Discussion Week 6 (final): The Rarotongans

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“At the same time that he lost everything—the very direction of his own steps—he won the thing he’d held so precious he wouldn’t approach it in words.”

An ending and a beginning.

Welcome to the discussion of the final part of Leif Enger’s So Brave, Young, and Handsome—“The Raratogans”. As always, feel free to share any passages that were significant to you, or to pose additional questions.

Pop quiz (no cheating and no looking back):
List all of the literary references from the book, as well as where they were mentioned.

1) What is the significance of “The Rarotongans” (and why was this chapter named after them)?

“What I’d have given for a dream or vision now, like Glendon had of Blue—in wavering times, a vision’s what you want! Instead I confess to the most unrefined and selfish longings. I wanted to walk with Susannah and be solid and foremost in her eyes. I wanted Redstart to discover from its roots upward this place where I might be of use.”—p.250

3) What was the gap between the “dream or vision” that Monte wanted to have and the longings that he actually had?

“If she [Blue] loves me back, it deepens what I owe. There aint no parity in that arrangement. That’s what I did not see coming.” Glendon—p. 274

4) What did Glendon mean? Do you agree?

5) What three words would you use to summarize the final picture we have of Siringo? Glendon? Becket?

6) If you were to choose a theme song for So Brave, Young, and Handsome, what song would it be?

7) What questions would you like ask Leif Enger about the book?

8) What are your final thoughts on the ending of the book?

Discussion Introduction
Week 1: “A Thousand a Day”
Week 2: “The Old Desperate”
Week 3: “Jack Waits”
Week 4: “The 101”
Week 5: “The Fiery Siringo”
Week 6: “The Rarotongans”


20 Comments

  1. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I wish I’d just finished the book so I could talk more specifically, but I loved the complexity of its depiction of grace, especially the soft and roundabout way in which it found Monte. This was also one of those books that I didn’t want to end. I could have kept listening to Monte’s voice for another couple of hundred pages.

  2. Matthew Benefiel

    I don’t think I read enough books to get all the references. So I will skip a few, my minds a bit rusty as I finished the book a few weeks ago (had some down time and I couldn’t put the book down).

    3) My thought is that Monte wanted some great vision to encourage him and drive him to do what he needed to, like Glendon seeking forgiveness with Blue. This whole book we are finding that not only is Monte failing at writing another book, but deeper than that he feels he is failing his family. He wantes a vision to drive him back to his wife, but in the end all he has is the longing. We don’t always get hit upside the head by a 2×4, sometimes we have to grind our way back out of a rut.

    4) Glendon was not asking forgiveness to get Blue back, but to close that page. For her to give it would only remind him of how he doesn’t deserve it. I agree, when we finally realize God’s grace towards us we have a hard time accepting it. I’ve heard people tell me they through their Bible across the room when they finally came to grips with Romans 9, it’s humbling and hard to accept, we want to feel forgiven on our own terms in many ways.

    5) Siringo – The failing cries of a man seeking eternity. All is vanity for Siringo, he has become what he thought of Ecclesiastes, vanity without grace and death without eternity. He may outlive Monte, but his soul is empty.

    Glendon – Glendon doesn’t seem to change is many ways, he has accepted his failure and sought forgiveness. He takes his course with a mellow determination, an acceptance. Upon completion of his task he finally finds the courage to turn himself in. I think he knew this moment would come, I’m not sure whether he was postponing it for Blue, fear, or both.

    Monte – Pete sums Monte up well, a soft and roundabout grace. He leaves feeling empty, can’t write a book and can’t seem to see himself as a good husband and father. I love how he puts himself to work making boats, but at the end he writes a line and you know a book is coming. Monte really seems to me the man who has it all, he just can’t see it. I don’t know how many times I get lost in doubt and sometimes depression wondering where to go, then slowly God shows me that I had the answers all along; Him (the means of grace).

    7) I think I would ask Leif is he enters a “zone” when he writes, especially the dialog, and it so how long it takes to get back out of it. I’ve started writing similiar dialog and it puts me in the same mood the characters are in and even thought he dialog seems so simple there is a lot in it. Sometims it takes me half a day to wear off.

    Thanks for puting this together, I’m confident I would have never read the book and I enjoyed reading everyone’s posts!

  3. Matthew

    Bummer, I wrote a lot only to have it bounce. Always copy I guess.

