From an award-winning and talented young novelist comes one of the most exciting fiction debuts in years: a breathtaking and beautiful novel set on a horse ranch in small-town Colorado.
When her older sister runs away to marry a rodeo cowboy, Alice Winston is left to bear the brunt of her family's troubles—a depressed, bedridden mother; a reticent, overworked father; and a run-down horse ranch. As the hottest summer in fifteen years unfolds and bills pile up, Alice is torn between dreams of escaping the loneliness of her duty-filled life and a longing to help her father mend their family and the ranch.
To make ends meet, the Winstons board the pampered horses of rich neighbors, and for the first time Alice confronts the power and security that class and wealth provide. As her family and their well-being become intertwined with the lives of their clients, Alice is drawn into an adult world of secrets and hard truths, and soon discovers that people—including herself—can be cruel, can lie and cheat, and every once in a while, can do something heartbreaking and selfless. Ultimately, Alice and her family must weather a devastating betrayal and a shocking, violent series of events that will test their love and prove the power of forgiveness.
A wise and astonishing novel about the different guises of love and the often steep tolls on the road to adulthood, The God of Animals is a haunting, unforgettable debut.
When her older sister runs away to marry a rodeo cowboy, Alice Winston is left to bear the brunt of her family's troubles -- a depressed, bedridden mother; a reticent, overworked father; and a run-down horse ranch. As the hottest summer in fifteen years unfolds and bills pile up, Alice is torn between dreams of escaping the loneliness of her duty-filled life and a longing to help her father mend their family and the ranch. To make ends meet, the Winstons board the pampered horses of rich neighbors, and for the first time Alice confronts the power and security that class and wealth provide. As her family and their well-being become intertwined with the lives of their clients, Alice is drawn into an adult world of secrets and hard truths, and soon discovers that people -- including herself -- can be cruel, can lie and cheat, and every once in a while, can do something heartbreaking and selfless. Ultimately, Alice and her family must weather a devastating betrayal and a shocking, violent series of events that will test their love and prove the power of forgiveness.
Questions for Discussion
1. Aryn Kyle chose to tell her story through the eyes of Alice, a twelve-year-old girl just learning about the adult world. What do you think of that choice? Does her youth and inexperience make her vision clearer? More vivid?
2. What is the significance of the title? Who or what is the God of animals? What do the characters' interactions with horses demonstrate about human nature, power, and the natural world?
3. Alice struggles to make sense of her family and her world, and the Winstons' tendency to keep secrets and withhold the truth doesn't make it easy for her. What does she learn about her family, and in turn, about herself as the novel progresses? What did you think was most revelatory?
4. Alice fixates on her dead classmate, Polly Cain, and invents a friendship with her that never existed. Why do you think she seeks entrance into the life Polly left behind? What conclusion does Alice reach about what happened to Polly?
5. "My mother had spent nearly my whole life in her bedroom" (3). Discuss how this affects the Winston family dynamic. Why do you think Marian choose to live this way? Is it fair? Do you think her family accepts her or enables her? Or neither?
6. Joe Winston's plans for the ranch often don't come to fruition, yet he stays hopeful that his fortune will change. How would you describe Joe? What ties him to the ranch? What does Alice see that he doesn't?
7. What draws Alice to Mr. Delmar? She keeps calling him, though she acknowledges that "in some way I could not name, we weren't playing by the rules. Eventually, there would have to be a price." (185) What is the price? Does their relationship do Alice harm or good?
8. Patty Jo separates herself from the Catfish. Why is she different? How do she and Joe help, but also hurt, each other? How does she affect Alice?
9. Alice surprises everyone, most of all herself, when she rides Darling at the horse show. What does she discover in "that moment of connection" (194) that she had never understood before? Is she better able to understand her father and Nona's connection with horses? Why do you think she's unable to replicate that moment with Darling again?
10. Patty Jo states, "Marriage is the most expensive ticket to nowhere" (262). Does her bleak characterization of marriage hold true for the other married couples in the novel? Consider the marriages of Joe and Marian, Nona and Jerry, and Mr. and Mrs. Altman.
11. At the end of the novel, Alice says "the places we come from don't leave us as easily as we leave them" (304). For which character is this most true? What hold does the ranch have on each of the sisters?
12. Over the course of the summer, the lifestyles of the Altmans, Patty Jo, and the Catfish come into sharp contrast. What does Alice observe about what wealth and class can provide, and what they can't? What happens when some of the characters reach for something beyond what they are accustomed to?
