward them a white shadow over the water. A kind of curtain, the squall line, but the first drops and wind always hit just before, invisible, working ahead of what she could see, and this always came as a surprise to Irene. Those last moments taken away. And then the wind kicked up, the squall line hit, and the drops came down large and heavy, insistent.

Irene grabbed her end of another log, walked toward the boat with her face turned away from the wind. The rain blowing sideways now, hitting hard. She wore no hat, no gloves. Her hair matting, drips off her nose, and she felt that first chill as the rain soaked through her shirt to her arms, one shoulder, her upper back and neck. She hunched away from it as she walked, placed her log, and then walked back hunched the other way, her other side soaking through now, and she shivered.

Gary walking ahead of her, hunched also, his upper body turned away from the rain as if it wanted to disobey his legs, take off in its own direction. He grabbed the end of another log, pulled it out, stepping backward, and then the rain hit harder. The wind gusted, and the air was filled with water, white even in close. The lake disappeared, the waves gone, the transition to shore become speculative. Irene grabbed the log and followed Gary into oblivion.

The wind and rain formed a roar, against which Irene could hear no other sound. She walked mute, found the bow, placed her log, turned and walked back, no longer hunched. There was no dry part left to save. She was soaked through.

Gary walked past her a kind of bird man, his arms curved out like wings first opening. Trying to keep his wet shirt away from his skin? Or some instinctive first response to battle, readying his arms? When he stopped at the truck bed, water streamed off the end of his nose. His eyes hard and small, focused.

Irene moved in close. Should we stop? she yelled over the roar.

We have to get this load out to the island, he yelled back, and then he pulled another log, so Irene followed, though she knew she was being punished. Gary could never do this directly. He relied on the rain, the wind, the apparent necessity of the project. It would be a day of punishment. He would follow it, extend it for hours, drive them on, a grim determination, like fate. A form of pleasure to him.

Irene followed because once she had endured she could punish. Her turn would come. And this is what they had done to each other for decades now, irresistibly. Fine, she would think. Fine. And that meant, just wait.

Another half an hour of loading logs in the rain. Irene was going to get sick from this, chilled through. They should have been wearing rain gear, which they had in the cab of the truck, but their stubbornness toward each other had prevented that. If she had gone for her jacket when Gary suggested it, that would have interrupted the work, slowed them down, and it would have been noted, held against her, a small shake of the head, perhaps even a sigh, but removed by long enough he could pretend it wasn’t about that. Above all else, Gary was an impatient man: impatient with the larger shape of his life, with who he was and what he’d done and become, impatient with his wife and children, and then, of course, impatient with all the little things, any action not done correctly, any moment of weather that was uncooperative. A general and abiding impatience she had lived in for over thirty years, an element she had breathed.

The last log loaded, finally, and Gary and Irene swung the bow ramp into place. It was not heavy, not reassuring. Black rubber where it met the side plates of the boat, forming a seal. This would be their only way back and forth from the island.

I’ll park the truck, Gary said, and stomped off through the rocks. The rain still coming down, though not as blown now. Enough visibility to know direction, though not enough to see the island from here, a couple miles out. Irene wondered what would happen when they were in the middle. Would they see any of the shore, or only white all around them? No GPS on the boat, no radar, no depth finder. It’s a lake, Gary had said at the dealership. It’s only a lake.

There’s water in the boat, Irene said when Gary returned. It was pooling under the logs, gathered especially in the stern, almost a foot deep from all the rain.

We’ll take care of it once we’re out, Gary said. I don’t want to use the battery for the bilge pump without the engine on.

So what’s the plan? Irene asked. She didn’t know how they would push the boat off the beach, weighed down with the logs.

You know, I’m not the only one who wanted this, Gary said. It’s not just my plan. It’s our plan.

This was a lie, but too big a lie to address right here, right now, in the rain. Fine, Irene said. How do we get the boat off the beach?

Gary looked at the boat for a few moments. Then he bent

down and gave the bow a push. It didn’t budge.

The front half of the boat was on land, and Irene was guessing that meant hundreds of pounds at this point, fully loaded. Gary hadn’t thought of this, obviously. He was making it up as he went along.

Gary walked around to one side and then the other. He climbed over logs to the stern, to the outboard engine, leaned against this and pushed hard, trying to rock the boat, but it might as well have been made of lead. No movement whatsoever.

