Course 3—Study Guide

Powder
by Tobias Wolff (1945)


Commentary
course3-book Wolff's skill as a writer is on full display here: his use of symbols to enlarge meaning is perfect. As a result, in a short span of only 2 1/2 book-length pages, we come to know 3 people—and one of them, Mom, isn't even present.

Notice, by the way, what happens in the restaurant: Doc goes to the pay phone to place a call. Careful readers will pick up the fact that he called the police to divert them from the roadblock.

This is a coming-of-age story, drawing upon ancient initiation rites for young people, males in particular, to aid the passage from childhood to adulthood. Wolff has the boy cross over into adulthood at the point where his father asks him to move the roadblock, a symbolic "transition point." His father is his guide. (See LitCourse 9.).


Consider:
1. In the first sentence, Wolff lets us in on the father's character. Dad likes jazz, a music of improvisation, spontaneity, and abandonment of formal rules. Jazz is a symbol enabling us to understand something essential about the father without Wolff having to tell us directly.


2. While the father loves the thrill of the blinding snow on the ski slopes, the boy refers to it as "bitter." On the last ski run, he sticks to his father "like white on rice" out of fear—he can't see the trail. That fear is repeated when the two head down the snow-covered road. The boy is anxious when he can't see what's ahead of him.


3. We never meet Mom, but we feel we know something about her. She seems strict and argumentative. The image of the perfectly set table, just waiting for the red candles to be lit, seems to indicate someone who adheres to order. Mom and Dad seem to be a troublesome match.


4. The boy is sullen throughout most of the story, uncomfortable with his father's free wheeling style. He's a kid who puts his clothes on numbered hangers, and asks for homework in advance: he's overly dependent on planning and fears the unexpected, a life that makes no room for spontaneity. No wonder he's terrified when he looks at the snow on the road and can't see in front of him.


5. The boy crosses a symbolic threshold (the roadblock) and begins to admire his father's skill and finesse, enjoying the excitement of living without complete foreknowledge and planning. He eventually understands that there is something beautiful about not knowing exactly where you are going—the adventure of life.


6. Powder becomes a symbol for something fresh, a new beginning, covering up of the old tracks, old habits, and offering an opportunity to lay down new tracks.

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