    I realized that Siringo’s harshness rubs off of me to want to be harsh back. Thinking more upon it I had forgotten the moments where Siringo showed a softer heart. Like when he told Monte about the fake bullets Hood had because he knew Monte liked the boy. God gives grace to people like Siringo as much as Montes and Glendons.

    It reminds me of my father who had a co-worker (back when I was a toddler) he worked with for a few years who hated christians as much as any could (well I guess not so much that he executed them as Saul/Paul). My father never really talked to him, but about 15 years after he got a call from the man who told him straight up that he had become a christian and wanted to thank my father for being a good example by his actions.

    Perhaps even Siringo could be swayed by Monte’s actions (taking care of him twice). Now that I think about it Siringo was the most fascinating character to me because unlike Monte and Glendon who had already found grace (though were still linving it as we all are), Siringo’s character screamed for grace. He’s like a blind and deaf man walking parallel to train tracks, all he needs is grace to take a few steps right, but he continues straight on in his vain desire to deny his ailments.

  4. redheadkate

    I find it interesting that Monte doesn’t think his longings are as appropriate as Glendon’s vision, but in the end, Monte really does get what he wanted. Is it a matter of judging ourselves more harshly than others? Because I don’t think there was anything wrong with what Monte wanted.

    Since the theme of Monte’s 2nd book is prevalent and this is Enger’s 2nd book, I’d love to know how much of a correlation there is between two. It would also be interesting to know if Susannah is like Enger’s wife. Especially since the note to her in the acknowledgements sounds very Susannah-like, “…hearing my pages with persistent grace. Sometimes heroism is nothing more than patience, curiosity, and a refusal to panic.”

  5. Dan R.

    Regarding the Theme Song question – This might be terrifically untasteful, but the first thing that popped into my head was:
    “You can’t always get what you want,
    But if you try sometimes
    You might find
    You get what you need.”

    Also, for question 5 part 1, did anyone notice how Siringo indeed fades out at the end, not having a real, accurate picture in the papers to go along with his articles? It’s sort of like the final step in his transition from a person into just a legacy/memory. I just loved that detail.

  6. Pete T

    I surprised myself a bit as the book ended. I didn’t think I would miss Monte so much, but I realized really related to him. How many times have I thought I would be Martin Bligh, only to discover that I am Monte? I am just myself, fumbling through it, not the person “of substance” I had hoped I would be.

    Of course, Monte finds his substance of his own in the end, which made this ending all the sweeter.

    That’s not really replying to the questions, but it was a favorite element of the story.

  7. Dan R.

    Yes Pete (T.), I had a few of those potent ‘Oh no, I’m Monte’ moments during my time reading the book. It’s the thing about the story that brought it home the most for me. I’m glad you went outside the questions to mention that.

  8. Sally

    I summed up my final thoughts on this book in a blog post on winning. (http://whenmorninggildstheskies.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/on-winning/)

    I would love to ask Leif Enger about his writing process. Did he know the ending for both _Peace Like a River_ and _So Brave, Young, and Handsome_ when he set out to write the book? Or, was it like Monte Becket, who confessed about Martin Bligh, “Whenever I didn’t know what to write next, I put a swift river in front of his horse and sent the two of them across!”

  9. sofia

    Dan–those song lyrics perfectly sum up the story as I understand it!

    I’ll hazard an attempt at the first question: The Rarotongan trees seem to partially picture grace: their crop arriving in a way, time and place where it was not expected. These trees were from the tropics, yet showed themselves hardy, surviving frosts. They took their own time to mature–leaving Arandano and Claudio to wonder if they would produce. Monte says that they “resembled no one’s idea of deliverance” (p. 253). And yet–they do produce, bringing with them a spiritual springtime. In some ways, too, Monte’s experience is pictured in theirs. He is far from home (a transplant, if you will) in a very different environment from the one where he started and yet there, in time, finds his usefulness–the work that serves others and brings joy to him.

    One of my favorite scenes was when Monte is reunited with Suzannah. There he is confessing all that has been weighing on him, and is met by the grace of her true love of him in the midst of it all. It reminded me of something my father frequently quotes (from Tim Keller): “we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope.”

