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Driving home at dusk, Claire Andrews, an art history professor at a prestigious New England university, accidentally strikes and kills a boy. Though immediately cleared of blame, she is nonetheless left psychologically devastated and haunted by the accident's consequences. Meanwhile Claire wrestles with her study of Vincent van Gogh's Crows over the Wheatfield and the painting's mysterious relationship to its creator's untimely death. As worrisome parallels between the suicidal artist's life and her own begin to ...
Driving home at dusk, Claire Andrews, an art history professor at a prestigious New England university, accidentally strikes and kills a boy. Though immediately cleared of blame, she is nonetheless left psychologically devastated and haunted by the accident's consequences. Meanwhile Claire wrestles with her study of Vincent van Gogh's Crows over the Wheatfield and the painting's mysterious relationship to its creator's untimely death. As worrisome parallels between the suicidal artist's life and her own begin to emerge, she'll have to reconcile herself to her past to become whole again . . . or surrender to the darkness that is enveloping her.
It was amazing how different the world appeared once shifted back an hour. How altered the towns along Route 111 looked at 5:30 P.M., now that the hands of the clocks had been maneuvered. The storefronts of the smaller villages that usually were filled by darkness and northern decay were gleaming tonight. Lit up on the insides, they shone through normal working hours, almost festively alive. And this illusion seemed to work on pedestrians, as more people cluttered the sidewalks, creating the myth that there was life after dark in these forgotten little coastal towns -- all you needed to do was turn back the clocks.
Claire's commute home from campus usually concluded with the veil of dusk over her Providence driveway. If she was quick enough, Claire could leash up her one-year-old dog, Cocoa, and walk the length of her street until she was at the top of the hill. From there she could watch the sun drop into the other half of the world. Perhaps it was the result of finding herself alone again, but she needed the nightly ritual to wring out her psyche.
The first night of standard time each October was always disorienting. Coming out of the classroom,she saw the night pouring through the sky, reminding her of the same power and explosion of Van Gogh's form against a brilliantly conceived dawn. And, for a moment, she understood Vincent's momentary lapses of lucidity, of how strange and blinding the natural world must have seemed -- one that only bold brushstrokes could tame. (She thought to make a note of that for her class, and possibly for her newest book project.)
The drive down 111 was in near total darkness, without even the moon as a night-light. She trailed red brake lights that cast a fiery hue over the night. Traffic was snarled per usual at the town of Carver. These roads had never been built with the expectation that they would be traveled by the hordes of commuters that had extended the city into every outreach of the region. And poor Carver, so fragile and all alone, with little to show but a Dunkin' Donuts, a hobby shop, a string of stagnant antique shops, and a hidden work center for retarded adults, had become the epicenter of the coastal traffic. After winding around the waterfronts, the major shortcuts and minor routes all collided in Carver for a straight path out to the freeway. A final ten-mile-per-hour crawl that stretched along past once glorious houses that now sat fearfully exposed at the roadside.
Clouds had darkened the edges of the horizon, giving a strange dual dimension to the blackened sky. In an odd moment of prewinter fury, a flock of black-winged birds whipped the sky, swooning to the left, with a sudden awkward turn to the right, as though lost and trying to rediscover their way south. They looked equally frozen at the merge, shadowed against the brilliance of the still glistening bay that paralleled 111.
Claire looked over to her left at the houses that had stood for nearly two centuries. For seven years she had been commuting this road from the university, yet she was noticing them for the first time. Perhaps separating from Richard had really opened new sights for her. There was a red Colonial, its lit-up windows sparkling and winking back at the drivers. Beside it a little shack that must have housed generations of New England fisherman who trolled for quahogs or lobsters. And how different this all must have looked, four generations ago. These homes originally built with northeastern reserve, where heavily trafficked routes did not belly up to their front lawns, where seclusion was their protection from the changing world. Claire squinted to read the historical plaque by the red Colonial's door, but couldn't quite make out the name of the original owners. She thought she might have seen the name Williams, and then wondered if the Williamses could have ever imagined that this is what would happen to their lovely home. The pride of their workmanship set three blocks from the bay, isolation that must have afforded them a view into the sweetly infinite horizon. This implied paradise now sat along the backed-up roadway, one block from a Shell gas station, a block the other way from a Blockbuster video, and directly across the street from a fried chicken stand that also made donuts and tacos.