So Gary crawled forward, hopped ashore, looked at the boat for a while. Help me push, he finally said. Irene lined up beside him, he counted one, two, three, and they both pushed at the bow. Their feet slipped in the black pebbles, but no other movement.

It can never be easy, Gary said. Not a single thing. It can never just work out.

As if to prove what he was saying, the rain came down heavier again, the wind increasing, cold off the glacier. If you wanted to be a fool and test the limits of how bad things could get, this was a good place for it. Irene knew Gary wouldn’t appreciate any comments, though. She tried to be supportive. Maybe we could come back tomorrow, she said. The weather’s supposed to improve a bit. We could unload and push it out, then load again.

No, Gary said. I don’t feel like doing it tomorrow. I’m taking this load out today.

Irene held her tongue.

Gary stomped off to the truck. Irene stood in the rain, soaked and wanting to be warm and dry. Their house very close, a few minutes away. Hot bath, start a fire.

Gary drove the truck onto the beach, curving up toward the trees, then down to the boat until he had the bumper close to the bow. Let me know how close, he yelled out the window.

So Irene walked over and told him, and he eased forward until the bumper was touching.

Okay, Irene said.

Gary gave it a little gas, and pebbles flew out behind his rear wheels. The boat didn’t budge. He shifted to low four-wheel drive, gave it more gas, all four tires digging in, pebbles slamming the underside of the truck body. The boat started to slip, then went back fast into the water, drifting away in a curve.

Grab the bow line! Gary yelled out his window. Irene rushed forward to grab the line that was loose on the beach. She caught it and dug in her heels, lay back on the beach pulling hard until the pressure eased. Then she just lay there, looking up into the dark white sky. She could see the rain as streaks before it hit her face. No gloves, her hands cold and the nylon line rough. The pebbles and larger stones hard against the back of her head. Her clothing a wet and cold outer shell.

She heard Gary drive the truck up to the parking area, and then heard his boots on the way back, large determined strides.

Okay, he said, standing over her. Let’s go.

What she wished was that he would just lie down beside her. The two of them on this beach. They would give up, let the rope go, let the boat drift away, forget about the cabin, forget about all that hadn’t gone right over the years and just go back to their house and warm up and start over. It didn’t seem impossible. If they both decided to do it, they could.

But instead, they walked into the cold water, the waves breaking over their boots up to their knees, and climbed into the boat. Irene grabbed on to the logs and swung her legs in, wondering why she was doing this. The momentum of who she had become with Gary, the momentum of who she had become in Alaska, the momentum that made it somehow impossible to just stop right now and go back to the house. How had that happened?

Gary at the motor squeezed the bulb for the gas line, pulled the choke out, pulled back hard on the starter cord. And the engine caught right away, ran smooth, spit out its stream of cooling water and not as much smoke as Irene was used to. A fourstroke, a nice engine, ridiculously expensive, but at least it was reliable. The last thing she wanted was to be adrift in a storm in the middle of the lake.

Gary had the bilge pump running, a thick stream of water over the side, and all seemed briefly manageable. Then Irene saw the bend in the bow. From where Gary had pushed with the truck, the front of the boat had a bend to it. Not extreme, but Irene shifted forward to examine the seal where the gate met side plate, and she could see a trickle of water coming in. They were loaded down so heavy, part of the ramp was underwater.

Gary, she said, but he was already backing away in a half-circle, then shifting the engine into forward. He was focused, not paying any attention to her. Gary! she yelled out, and waved an arm.

He shifted into neutral and came forward to look. He made a growling sound, his teeth clamped tight. But then he returned to the engine and put it in gear. Not a word, no discussion of whether they should go on or have it repaired first.

Gary didn’t go fast, no more than five or ten miles per hour, but this was straight into wind waves with a flat front, and every wave was a hard blast of spray that drenched them entirely.

Irene turned away from the waves, facing back toward Gary, but he was looking backward, also, steering by reference to the shore they had left, slowly receding into the distance. The truck still visible through patchy trees. No one else parked in the campground. Usually a few boats and campers were here, but today, if anything happened, it was just them, the thud and blast of water every few seconds, the logs humped up dark and soaked, the gunwales low, the steady stream from the bilge pump. A new kind of covered wagon, almost, heading to a new land, the making of a new home. view abbreviated excerpt only...

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.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "A very literate, well-written but ultimately depressing tale"by mabook (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 mcdotreader (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 beckylord (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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