From Garth Stein, author of the beloved bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain—now a major motion picture!
The New York Times bestselling “witty, atmospheric” (People) story of a once powerful American family, and the price that must be paid by the heirs as they struggle for redemption: “A captivating page-turner” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis).
Twenty-three years after the fateful summer of 1990, Trevor Riddell recalls the events surrounding his fourteenth birthday, when he gets his first glimpse of the infamous Riddell House. Built from the spoils of a massive timber fortune, the legendary family mansion is constructed of giant whole trees and is set on a huge estate overlooking Seattle’s Puget Sound. Trevor’s bankrupt parents have separated, and his father, Jones Riddell, has brought Trevor to Riddell House with a goal: to join forces with Aunt Serena, dispatch the ailing and elderly Grandpa Samuel to a nursing home, sell off the house and property for development, and divide up the profits.
But as young Trevor explores the house’s hidden stairways and forgotten rooms, he discovers secrets that convince him that the family plan may be at odds with the land’s true destiny. Only Trevor’s willingness to face the dark past of his forefathers will reveal the key to his family’s future.
Spellbinding and atmospheric, A Sudden Light is rich with vivid characters, poetic scenes of natural beauty, and powerful moments of spiritual transcendence. “Garth Stein is resourceful, cleverly piecing together the family history with dreams, overheard conversations, and reminiscences…a tale well told,” (The Seattle Times)—a triumphant work of a master storyteller at the height of his power.
A Sudden Light – prologue – THE CURSE Growing up in rural Connecticut, I had been told the name Riddell meant something to people in the Northwest. My paternal great-great-grandfather was someone of significance, my mother explained to me. Elijah Riddell had accumulated a tremendous fortune in the timber industry, a fortune that was later lost by those who succeeded him. My forefathers had literally changed the face of America—with axes and two-man saws and diesel donkeys to buck the fallen, with mills to pulp the corpses and scatter the ashes, they carved out a place in history for us all. And that place, I was told, was cursed.
My mother, who was born of English peasant stock on the peninsula of Cornwall, made something of herself by following her passion for the written word, eventually writing the dissertation that would earn her a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University and becoming the first in her family to receive an advanced degree. Though she never did anything of note with her brilliance, she did carry it around with her like a seed bag, sprinkling handfuls of it on what she deemed fertile soil. She spent much time quoting literature to me when I was young, thus sparking my own avid reading habits. So the theme of the Ancient Mariner and his story, as told by the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge—and how the Mariner’s story was emblematic of my family’s history—was something I had heard often before my fourteenth birthday.
The curse. When one destroys something of beauty and nature—as did the Mariner, who shot the kindly albatross that led his ship out of the perilous Antarctic seas—one will be punished. Cursed. My mother told me this; my father nodded when she did. Punishment will rain down upon the offender and the family of the offender, I was told, until the debt is settled.
The debt owed by my family has been paid, and then some. My mother believes our family’s story was settled with that debt—she has always maintained an unyielding faith in the cathartic power of denouement—which is why she has chosen to go for a walk this morning, rather than stay with us to hear me tell our story again. But I disagree with my mother: there is no tidy end to any story, as much as we might hope. Stories continue in all directions to include even the retelling of the stories themselves, as legend is informed by interpretation, and interpretation is informed by time. And so I tell my story to you, as the Mariner told his: he, standing outside the wedding party, snatching at a passing wrist, paralyzing his victim with his gaze; I, standing with my family at the edge of this immortal forest.
I tell this story because telling this story is what I must do.
Twenty-some years ago, before technology changed the world and terrorism struck fear into the hearts of all citizens. Before boys in trench coats stalked and murdered classrooms full of innocent children in schools across this fair land. Before the oceans were thick with oil slicks and the government ceased to govern and Bill Gates set out to love the world to death and hurricanes became powerful enough to stagger entire cities and toxic children were drugged into oblivion to drive up the profits of Big Pharma, and genetically modified foodstuffs were forced upon us without us knowing we needed to care. Before smoking marijuana at gay marriages became passé—before gay people became, eh, just like anyone else, and weed became, eh, just another source of tax revenue. This was even before another famous Bill, the one surnamed Clinton, became famous for his choice of cigars. It seems like ages ago, looking back on it. No smartphones. No On Demand. Nary an iPad in sight.
So long ago. Yes. This story begins in 1990.
On a hot July day in Seattle, a sickly pea green rental car drives from Sea-Tac airport northward on Interstate 5, through the sprawl of neighborhoods hidden by hills, tucked away behind bridges and bodies of water. Its passengers, a father and a son, don’t speak to each other. The boy is nearly fourteen, and he is unhappy. Unhappy with being displaced from his childhood home and forced on an unwanted road trip. Unhappy with his mother for not being with him. Unhappy with his father for simply being. So he doesn’t speak; he concentrates on Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which he listens to intently through the headphones of his Walkman.