The traffic started to move a little, enough that Claire dragged the stick of her nearly new Honda Accord into second. The other side was running remarkably faster, as those residents heading into the village were unfazed by the darkness at this earlier hour. It was their road and their night. Yet, as suddenly as she found her side moving, she was just as quickly stepping on the brake.
Just hold tight, Cocoa. Hold tight.
On the front lawn of the red Colonial stood a young boy, maybe ten, maybe younger (perhaps older, it is hard to tell in these days of adult fashions for children). Yellow light squared off every available window of the red Colonial, yet still there was a strange emptiness to the house behind him. Had he been there before, and just been obscured by her thoughts? He postured with one hand on his hip and the other clutching a skateboard. His expression looked somewhat puzzled, as though his pupils were in a permanent state of refraction from trying to adjust to the new night. Claire witnessed a certain disappointment in him. His hour of play before dinner had been cheated from him; the daylight stolen, replaced by a stream of unforgiving cars with burning headlights. She watched the decision process. He sized up the elements, weighing the possible against the impossible, dislocating risk from consequence. But mostly she saw the defiance of righteousness, of a boy's decision to refuse to have his right to play taken. He threw down . . .
Excerpted from Crows over the Wheatfield by Adam Braver Copyright © 2006 by Adam Braver. Excerpted by permission.
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Crows over the Wheatfield explores the nature of artistic genius, the emotional weight of tragedy, and the healing power of love and forgiveness. Taking its title from one of Vincent Van Gogh's masterpieces, the novel is the riveting tale of a young woman's struggle to cope with tragedy as she delves deep into the mysterious connection between the great artist's final works and his untimely death.
While driving home one night, Claire Andrews, a noted van Gogh scholar, accidentally strikes and kills a young boy who rides his skateboard into the path of her car. Though she is cleared of any blame, Claire is devastated and tries in vain to carry on with her life while dealing with the trauma. When the boy's family -- headed by a powerful and notorious Rhode Island attorney -- files a wrongful death lawsuit against her, Claire leaves everything behind and sets off to Auvers, France where she plans to finally complete her research on the connection between van Gogh's masterpiece and his mysterious suicide.
While her lawyer and estranged husband, Richard, take care of matters at home Claire delves deep into van Gogh's world in Auvers, retracing his footsteps in an attempt to get inside the master painter's disturbed mind. But when she discovers shocking evidence that it was an act of betrayal that may have led van Gogh to take his own life, Claire is overwhelmed by the disturbing parallels between the artist's life and her own. Claire knows that she must learn to accept her past and have faith in a future free from the burden of guilt if she is ever to be whole again.
Questions for DiscussionQUESTIONS:
After Claire hits the boy, she is considered to be innocent by the standard of the law. Do you think that innocence really is possible in this situation? Is the family right to pursue the case in civil court? What would you do?
Is Claire making the right decision to go off to France? How would staying at home have changed her outcome? Did she make the right choice? Is there a right choice?
At times the novel follows both Claire's story and the story of van Gogh's final days. What parallels can you draw between the two? How does her inquiry into Crows Over the Wheatfield compare with van Gogh's creation of it?
Early in the novel, Claire notes one of "the great ironies of art criticism -- how dispassionately one can talk about passion." How is this indicative of the rest of her life?
The book often looks at the permanent effects that a single unexpected moment can have on a person. In the case of Richard and Claire, it is one evening in the past when an outburst from Richard tore apart their marriage. Still, after the accident he is quick to come to Claire's aid. How would you describe Richard and Claire's relationship? Is real trust ever possible between them? Can such a devastating moment ever truly be mended?
While in France, Claire becomes privy to potentially damaging information about van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet. She has to make the choice either to release the information against the will of her informant, or to never reveal the information in order to protect his wishes. Should information that benefits the general public be released in spite of the potential harm it might cause to one person?
Much of Crows over the Wheatfield is about more than making moral decisions, but also the fear of making the wrong ones. At the end of the book when Claire is offered a potential settlement, do you think that she should accept it? What would you do in that situation?
In an interview, Braver said that the sad irony for Claire is that she will always have to wonder if anything positive in her life is a consequence of killing the boy on the highway. How do you read the ending of the book? Do you believe that Claire will ever live a "normal life" again? Is it even possible?