21st Century Literature discussion

Train Dreams
This topic is about Train Dreams
72 views
2013 Book Discussions > Train Dreams - Chapter 1 (June 2013)

Comments Showing 1-28 of 28 (28 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments The book begins with Grainier's role in the attempted killing of a Chinese labourer "caught, or at least accused of, stealing from the company stores". The man escapes his captors by wriggling free and dropping "from beam to beam downwards" on the unfinished wooden bridge across the gorge, before vanishing from sight. That evening, Grainier is haunted by the man he helped try to kill, and by his own unarticulated guilt. "Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman on the road, Chinaman in the woods… Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider."

What did the incident with the Chinese laborer show us about Robert Grainier and his beliefs regarding human suffering?


Matthew | 154 comments Grainier definitely believes in a sense of karma, made worse by the fact that all Chinese men look the same to him.

What ended up striking me about Chapter 1, though, was how out of character it ended up seeming (not that we know too much about Grainier with only a few short sketches). I was all prepared for another round of "can we like a book with an unsympathetic main character?" but I don't think he ends up doing any other bad stuff. Chapter 1 sets him up to be unlikeable, but he really isn't, and I don't really get a sense for why he "joins in" this time, when he turns out to not really be a joiner overall, or a racist.


message 3: by Julie (last edited Jun 01, 2013 09:10AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Julie (readerjules) | 196 comments This was my favorite part of the book....right at the beginning. Maybe that's why the rest was such a letdown to me. :-(


Terry Pearce This chapter was subtle yet striking, for me. Grainier is an uncertain man, someone who doesn't always know quite why he does what he does. He's also a man with a conscience, even if he doesn't know that well enough to let it affect what he does too much.


Portia My impression is that the author is attempting to illustrate how easily it is for any one of us to get caught up in crowd behavior, with assuming an attitude toward someone or something without thought.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Matthew wrote: "I don't really get a sense for why he "joins in" this time, when he turns out to not really be a joiner overall, or a racist"

Yes, I didn't understand this, either.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Portia wrote: "My impression is that the author is attempting to illustrate how easily it is for any one of us to get caught up in crowd behavior, with assuming an attitude toward someone or something without thought. "

In this respect I feel Grainier does indeed represent an Everyman


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Is Grainier and Gladys’s marriage special or unusual?


message 9: by Krystal (new) - added it

Krystal (KrystalAnn1216) | 10 comments This first chapter is what drew me in initially but overall I agree with most of the comments above. I too got the feeling Grainier is a man who doesn't always know why he does what he does. And it is made clear and upfront in this first chapter. That to me, explains why he "joins in" this time when he turns out to be more of an introvert and "loner" later.


message 10: by Krystal (new) - added it

Krystal (KrystalAnn1216) | 10 comments I think that Grainier and Gladys's marriage is both special and unusual. It is a little unusual because of perhaps the time period the story is set in. Most people then married out of necessity rather than love but even though they don't come off initially as a very "intimate" couple, you get the sense that they share a very strong bond. And that in turn, to me, makes is special.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Krystal wrote: "I too got the feeling Grainier is a man who doesn't always know why he does what he does. "

I agree. He seems very out of touch with his feelings, which may account for him acting out of character on this occasion. I think he's an introvert right from the very beginning - which would explain why he's so uncomfortable in a crowd and behaves in a way that doesn't accord with his core beliefs.

Do you agree with Anthony Doerr that Johnson has already begun, here, to weave together twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence in this almost surreal tale? To my mind these strains account for what many critics have called the stark beauty of 'Train Dreams'.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Krystal wrote: "Most people then married out of necessity rather than love but even though they don't come off initially as a very "intimate" couple, you get the sense that they share a very strong bond. "

I wasn't sure what to make of "She could easily have braved it and done her washing and cut up potatoes and trout for supper" until I read the sentence more carefully and noted "it was their custom ... when her head ached ... and get a holiday from such chores."

It struck me as a very tender marriage. And, as you say, unusual for its time.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Why do you think Grainier is convinced that it would have been better to kill the Chinaman before he cursed them? Surely superstition would allow that killing a man would bring considerably worse misfortune than an attempt to kill him?


Tiffany Sophia wrote: "Why do you think Grainier is convinced that it would have been better to kill the Chinaman before he cursed them? Surely superstition would allow that killing a man would bring considerably worse ..."

I don't know. Grainier didn't strike me as the type to adopt a karmic philosophy. He seemed to take the idea of a curse very literally. So, it felt to me that his belief in the curse was focused on the Chinaman's deliberate intention to curse him. Thus, if he had died before cursing them, they might have been completely spared from wrath since no intentionally curse had been placed over them.


Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
As to why Grainier"joined in," I don't think he joined to be a joiner. I think it was more a matter of, in this time period settlers helped each other out when help was needed. I also get the impression that the Chinaman was viewed as something less than human, or at least less than a white person, in this "us vs. them" chase. Granier completely believed in the curse. Maybe the chapter was intended to highlight what an unenlightened time this was, rife with racism and superstition.


Terry Pearce I agree that he sees the curse as very literal, an action the Chinaman took, and would not have been able to take had he been dead.

Their marriage seems very tender, very special. It seems neither of them expected it, particularly not him, but at the same time it seemed to happen like something that was always meant to be. The tenderness shows particularly on his side, maybe because he doesn't seem particularly like a tender sort (although that's likely partly just the way men of that time were).


message 17: by Krystal (new) - added it

Krystal (KrystalAnn1216) | 10 comments Sophia wrote: "Do you agree with Anthony Doerr that Johnson has already begun, here, to weave together twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence in this almost surreal tale? To my mind these strains account for what many critics have called the stark beauty of 'Train Dreams'."