His father looks over at him frequently, nervously. He seems to crave the boy’s approval, which the boy will not give. As they approach the city from the south, the boy glances up and notices the Space Needle, that ubiquitous and baffling Seattle icon. He winces at the irrelevance of the monument—who on earth would build such a thing, and what kind of citizenry would keep it?—and lowers his eyes again to his shoes, which are far more interesting to him.
He doesn’t notice as they drive through the city, but drive through the city they do. They emerge on a high bridge.
“Don’t you want to see this?” the father says, finally, desperately, tapping the boy’s shoulder and indicating the glory of Seattle all around them.
The boy lifts his eyes and looks around. Bridges, lakes, bland buildings, radio towers, floatplanes, mountains, trees. He’s seen it.
“No,” he says and returns his focus to his music. The voices chant at him: Tear down the wall. Tear down the wall.
This reading group guide forA Sudden Lightincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Garth Stein. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell and his bankrupt father arrive at Riddell House on Puget Sound, Trevor knows little about his father’s family or the history of the spectacular, decaying mansion. He knows only that his parents have separated and they must convince his grandfather to allow them to sell the house if there is to be any chance of reuniting his parents. But he soon learns that the Riddell family secrets are as numerous as the house’s secret rooms, and that there is something—or someone—in the house with an agenda counter to his father’s. It becomes clear to Trevor that generations of Riddells are in in need of redemption before the family can be lifted from its collective guilt. Trevor may be the only one who can save them and, in turn, save himself from this oppressive cycle.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel is narrated by Trevor as an adult looking back on his time at Riddell House. How does his adult point of view shape the narrative? Why do you think the author chose to frame the novel this way? How would it have been different if the story were told from Jones’s perspective?
2. Jones tells Trevor that they are going to Riddell House so they can convince Samuel to sell it. What other reasons does Jones have for returning? What does he really hope will come of their visit?
3. What sort of woman is Serena? Why do you think she never left Riddell House? In what ways does she control the family narrative? What are some of her redemptive qualities?
4. Grandpa Samuel talks about what his wife, Isobel, knew: “If you feel you don’t have enough, you hold on to things. But if you feel you have enough, you let go of things.” Do you agree? What does each character in the novel hold on to and how does it motivate their actions? Who is most willing to let go?
5. A Sudden Light features generations of men. Other than Serena, the women in the story play a relatively minor role yet often have a lasting impact. How did Isobel, Rachel, and Alice influence the men in their lives?
6. Consider the theme of redemption in the novel. What drives Elijah’s and Benjamin’s wish to return The North Estate to its original wild forest? What do they have to atone for? Will returning the land to wilderness redeem them?
7. Why was Benjamin so conflicted during his lifetime? Is his internal conflict a result of his upbringing or education or sexuality? How much of it is a product of the place and time in which he lived?
8. What is the significance of the carving of a hand holding a globe that Harry made for Riddell House? What does the carving symbolize to Benjamin, Isobel, Samuel, Jones, and Trevor?
9. The “eternal groaning” is one of the characteristics of Riddell House. How are Riddell House and The North Estate used as characters in the novel?
10. The beauty and power of nature deeply move Benjamin and Trevor. What do they experience while climbing the great tree near Riddell House? How is Trevor transformed by the climb? Have you felt something similar in nature?
11. Trevor tells Dickie that he chooses truth over loyalty. Do you think seeking answers makes Trevor disloyal to his family? When Trevor reveals what he has learned to his father, what happens?
12. How does the author’s portrayal of ghosts and spirits differ from other ghost stories you’ve read? Did the distinction of ghosts versus spirits make sense to you? Why were Trevor and Samuel the only ones who could see the ghosts?
13. In what way was Jones’s death an act of love? How was it a promise he had to fulfill?
14. Elijah Riddell wrote: “no man is beyond redemption as long as he acts in redeemable ways” and Ben wrote: “It is not prayer, but in deeds that we find absolution.” What burdens have Elijah, Ben, Samuel, Jones, Serena, and Trevor each carried? Was each a permanent obstacle to success in life? Were the characters able to change their fates?
15. What does “faith” mean in the context of this novel? Are faith and belief the same thing? How would you answer the question: “How do we reconcile the differences between what we see and what we know?”
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The writings of John Muir play a key part in A Sudden Light. Research John Muir’s life and read some of his works. Discuss the influence Muir had on Benjamin and on this novel.
2. Choose an outdoor setting—such as a member’s backyard, a local park, or a restaurant patio—for your book club meeting in which to discuss A Sudden Light.
3. If there a mansion or estate in your area that is open to the public, consider touring it with your group and learning about the history of the house and those who built it. What would the land have looked like before it was developed? What impact did the house’s owner have on your local area?
