New Valley (Weil)

Discussion Questions
“Ridge Weather”

1. The trilogy of novellas creates a saga of the land and its people. How would you describe the world that Weil creates? Are there plot links or echoes of similar themes in the three stories?

2. What are the results of a hard life in near isolation in this unyielding country? Might a closer community have created easier warmth and better dinner-table conversation? Are there any people with these gifts in the stories?

3. Formal education has certainly not been available to the characters, yet some have remarkable competency in practical matters. Examples?

4. Are there moral imperatives in the trilogy? What behavior is criticized by a narrator or other character? What do we learn about tolerance? As we read about the stubborn aged, the morbidly obese, the mentally impaired, would we do a better job of living with these people than their families do?

5. Does the author provide different versions of the truth? Is reality something to be personally reconstructed by characters as well as by the reader? Did you find that your interpretations shifted as you proceeded in a novella? Can you give examples? In “Sarverville Remains,” Geoffrey says to Brian/Waker, “You just know your half of the story. And I know the same is true for me” (p. 304).

6. What differentiates Osby from his father as recalled in these pages? For instance, “His father would have just put a bullet in it” (p. 48). Are the two men alike in any ways?

7. “Osby wasn’t considered the smartest man in Eads County” (p. 7). The kids on the school bus “looked at him the way they look at adults. That still felt odd to him” (p. 20).  What has kept Osby somehow frozen in time? Have there been any women in his life? Has he ever left home? Do you think his father’s dying will liberate him? Might he begin to live in the present?

8. How does the outside world penetrate the story? Consider the “Save the Children” pamphlet. And the arrival of Jim and his dreams for the Asian crop kenaf. What is the effect of Whistler’s Meadow, the hippy commune?

9. In a story largely about loss and loneliness, why does Osby reject Jim’s friendship and nurturing? Could Jim evolve into a son figure for Osby?

10.  How is Deb from the gas station brilliantly portrayed? What are some of the details that create this absolutely original woman with her sadness, generosity, and fantasies? In contrast, what are Osby’s fantasies? What could he do to earn the declaration, “I don’t know what I’d do without you” (p. 67)? Do we also think of Osby’s imagined disasters for his cows, predicaments only he could help? In difficult calving, “the irrefutable fact that a living thing would not exist if it weren’t for him” (p. 29).

11. When Osby retreats to the Old House in the snowstorm, what kind of sanctuary is he seeking? Is he given any revelation?

12. How does Osby resolve the problem of the dying steer? How are the fates of Osby, the steer, and his father intertwined? Are we looking at a shared miracle?

13. Do you see in “Ridge Weather” a hymn of praise for the land? Not only has it been home for multiple generations of Caudills, but how does it have an inestimable value of its own?  Waste of land is sinful, as in the pasture land taken over by the government. The old hay bales once “had been large and round, but they’d sat there for almost three years now and had sunk in on themselves, decomposing, just mounds of rotten grass. . . . Now, what had been a smooth field of good grass was mostly scrub: junipers, cedars, broom sedge, briars that were getting worse all the time” (p. 30). Is there a note of hope at the end? What do you think Osby has learned?

“Stillman Wing”

1. How are Stillman and the Deutz linked? What propels this “mountain-raised, long-working, hard-minded, fear-driven man” (p. 87) to steal and restore the tractor? A forced retirement and shaking his fist at fate? An offering—and proving something—to Caroline? “There are days when the world outside his shop seems spinning too quickly for him to get his hands on it, and he comes in, and the Deutz is there like a bolt right through the axis of it all” (p. 117).

2. Caroline accuses her father of iron control. How does his health obsession reveal his character? His diet and exercise fetishes? Are his love and concern for his daughter heartfelt? To the point of sprinkling seaweed on her cereal and delivering it to her in the bath? Do you think it is old age and diminishing blood flow that accentuate his need to control?

3. In this land of elemental struggle, some events recall biblical catastrophes. One thinks of the mysterious slaughter of all the Demastus cattle (pp. 94-95). Recall the grackles smothering the trees “like some biblical plague” (p. 105). Does Caroline, bent on self-destruction, create her own Sodom and Gomorrah? Might she herself call it survival? And self-medication? Does her total lack of discipline reflect a perversion of Stillman’s “carefulness”?