I agree very much so. Especially when I read Anthony Doerr's thoughts on the novella it actually made me realize more of the beauty of the book and writing style. It helped me understand why it was written the way it was and appreciate it fully. Which is why I went back to read it again but this time with a new sense of understanding. The strains of both the harsh reality of life in that time period and the sense of humanity weaved together create an almost internal conflict within the story in my opinion.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Casceil wrote: "Maybe the chapter was intended to highlight what an unenlightened time this was, rife with racism and superstition."

That's my impression too. Further, when Grainer describes the Chinaman as a "little demon" his language strongly suggests that the threat of a malevolent spirit world is very real.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Krystal wrote: "The strains of both the harsh reality of life in that time period and the sense of humanity weaved together create an almost internal conflict "

Yes, which is quite surreal.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments "Johnson creates a world framed by casual violence and Old Testament certitude, but underpinned by superstition and an odd kind of childlike innocence." - Sean O'Hagan

Is Grainier particularly innocent?


message 21: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Sophia wrote: ""Johnson creates a world framed by casual violence and Old Testament certitude, but underpinned by superstition and an odd kind of childlike innocence." - Sean O'Hagan

Is Grainier particularly i..."


Not quite certain what O'Hagan means by "Old Testament certitude." I would use the word "naivety" rather than childlike innocence, although I think I sort of understand the aura Johnson creates is a bit of "paradise before the fall," i.e., of before knowledge of good and evil -- in a way almost animal-like and at the same time the animal called human like.

(I just read the book this morning, it arrived Saturday, in about 2 1/2 hours.)


message 22: by Lily (last edited Jun 17, 2013 07:20PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments I felt as if the rather shocking introduction was not so much about establishing the character of Grainier as commentary on what a racist world is like -- even to the point of asking the reader to consider just how different is the present world, both in terms of unthinking, unpremeditated violence and (Chapter 3) (view spoiler)


Deirdre Sophia wrote: ""Johnson creates a world framed by casual violence and Old Testament certitude, but underpinned by superstition and an odd kind of childlike innocence." - Sean O'Hagan

Is Grainier particularly i..."

I wonder if he means, but Old Testament certitude, that this is a world where there's an acceptance of the cycle of life that is kind of resisted in modern times. There's an acceptance of the harshness of nature, but how resilient it is at the same time. For instance, how nature starts to push through the ashes of the ruined land, but also how Granier manages to build another cabin and continues to live. Nowadays, we are always a bit surprised when we can't control what nature throws at us (from minor irritants like snails in the garden to major disasters like floods). As far as Granier himself goes, I think in modern terms he's probably not the sharpest tool in the shed. He mentions that he wasn't that good (or that bothered, I can't remember) at school. I also remember an instance where he kept asking the man whose dog shot him (!) the same question and thinking, oh this guy's a bit slow. However, he knows what he needs to know to live in the times he's in, so he's smart enough. I don't think it's Granier himself that is particularly 'innocent', really - he's simply managing to survive, as a human, as best he can in the world he finds himself in. I like Lily's comparison of 'paradise before the fall' - that definitely strikes a chord.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Lily wrote: "I think I sort of understand the aura Johnson creates is a bit of "paradise before the fall," i.e., of before knowledge of good and evil -- in a way almost animal-like and at the same time the animal called human like."

Oh, I like that. And then we have an apocalyptic fire "stronger than God" sweep the valley, "and a once familiar landscape of tall trees and wild flowers [is] now transformed into a kind of hell." So, man is cast out...

Has Johnson, in Grainer, created an American everyman, uneducated, unambitious and not much given to reflection, whose unexamined life is nevertheless touched by wonder, strangeness and great tragedy?

But, is there ever such a thing as an ordinary life?


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Lily wrote: "I felt as if the rather shocking introduction was not so much about establishing the character of Grainier as commentary on what a racist world is like -- even to the point of asking the reader to ..."

Yes, I see that.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Deirdre wrote: "I don't think it's Granier himself that is particularly 'innocent', really - he's simply managing to survive, as a human, as best he can in the world he finds himself in. "

“Grainier is an innocent, seemingly untroubled by greater complication or the scourge of doubt, who is ultimately crushed by a more desperately cruel and irrational world than he could have dreamed of. And dream he did.” – Anthony Doerr

Did he only survive because the dreaming drove him quietly mad?


message 27: by Lily (last edited Jun 21, 2013 12:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Does the Parsifal "holy fool" archetype apply here? Certainly not in the sense of eventually becoming a leader, but a simple man with little intellectual understanding of the world surviving therein with at least remnants of dignity amongst its overwhelming forces.

(This comment may really apply to the broader book, but I wrote it rather stream of consciousness from msg. 26. Since seeing the opera Parsifal this summer and reading the application of it to Hans Castrop in Magic Mountain, I have been wrestling a bit with "exactly" what is the Parsifal archetype, although "exactly" may not be an appropriate term to apply to archetypes.)


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I like what you say about stream of consciousness. To my mind the book feels like a prose poem. As to archetypes, I think a well-developed character exhibits aspects of more than one type. At the most basic level Granier strikes me as a classic introvert, seeking order. So in that respect he is an innocent, which is what a Holy Fool is...

But, do you think Grainer is a natural hermit? Or is it rather that the circumstances of his life mean that his chosen way of life is the only viable option?

And what do you make of the element of wolf-based folklore? Does this also make Grainier a visionary/magician? (Talking of archetypes - again!)

NB As to Parsifal I think I would classify him as a Wounded Hero - which, of course, is beyond the bounds of this discussion. And my knowledge, I hasten to add!!!


back to top