“There are many worlds to explore within this deceptively short book, which gallops towards its conclusion with a mythic inevitability. You won’t be able to turn back.” —The Guardian
“Slender, stark, and utterly mesmerizing.” —The Mail on Sunday
When widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are still alive and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River. Promising to write and to return in two years, he leaves behind his only daughter, Bess, to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister and heads west.
With only a barnyard full of miserable animals and her dead mother’s gold ring to call her own, Bess, unprotected and approaching womanhood, fills lonely days tracing her father’s route on maps at the subscription library and waiting for his letters to arrive. Bellman, meanwhile, wanders farther and farther from home, across harsh and alien landscapes, in reckless pursuit of the unknown.
From Frank O’Connor Award winner Carys Davies, West is a spellbinding and timeless epic-in-miniature, an eerie parable of the American frontier and an electric monument to possibility.
West From what she could see he had two guns, a hatchet, a knife, his rolled blanket, the big tin chest, various bags and bundles, one of which, she supposed, contained her mother’s things.
“How far must you go?”
“On where they are?”
“So how far? A thousand miles? More than a thousand miles?”
“More than a thousand miles, I think so, Bess, yes.”
Bellman’s daughter was twirling a loose thread that hung down from his blanket, which until this morning had lain upon his bed. She looked up at him. “And then the same back.”
“The same back, yes.”
She was quiet a moment, and there was a serious, effortful look about her, as if she was trying to imagine a journey of such magnitude. “That’s a long way.”
“Yes, it is.”
“But worth it if you find them.”
“I think so, Bess. Yes.”
He saw her looking at his bundles and his bags and the big tin chest, and wondered if she was thinking about Elsie’s things. He hadn’t meant her to see him packing them.
She was drawing a circle in the muddy ground with the toe of her boot. “So how long will you be gone? A month? More than a month?”
Bellman shook his head and took her hand. “Oh, Bess, yes, more than a month. A year at least. Maybe two.”
Bess nodded. Her eyes smarted. This was much longer than she’d expected, much longer than she’d hoped.
“In two years I will be twelve.”
“Twelve, yes.” He lifted her up then and kissed her forehead and told her goodbye, and in another moment he was aloft on his horse in his brown wool coat and his high black hat, and then he was off down the stony track that led away from the house, already heading in a westerly direction.
“Look you long and hard, Bess, at the departing figure of your father,” said her aunt Julie from the porch in a loud voice like a proclamation.
“Regard him, Bess, this person, this fool, my brother, John Cyrus Bellman, for you will not clap eyes upon a greater one. From today I am numbering him among the lost and the mad. Do not expect that you will see him again, and do not wave, it will only encourage him and make him think he deserves your good wishes. Come inside now, child, close the door, and forget him.”
For a long time Bess stood, ignoring the words of her aunt Julie, watching her father ride away.
In her opinion he did not resemble any kind of fool.
In her opinion he looked grand and purposeful and brave. In her opinion he looked intelligent and romantic and adventurous. He looked like someone with a mission that made him different from other people, and for as long as he was gone she would hold this picture of him in her mind: up there on his horse with his bags and his bundles and his weapons—up there in his long coat and his stovepipe hat, heading off into the west.
She did not ever doubt that she would see him again.
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This reading group guide for West includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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 widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are still alive and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River. Promising to return within two years, he leaves behind his daughter, Bess, to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister, Julie. With only a barnyard full of miserable animals and her dead mother’s gold ring to call her own, Bess fills lonely days tracing her father’s route on maps at the subscription library in town and shrinking from the ominous attentions paid to her and her aunt by their neighbor and sometimes yard hand, Elmer Jackson. Bellman, meanwhile, ventures farther and farther from home, across the harsh and alien landscapes of the West in reckless pursuit of the unknown.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. West opens on the morning Bellman is preparing to leave his farm in Pennsylvania to head to the unsettled territories. What does “west” mean to Bellman, and how does its significance contrast with what it represents for his daughter, Bess, his sister, Julie, and his neighbor, Elmer Jackson?