    As for questions for Life Enger… one would be an echo of Readheadkate’s. After that, I would be curious to know a bit more about the contrast he presents between physical labor and “mental” work. I remember a discussion about this after the first chapter, but theme comes up again in this last section. Monte finds his place in the physical work to be found at the orchard and in helping Glendon with his boat rather than in sitting and writing (or attempting to write) the “thousand a day.” I’d be interested to hear Enger unpack that a bit.

    So…we’ve reached the end of this journey, haven’t we? Thanks for leading the expedition, Julie! It was a pleasure to be led through reading a book more thoughtfully and to have fellow travelers to talk with.

  10. Suzanne Tietjen

    I’d written a beautiful poetic comment a few minutes ago that was lost forever when my iPad ate it. I’ll try again less poetically.

    This book started slow and grew and grew and grew. When I had only a few pages left, I went to the kitchen and warmed up last night’s too-tart peach cobbler, topped it with three scoops of Breyer’s French vanilla and finished them off together.

    I find the story hard to talk about (like any holy thing). Towards the end, I bent a lot of corners. The heart of the story for me was something Monte said when resisting baptizing Glendon.

    “I’m serious. What if there’s a rule about this? What if He hates imposters?”

    He (Glendon) looked bemused. “If you’re afraid, then I think you’re no imposter.”

    I will not forget this book.

  11. Laura Peterson

    I first read this book several years ago, and as I finished it up this time I was shocked that I had forgotten how it ends. What a great final paragraph! Susannah is the unsung hero of this tale, I think. What were her thoughts as she packed up and left for California? Did she have a hunch that they wouldn’t be back to the house on the river? She just seems like someone I’d like to know better.
    Sally used the word “pitiable” to describe the final appearance of Siringo in this chapter, and I think that’s dead on. I think my brow actually furrowed as I was reading, thinking about the strength it must have taken him to finish the search and his feeble but adamant resistance to the grace that Glendon offered by going with him.
    Another thing that strikes me as I think about the ending is the significance of the little community that Monte, Susannah and Redstart end up in out in California. I don’t remember there being any mention of friends or neighbors back in Minnesota – they seemed pretty isolated, except for occasional visits back and forth with Glendon (although I could be remembering that incorrectly.) I like the image of them finding a community with Blue and Claudio (sidenote – how great is he? Making the kid finish their chess game? Baking pies? Awesome.); Susannah painting his portrait, Monte working and joking with Joaquin. It seems like much more of a life-giving environment for them, and I’m glad for that.

    SUCH a great story. Thanks for encouraging discussion, Julie!

  12. Laura Peterson

    Suzanne – your replacement comment is beautiful and poetic anyway. I’m so glad you shared. My favorite thing about books is that they can do what you’ve just described. It makes me heart-happy.

  13. Chinwe

    Thanks for mentioning the baptism Suzanne! I’d almost forgotten about it. That was such a moving scene that almost brought tears to my eyes. The invitation by Glendon, the reluctance to taint a holy thing by Monte, the sharing of Grace by these two and the knowledge that faith, however small, is blessed abundantly and welcomed by God. I absolutely loved it and it moved me so.

    I also find it hard to talk about this book. Where to begin? I loved the ending. It was not tied up in a neat little bow, but still goes on in my mind. I won’t forget these people anytime soon.

    Thanks for leading the discussion Julie. I read a lot but I realized that I rarely read as thoughtfully as I did this book. Thanks also to the community here for such insightful comments. I have been blessed by this place.

  14. Chris Whitler

    What a great book and I have been busy and missed this post so I’m chiming in now.

    This was a beautiful ending and you really do feel the lives go on after our view of the story ends. I truly enjoyed it.

    For some reason, I’m thinking of an interview I listened to with the Farrelley brothers (strange, I know) about what they do when they feel stuck in a story. As they are writing a movie, if they get bogged down, they immediately go rent a car and drive across America. They have made the trip many times and say it does something to unlock the story.

    Which puts me in mind of something in C.S. Lewis’ “Until We Have Faces.” There is a part where the princess is feeling particularly sorry for herself and one of the military men offer to teach her fencing. At first, she refuses but he convinces her saying that it is hard to feel sorry for yourself with a sword in your hand.

    I think that’s the function of this journey for Monte. No longer living in doubtful isolation but working with his hands and affirmed by real friendship, he sees the world through new eyes and something is unlocked for him.

    This is no “and they lived happily ever after” ending. It’s better.

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