Gabriel's Story

Gabriel's Story

by David Anthony Durham

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When Gabriel Lynch moves with his mother and brother from a brownstone in Baltimore to a dirt-floor hovel on a homestead in Kansas, he is not pleased. He does not dislike his new stepfather, a former slave, but he has no desire to submit to a life of drudgery and toil on the untamed prairie. So he joins up with a motley crew headed for Texas only to be sucked into an ever-westward wandering replete with a mindless violence he can neither abet nor avoid–a terrifying trek he penitently fears may never allow for a safe return. David Anthony Durham is a genuine talent bent on devastating originality and Gabriel’s Story is as formidable a debut as we have witnessed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385720335
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/30/2002
Edition description: Reprinted Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 813,947
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

David Anthony Durham was born in 1969 to parents of Caribbean ancestry. He won the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award in 1992 and received an MFA from the University of Maryland in 1996. He has lived and traveled widely throughout America and Europe. Durham, along with his wife and daughter, now divides his time between the United States and Scotland.

Read an Excerpt

The boy had measured their progress across the land through the warped glass of the train's windows. He had seen it all unfurl, from the tidewater up over the broken back of the mountains, out onto rolling hills and into the old frontier, now pacified and peopled and farmed, and further still, through cities and small towns and finally out onto this great expanse, across which they traveled like fleas on a mammoth's back. He had even watched at night, while his younger brother slept against his shoulder and his mother contemplated thoughts of her own. He searched in the land's dark contours for things he dared not name aloud, and he held within himself a rage of voices that to the outside world looked and sounded like silence.

When they stepped off the train that afternoon, the boy couldn't help but stare over the crowd and out to the horizon. Looking to the west, he could just make out the geometric shadows that were Crownsville, that cowtown newly bloomed and thriving, connected to the East by a bloodline of iron and steel. To the north and south and back to the east the land rolled away in undulating nothingness. The grass lay heavy and tired from the beating of the previous evening's rain, and the April sky was not a thing of air and gas. Rather, it lay like a solid ceiling of slate, pressing the living down into the prairie.

The train station was made up of several sod-brick buildings. They had crooked roofs out of which sprouted an abundance of green shoots. In front of one of these structures a motley array of men lounged, with expressions of indolent curiosity on their faces. The grass had been trodden down and thinned by the traffic. It was pockmarked with puddles and prints of both feet and hooves, and cut by wagon wheels.

"Gabriel, you and Ben help the men unload," the boy's mother said. "Make sure we get all our crates. There's six of them. Count each one and stack them ready to load on Mr. Johns's wagon." The boys didn't move, but she didn't seem to notice. Instead her gaze rose and roamed through the sparse crowd of people. "Go on and help, like I said," she said, moving away a few steps. The trim of her dress dangled down into the wet grass and mud, but she made no attempt to hold it up.

Gabriel nudged Ben on the shoulder, and the two boys walked toward the freight car, carrying what hand luggage they had with them. Gabriel had just turned fifteen, although he looked two or three years older. He had a strong body, tall and lean, with the long legs of his nomadic ancestors. His wool jacket cramped his shoulders and impeded the swing of his arms. His skin was a dark shade of brown stretched taut across his features, as if the components of his face were growing more rapidly than the shell. His nose was thin-bridged, with a distinctive flair to the nostrils that was wholly African in design.

Ben was his younger by two years. They looked much alike in the rudimentary casts of their appearance, although Ben had a small indentation on his forehead, and his eyebrows were drawn in thin, wispy lines. He also moved with a nervous energy very different from his brother's brooding gait. His gaze bounced from object to object, out toward the fields, from person to person, and back to the enormous iron works of the train that had brought them so far.

The two boys saw to the unloading. Gabriel was quiet and respectful, yet only enough so as to avoid trouble. He counted the crates, inquired about a missing one, and soon had them stacked as his mother had instructed.

This done, they climbed onto them, sat, and waited.

The younger boy said, "I reckon we're here."

Gabriel was silent for a long minute. "I reckon we're nowhere."

Eliza johns rejoined her sons soon after. She had a gaunt face, in which one could trace the origins of her sons' russet eyes, their full lips, and the deep brown hue of their flesh. Her cheekbones curved upward in smooth diagonal lines, unmarked by scar or blemish. She was still beautiful in the eyes of men, perhaps more so now than ever, although years of quiet worry had carved an angular tension into her features. From her erect posture, her civilized clothes, and the demure manner in which she held her hands clasped before her, one might have gathered that she was unaccustomed to the frontier. But there was something determined about the way she set her jaw and surveyed the crowd unflinchingly which seemed well suited for a place such as this. "You think he's not coming?" Ben asked.