2. Bellman can only explain his response to the giant animal bones in terms of bodily sensations: “There were no words for the prickling feeling he had that the giant animals were important somehow, only the tingling that was almost like nausea and the knowledge that it was impossible for him, now, to stay where he was” (p. 16). How would you articulate, using the words he can’t summon, the reasons that the animals ignite such a profound yearning in Bellman?
3. Why does Old Woman From A Distance choose to leave the Shawnees in favor of working with Devereux and Mr. Hollinghurst? Why does he then leave them to go with Bellman as a guide even though he knows the giant animals aren’t out there? What does Old Woman’s behavior toward these men reveal about his worldview, his hopes, his fears, and his deepest desires?
4. Bellman’s route to the West is retraced by Old Woman when he journeys east to deliver the letters to Bess. How do the two men experience the same terrain differently? How do they influence each other along the way?
5. West is narrated by a chorus of characters both principal and ancillary: Bellman, Bess, Old Woman From A Distance, Devereux, Elmer Jackson, the librarian, Mary Higson, and an omniscent narrator, among others. How did the shifting perspectives contribute to your enjoyment of the novel? Which character’s perspective did you relate to the most? The least?
6. In Bellman’s thoughts, Aunt Julie is often accompanied by a variation of the epithet “perhaps softer on the inside than she was on the out.” Do you think this is a fair assessment of Julie’s character? In what ways does she challenge it?
7. By the time Bellman meets his fate in the vast wilderness of the West, he is very, very far from his first home in England, a place he describes as “small and dark and cramped’’ (p. 111). How do you interpret Bellman’s feelings toward the notion of home at this point? Is he more or less ambivalent toward where he comes from than when he first left Lewistown? Did learning that Bellman has already made a journey from England to America change the way you think about his decision to continue west from Lewistown?
8. Aunt Julie regards Bellman as a fool; to Bess he is “grand and purposeful and brave” (p. 2). Knowing what happens, whom do you agree with more?
9. On page 113, Bellman thinks, “You had so many ways of deciding which way to live your life. It made his head spin to think of them.” What does he mean?
10. Bess will never know for sure what Old Woman was thinking while she was retrieving water for him at the pump. What do you think was going through his mind before fleeing? Where do you imagine he is headed after leaving Bellman’s farm?
11. West ends with a sequence dense with images that tie together elements from the entire story. Trace the journey of the objects in the images—the knitting needle, Elsie’s blouse, Bellman’s compass—and how their purposes have transformed.
12. West has been called a parable of the early American frontier. Is there a lesson to be learned from this story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The discovery of colossal animal bones that catches Bellman’s imagination in West is based on true events: In the late 18th century, Pleistocene megafauna fossils were discovered in northern Kentucky, and in fact, at many other sites across the United States as well. Research this chapter of paleontological history, including Thomas Jefferson’s own obsession with mammoths, and share your findings with the group.
2. Bess spends many hours at the subscription library in Lewistown poring over the maps and journals from Lewis & Clark’s expedition. Do some poring over these artifacts yourself online at https://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/ and discuss your findings with the group.
Carys Davies is the author of a novel, West, and two collections of short stories, Some New Ambush and The Redemption of Galen Pike, which won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. She is also the recipient of the Royal Society of Literature’s V.S. Pritchett Prize, the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Short Story Award and a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Born in Wales, she lives in Lancaster in northwest England.