13. Discuss the role of violence and cruelty in the novel. Is there something about the harshness of life on a ranch, or working with animals, that brings them closer to the surface? How does Alice deal with her father and grandfather's brutal acts? How might her own actions ultimately figure in to her feelings? Does she forgive them? Does she forgive herself? Why?
14. Horses play a part in some of the novel's most moving scenes. Take, for instance, when Alice retrieves Yellow Cap, Patty Jo's accident, and the weaning of the foals. Which were the most powerful? What did you learn about the characters in those scenes?
15. Kyle uses the changing seasons to give a loose structure to the novel, and the extremes of the climate and Colorado setting often coincide with pivotal events. How does Kyle use imagery and descriptions of the conditions to enhance the plot? Did you find this effective?
16. The God of Animals may be considered a coming-of-age novel in that many of its events force Alice to leave the innocence of childhood behind. Was there one that stood out? Does Kyle succeed in her portrayal of a girl on the brink of adulthood? What part of her portrayal felt most authentic to you?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Aryn Kyle's fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals. Visit www.pshares.org, www.theatlantic.com or Best New American Voices 2005 to find her short stories. Discuss them at your next book club!
2. Get in the western spirit and find a heart-stopping rodeo near you. Click on www.rodeo.com for links to everything from rodeo tickets and DVDs to horse decals and cowboy t-shirts.
3. Take your book club on the road and spend a weekend on a working horse farm. To find a ranch near you, visit www.horseproperties.net.
Aryn Kyle is the author of the bestselling novel The God of Animals and a graduate of the University of Montana writing program. Her short stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New American Voices 2005, Best American Short Stories 2007, and The Atlantic Monthly, for which her story "Foaling Season" won a National Magazine Award. She is also the recipient of the American Library Association's Alex Award, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’Award, and others. She lives in New York.
"Aryn Kyle's stunning debut is a wry and moving look at a disappearing way of life...an astonishingly assured debut... powerfully understated, ruefully funny... it's early Annie Proulx to whom she bears particular comparison" -- Megan O'Grady, Vogue
"[A] first novel that's so strong, startling, and moving, that it's a thoroughbred from the first page... In stark, gorgeous prose, Kyle tunnels into the dark heart of the connections between people and place.... The God of Animals does what the best fiction does -- it creates a whole living, breathing world and unfolds it in front of us, granting us entry into a place that, like this author, is impossible to forget." -- Caroline Leavitt, The Boston Globe
"[A] beautiful first novel." -- Carolyn See, The Washington Post
"[An] involving and accomplished first novel... Kyle has a gift for creating character, for making even the most minor players in Alice's drama come alive on the page. And she ties up the strands of her plot in nervy and satisfying ways, so that nothing is predictable as The God of Animals twists and turns toward its conclusion. Aryn Kyle's debut delivers all the fun of the books about horses that you loved as a kid but with the added weight and seriousness of a novel for grown-ups." -- Francine Prose, People
"A memorable novel gracefully compares and contrasts the vast landscapes of the human condition -- people butting up against each other, their natural surroundings and, most significantly, themselves. To find these elements expertly handled in a debut novel -- as they are in The God of Animals-is reason for readers to rejoice." -- Carol Memmott, USA Today
"With her debut novel, Aryn Kyle seems poised to become one of America's next great authors." -- Parade
"Aryn Kyle is one of those handfuls of first-time novelists whose arrival trumpets what might be a major talent. Kyle's The God of Animals is a coming-of-age tale that manages to be both elegiac and hard-nosed. It's an impressive debut." -- Dorman Shindler, The Star Ledger
"In Aryn Kyle's affecting first novel, The God of Animals, the ordeals of horses believably reflect and frame the foolishness and suffering of their so-called masters....Kyle's writing is strong, and Alice's story sucks us into its stringent world, making us curious and worried...It's a tribute to Kyle's honest, unshowy writing that readers will want, with accelerating urgency, to find out what happens." -- The San Francisco Chronicle
"Kyle writes perceptively in Alice's voice, drawing the reader into the understated drama of this seminal summer in her life...the author paints an evocative portrait of the vast country in which her characters struggle. Raised in Colorado herself, Kyle knows well the territory of which she writes, from its mind-boggling beauty to the aftermath of drought and flooding. This captivating saga of a loving but dysfunctional family, melded with an ode to the harsh splendor of the West in the tradition of Kent Haruf's Plainsong, is surely the start of a promising career." -- Bookpage
"An impressive debut." -- The Seattle Post-Intelligencer