A Conversation with Garth Stein
What inspired you to write A Sudden Light?
I originally wrote about these characters in my play, Brother Jones, which was produced in Los Angeles in 2005—its one and only production. The idea for the play came to me in a dream. Seriously. I had a dream about a house that was alive—haunted by the ghost of a dead ancestor—and communicated with its denizens through creaks and groans. I wrote the play over a hazy few months, working from 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. while listening to a CD of R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant set on endless repeat. When I was writing the play, sometimes (usually after midnight) I felt like the characters were standing behind me, talking into my ear. I was afraid to turn around and look.
So the ideas of an old house, ancestral spirits, timber, and assisted suicide collided in my dream. And when that sort of thing happens, a writer has to start taking notes.
How do the play and the novel differ?
Theater is about the immediacy of drama—the now of drama. Whatever the baggage of the characters, it’s about the characters interacting on a stage in front of us, and it can be quite explosive and energetic and passionate. With novels, on the other hand, we have time to delve into the history of the drama—how we got to the now.
My play was about a family that had grown dysfunctional over generations. Still, it was about the immediate family—the latest generation. When it was time for me to write a new novel, I wanted to revisit that family, but I wanted to really delve into their history and explore the previous generations. So the novel A Sudden Light is much more expansive in terms of bringing the characters to life, as well as bringing the surroundings of The North Estate to life.
What was your biggest challenge in writing this novel?
My biggest challenge was finding the narrative voice. My story is so large in scope—five generations of a wealthy and influential timber family—it was difficult to find a way to tell the story without it becoming unwieldy. And that’s when Trevor came into the room and I realized that telling the history of the family through the eyes of the youngest member was a great way to unfold the drama.
When I first started writing, I tried to tell the story from fourteen-year-old Trevor’s point of view, with the story unfolding as he discovered things in the house. It almost worked, but I found it difficult to have Trevor wade through volumes and volumes of journals and letters and documents. By adding the lens of Trevor as an adult recalling a summer from his childhood, I was able to create a perspective that a fourteen-year-old could not have had at the time. From Trevor’s adult perspective, he can point us to the specific diaries, journal entries, and letters we need to know to understand his story. In other words, all stories have a narrative point of view—a narrative bias—as does mine. By choosing this narrative path, I was to tell the intimate story of a fourteen-year-old kid who was trying to figure out his place in the world, while also relating the epic story of the Riddell family.
The novel has a significant historical component. How did you prepare to write about Elijah and Benjamin Riddell and the timber industry?
I did quite a bit of reading about the Northwest and the timber industry. It’s a compact history, so I was able to grasp the broad sweeps of it pretty quickly.
I absorbed another historical element a little more organically: I grew up down the hill from The Highlands, a wealthy enclave in North Seattle upon which I based The North Estate. When I was a kid, my father drove our family by the Seattle Golf Club all the time. And I spent my summer days walking the railroad tracks or playing at Boeing Creek, the northern border of The Highlands. The old Boeing mansion loomed over us, perched high on the bluff.
I also did some field research for A Sudden Light—I climbed trees with the help of climbing guru Tim Kovar. Tim uses a minimally invasive rope technique to climb very tall trees. Just recently, he and I climbed an eight-hundred-year-old redwood in California. It’s really a spectacular experience: the physical aspect of being so high in a tree, as well as the spiritual connection a climber develops with the tree as he climbs. The tree, a living organism, reveals its personality as one spends more time in its embrace.
The conflict between industry/development and conservation underpins the novel. Is this something you feel strongly about? How do we balance the need for resources and development with conservation?
I do feel strongly that we have to live thoughtful, considerate lives. This doesn’t mean that development and conservation cannot live together. On the contrary, it means both can thrive as long as each movement is aware and respectful of the other.
The conflict between industry and conservation is intrinsic to our developing civilization, and it certainly was evident in the building of the western United States. To build houses and businesses and cities, we needed wood. Wood was abundant in our forests. One tree—two thousand years old or more—could build many houses. And when the houses and businesses and cities built from this old tree burned down, as they inevitably did (e.g., the great fires in Seattle, San Francisco, and other cities), enterprising people could always find more two-thousand-year old trees to cut down.
But at some point we begin to destroy the very things that make us strong. When that happens, we are faced with the truth: we must moderate our growth and at the same time make a deliberate and considered plan for utilizing our natural resources.
Two men from very wealthy families—one of them a timber family—understood this idea before others did, and they implemented a conservation plan that has provided the public with our much cherished National Parks: Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.
Family relationships, especially father–son relationships, are at the heart of this novel. Why do the Riddells have such difficulty relating to one another?