“This short, stunning novel taps into the mythos of the American frontier while offering a vivid tale of devotion and loss.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“From a distance, West looks like a slim fable; but a closer view reveals a peculiarly American self-delusion, opening up like a vast prairie. Davies is an audaciously talented writer to watch.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“One of the most haunting and beautifully crafted novels I have read in a long time… Davies has produced something quite wonderful in West. This is a gently seductive book, one that entrances right to its cleverly conceived end.” —The Sunday Times (UK)
“A multi-faceted gem of a book, West taps the spirit of the great quest novels of Twain, Melville, Cervantes, but with a gentle feminist twist and a fraction of the page count.” —Toronto Star
“Moving, atmospheric.” —Real Simple
“Short, incredible, violent, uplifting and empowering – how Davies manages to create such an enduring story in 150 pages is a mystery, but she nails it.” —Stylist
“A tightly-knit, compulsively readable tale…Davies’ slender novel has all the heft of a sprawling western classic.” —Booklist, starred review
“Davies' slim, complex, and achingly beautiful first novel is a sculpture of daring shifts and provocative symmetries welded together by lyrical, fast-paced prose…The result is a choral performance, reminiscent of those by Penelope Fitzgerald...Deployed on the stage of the midlapsarian American frontier, Davies' chorus manages to weave threads of myth and hope into the gnarly chords of historical tragedy. A masterful first novel—the sort of book that warms even as it devastates, that forces serious reflection and yet charms.” —Kirkus, starred review
“West proves what in-the-know lovers of her short stories have already been trumpeting: Carys Davies is a deft, audacious visionary, a master of the form. In West, she breaks open our fascination with fated journeys and the irrepressible draw of the unknown, imbuing the American landscape with her own rare magic, twisting the heart as few others can, brilliantly navigating the tension between narrative minimalism and imaginative opulence.” —Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife
“To read Carys Davies' West is to encounter a myth, or a potent dream—a narrative at once new and timeless. Exquisite, continent, utterly vivid, this short novel will live on in your imagination long after you read the last page.” —Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs
“West has all the stark power and immediacy of a folk-tale or a legend. It is also structured with great artistry, a beguiling sense of form and pace, and a depth in the way the characters are created, making clear that Carys Davies is a writer of immense talent.” —Colm Tóibín,author of Brooklyn and House of Names
"Menace and mordant wit are the blood that runs through these veins, but there's a pulse of wonder in Carys Davies' West. She sees the world and its inhabitants both as we hope they are and as we fear that they might be. An audacious and enigmatic debut of thrilling dimensions, and a reminder of fiction's possibilities.”— Akhil Sharma, author of Family Life and A Life of Adventure and Delight
"A story of determination, betrayal, folly, and reckless hope written in the grand tradition of the pioneers. You enter the familiar American frontier and shortly are convinced, with Davies’ hero, that the mammoths of the Pleistocene still shyly roam the Plains. The seams between imagination and history in this extraordinary story are invisible. I believed every word.” —Salvatore Scibona, author of The End
“West is a journey and a wonder. A man leaves what he loves and goes west in search of the amazing. A story concerned with value and language, love and absence, life and death. A debut of real distinction.” —Bernard MacLaverty,author of Midwinter Break and Cal
“An exquisite debut that’s short in length but steeped in the tall tales of American myth.” —Lit Hub
“An engrossing work of historical fiction grappling with themes of vulnerability, longing and hope that transcend all contexts…West leaves the reader feeling as vulnerable and full of wonder as the book’s main characters.” —BookPage
“This small book is a visionary and beautiful fable of discovery and dreaming, along with some harsh truths about the reality of American history and its dreamers' lives…And the writing is astonishing, right to the heart-stopping end.” —Sydney Morning Herald
“As in a lofty Bierstadt painting, Davies’ slim novel presents a landscape of mystery and longing, of possibility and the hunt for the impossible….This is a book you could read in an afternoon. But you won’t want to. Davies’ prose is something you’ll want to savor.” —Suzie Eckl, Washington Independent Review of Books
“A page-turner that can stop you in your tracks to linger over a sentence…It’s a bravura performance — seasons come and go in a handful of words and there are masterful shifts of perspective and tense — but Davies’s artistry is matched by her storytelling powers, and her denouement is cheer-raisingly satisfying.” —Daily Mail
“Slender, stark, and utterly mesmerizing.” —The Mail on Sunday (UK)
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