4. “Risks?...What would you know about risks, Dad? You’ve never took a risk in your life” (p. 115).  (Can this still be said at the end of the story?)  What might have made Stillman such a careful man? What does he recall of his parents? (Who besides them has abandoned him?) When told the story of her grandparents’ death, Caroline, age six, said, “You don’t look sad…you look angry” (p. 130). Even in old age, Stillman is haunted. The plane circling his workshop, real or hallucination? “Something in him iced over. He could feel it spread like frost dusting his bones” (p. 122). As he then tries to remember…and to feel…he goes to the cemetery. Are we reminded of several characters in King Lear? Of “unaccommodated man”?   “Turning the basin upside down, he held it over his head and got out. The rain beat above him. It was cold on his fingers. He splashed around the car, crouched beside the fence, scrunched his eyes at the chiseled stones. He tried to summon some kind of sadness” (p. 131).  Later, thinking of his “one-time nearly wife…the anger, and fear, and regret boil to the surface like pot scum…Outside the snow covers everything in quiet. He will sleep. He will rejuvenate and heal and sleep” (p. 139). It is a stunning picture of old age and despair. In King Lear, how does Cordelia’s standing up to her tyrannical father (and later reconciling) compare to Caroline’s role?  What other characters in novels or myth  does  Stillman make you think of, characters at the very verge of chasm or apocalypse?

5. How does the past become present in “Stillman Wing”? Think of the pond at the commune. And the “rusted hulk of a B-26” (p. 164). The ringing of Old Les Pfersick’s bell. Other instances? Ginny’s pregnancy?

6. What are some of the surprising acts of generosity in the story? Do you recall the surprise posthumous gifts of old Pfersick? And that of the Booe child?

7. How do you understand the end of the novella? “... he felt ready, unafraid, even eager to see at last what a new valley might look like..." (p. 187). After a heroic journey, has Stillman achieved his quest?

8. What do the time warps mean in the story? At one moment Stillman is waiting for Caroline to pick up the phone at the commune. The next ring he hears is from a California orphanage, an event of forty-one years ago (p. 154). And there is the phantom plane. Other examples? Are these signs of deterioration and mental disorder? Or are they times when Stillman is trying to integrate disparate, jarring events in his life?

9. “These were a strange people who lived down there, a people not of this land, not of this valley. This valley was a place of homes scattered far from homes, and meant to be that way, of lives built around cattle more than conversation, timed to rhythms of the crops, not the need to keep pace with other people’s heartbeats. This was a place where people knew how to keep apart” (p. 162). In vivid contrast, how does the commune serve as both refuge for the living and the dying? What are the ironic links between pollution and healing, or at least comforting?

"Sarverville Remains”

1. What is Geoffrey’s motive for writing? Is he seeking some unity with Linda’s husband? Is it expiation he’s after? Does the second-person narrative pull in the reader effectively? Is Waker the only (captive) audience Geoffrey could hope for?

2. Talk about Linda and Geoffrey’s relationship. “You aren’t like anybody else, she said” (p. 276). Does the man-boy give her some self-respect? And on Geoffrey’s side, he says, “She’s the first who ever made me feel full growed” (p. 219).

3. In the coon episode, what propels Geoffrey to commit this neighborhood chaos and carnage? At the point of Roy’s gun and rage, how does Geoffrey perform a Herculean labor, like cleaning out the Augean stables?

4. What do we learn about Roy at the dump? His nostalgic dreams of childhood? His capacity for “magical” moments (p. 260)? Comment on his question to Geoffrey: “You ever hear the one about the guy that brings his retarded buddy on a hunting trip?” (p. 262).

5. “Most like you think there ain’t no Sarverville at all” (p. 263). Talk about the range of views of the Sarvers, before and after their fifty years out in the wilderness on their own. An Eden? Is it a deliberate rejection of conventional behavior that actually seems to work?  Ma B says “all of them diminished…but they was diminished only in the narrow sight of them who was so alike they could be swapped from wife to husband or job to job and wouldn’t nobody know the difference” (p. 292). What were the special gifts of the Sarvers?

6. “It was Ma B teached me how to give good hugs” (p. 281).What else has she given Geoffrey? Is it possible that living with her and her brood was the last time he felt normal? “They was all diminished” (p. 288). How does her insisting on “yes Ma’am” relate to her advice about how he should treat Linda?

7. If we read “Sarverville Remains” as a fable, does it make you think about other stories about “diminished people”? I.B. Singer’s Gimpel  the Fool?  The film King of Hearts? Others? What truths of the heart are the writers trying to alert us to?

8. Is the story set up, with all its time shifts and misperceptions, to make the reader share Geoffrey’s confusion about Brian and Waker? Do we begin to question individual perspectives and their limitations?

9. What is Jackie’s idea of a good life for Geoffrey? “You remember how it was. Things was good. You got a good job. People like you. Like to watch you wave and wave back . . . It’s the way it’s meant to be” (p. 310). But Roy says “. . . just let him be . . . alive” (p. 310). What do these attitudes reveal about Jackie and Roy? And expectations for people who are different?

10. “I wanted to do it right,” I said. “I wanted to have it out like growed men.” But Linda says, “Grown men don’t do it like that, Geoffrey” (p. 335). What is it to be a grown man in this story? Do we see any? “Why did He let her break them rules and kiss me like I was a full adult?” (p. 336)

11. Are the land and his heritage to be Geoffrey’s salvation? Has he made the right decision? Do you think he will continue to write?
(Questions developed by Barbara Putnam and are found on the author's website.)

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