I think that within our families we have expectations for behavior. We expect that all of our agendas will synchronize and work toward a common goal. But that’s never the case. A son has different ideas from his father. A sister has goals different from her brother. The tension comes, then, when our desire to please our family conflicts with our desire to please ourselves.
I think this is common in families, and most families deal with it in a more or less functional way. The Riddell family, however, is comprised of extreme personalities and extreme desires, so the conflict becomes much more explosive.
You write beautifully about Benjamin and Trevor’s experiences in the forest. Have you experienced something similar? What is your favorite place to spend time outdoors?
I grew up in the Northwest, and spent much time in the woods exploring, riding my bicycle through the back roads of Washington and camping out with a good friend of mine, sailing on Lake Washington, and so forth. So I feel a special attachment to nature, as do most of us who grew up in Pacific Northwest. Things are different now than they were when I was a kid, and the quietude of nature can be more difficult to find. Still, I love walking in the Grand Forest on Bainbridge Island or spending time at the little cabin we have there. I love taking my boys on a hike up to Mount Si or Rattlesnake Ridge or to Denny Creek. And if none of these ideas for getting away work, it’s always good to climb high into a tree!
How much of Trevor’s fourteen-year-old self is based on your own experiences? Did you wish to be a writer when you were a teenager?
Keep in mind that questions like this imply that the writer has a certain level of self-reflection that he probably doesn’t have, or else he wouldn’t be writing books about fictional families with long histories. In other words, Trevor isn’t based on my experiences at all, but at the same time, he’s based entirely on my experiences. I like to think of my young self as inquisitive, clever, good with the timely retort, passionate, honest, and true. I was probably more brash and impulsive, and more annoying than funny. But, yes, I wanted to be a writer when I was a teenager.
Yet this is an important thing to remember: old Trevor is telling the story of young Trevor, and, as we are told in the preface, time and the retelling of stories distort those stories. So in the relating of Trevor’s summer, old Trevor has judiciously edited and crafted the story, no doubt changing some details and compressing some moments for dramatic purposes. Perhaps old Trevor deleted some of young Trevor’s brash and impulsive qualities in order to make young Trevor seem more clever and passionate; maybe old Trevor was able to provide young Trevor with retorts we always wish we could have delivered in the moment, if we had only had thought of them! In my mind, young Trevor spent days and weeks going through old journals for evidence of his family’s history. But in the retelling of the story—through old Trevor’s eyes—we skip all the superfluous stuff and cut to the good stuff; the embellishment of the storyteller is certainly felt.
What is your favorite book with a similar narrative structure to yours: an older person narrating his own childhood?
Two books that I really enjoyed reading—maybe so much that I looked to them for their guidance—are A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, and Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick. Both of these employ an adult character relating a story from his youth. In Owen Meany, it’s completely transparent and we are reminded of it throughout; in Wonderful, the structure is suggested in the beginning, but then plays out as a reveal in the end. I chose to straddle both worlds with subtle reminders that the story is being told by adult Trevor, while also allowing the narrative to indulge in young Trevor’s voice at times.
What do you think connects the novels you’ve written? Are there themes or topics you find yourself returning to?
My books all deal with families and characters faced with extreme circumstances. I believe when a person is pushed to his limits—or beyond those limits—his true character is revealed. So Jenna in Raven Stole the Moon, Evan in How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets, Denny and Enzo in The Art of Racing in the Rain, and now Trevor and his family in A Sudden Light, all must dig deep to find their inner strength.
Other themes I like to explore are spirituality, redemption, faith, perseverance. I also like to play with magical realism to more or less of a degree. I firmly believe that novels are more powerful if they go beyond a simple representation of the world around us. I believe that novels should be constructed very carefully to provoke thought and emotion in the reader, so I hope that someone who reads one of my novels will ultimately look at the world a little differently.
Garth Stein is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels, A Sudden Light and The Art of Racing in the Rain, and two previous novels, How Evan BrokeHis Head and Other Secrets and Raven Stole the Moon. He is the cofounder of Seattle7Writers, a nonprofit collective of Northwest authors working to foster a passion for the written word. He lives in Seattle with his family. Visit him online at GarthStein.com.
"Remarkable....Stein's prose is assured, gorgeous, and magnificently atmospheric....Cheers to Garth Stein for showing us compassion, empathy, and incredible talent."
– The Dallas Morning News
“Wow! I devoured A Sudden Light, a grand, gorgeous, multi-generational epic of the Pacific Northwest. Garth Stein has given us another singular, soulful, and wise narrator for the ages, who tells us a story full of mystery and yearning. I adored this book.”
– Maria Semple, New York Times bestselling author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette
“A Sudden Light is the best of many genres: a ghost story, a love story, historical fiction….a truly killer read…a bold, poignant book about wealth, family ties, and the power—and fallacy—of memory.”