"Don't be silly," Eliza said. "He'll be here." She reached over and straightened Ben's collar with a quick tug, then turned back and faced the crowd. "Don't expect the worst from people until they've shown a history of it."

This answer satisfied the younger boy, but not Gabriel. "He better come. Couldn't pay to go back if we had-"

"There he is now," Eliza said.

Gabriel looked into the crowd. It took him a moment to pick the man out, but he was there, Solomon Johns. He walked toward them with an anxious gait, dodging people and animals and the larger puddles. Gabriel cut his eyes away and studied the ground.

Solomon stood just over six foot three, even with his slightly stooped posture. His size was measured mostly by the width of his shoulders and the weight evenly distributed throughout his torso, a chest as solid as a lifetime of work could make it. His features were a bit irregular, thrown about his face by a casual hand: eyes set far apart, nose wide enough to all but fill the space, and a mouth small by comparison, although what it lacked in size it made up for in enthusiasm: "Eliza! Praise God you made it." He strode toward her as if to lift her off the ground. Only at the last moment did he check himself. Instead of hoisting her into the air, he gripped her by the arms and searched her face, finding her features all and more than he remembered.

Eliza shared his gaze, smiling and nodding. They neither embraced fully nor kissed, but to the two boys watching, the exchange was so intimate as to be embarrassing. They lifted their eyes to meet the man full on only when their mother spoke to them. "Boys, what's the matter with you? Say hello to Mr. Johns."

"Hello, Mr. Johns," Ben intoned.

Gabriel moved his lips.

"Oh, boys! Look at ya!" Solomon reached out and ardently shook each boy's hand. "Lord, you two have grown. And it's only been a year's time? They do grow like weeds, don't they?" He paused and admired them, then turned back to Eliza. "I can hardly believe it. You're all here with me. Y'all came out sooner than I expected, but it sure does me good to see you. Now we can get this thing started for real."

Reading Group Guide

"Artistically impressive and emotionally satisfying, a serious work that heads off in exhilarating directions." —The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of David Anthony Durham's Gabriel's Story, a novel that traces one boy's harrowing journey into manhood and offers a fresh perspective on both the dangers and opportunities presented by the Old West.

1. Why is Gabriel so dissatisfied and restless with his new life on the farm? What draws him away? What role does his father's death and his reaction to his stepfather play in his leaving?

2. Early in the novel, Ben and James trade insults and then fall into a wrestling match, and the narrator writes that Raleigh, the family horse, "watched them with vague and mistrusting eyes, with the air of one who had seen such behavior before and was certain it led to no good. He snorted his judgment on the two" [p. 39]. In what sense is Raleigh right? How does this competitiveness, or the instinct to violence, lead to "no good" in the novel? Are there other instances of animals commenting on human behavior? Why does the author choose animals instead of humans to convey these thoughts?

3. David Anthony Durham has been praised for his artful plotting in Gabriel's Story. How does he create suspense and surprise in the novel? What scenes are especially powerful or unexpected? What effect does Durham produce with the parallel narratives--distinguished by roman and italic typeface--running throughout the novel?

4. Gabriel's Story is a classic coming-of-age tale, in which a rebellious young boy must undertake an arduous journey and suffer tests and trials before he reaches manhood and returns home. What obstacles does Gabriel face? How does he overcome them? Why does he have to leave his family in order to be completely reunited with it? How is Gabriel different at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning?

5. What kind of man is Marshall Hogg? What makes him more complicated--and therefore more real--than the stereotypical villain of the Western genre? Where do his demons, which "had been planted in him" [p. 14] come from? What qualities does he possess beyond a criminal inclination toward violence and cruelty? Does he exhibit traits of kindness and fairness? In what ways is he a devil figure?

6. When Marshall first meets Gabriel and James, he exclaims, "The king and the archangel! Very impressive. Well, damned if I could be luckier" [p. 68]. And near the novel's end, he threatens Gabriel by saying, "Don't get any ideas, Archangel. You know who you're dealing with, don't you?" [p. 281]. Is Marshall simply playing with words, or is the author drawing a parallel between Gabriel and the archangel of the Old Testament? In what ways is Gabriel like his Biblical namesake?

7. After they pass a tribe of diseased Indians, Marshall argues with Dunlop about the fate of Native Americans, saying, "It's a sad world and the red man's been given a raw deal in it, but some sad things must come to pass in the betterment of society and mankind in general. You ever given that a thought?" [p. 95]. Why would Marshall take this view? Is he in a position to comment on "the betterment of society"? How does Marshall view Mexicans and blacks? How does he regard women?

8. What makes Caleb such a frightening character? How does his being half black complicate the novel's racial themes?

9. While Gabriel is away, a mysterious and terrifying wolf stalks the family farm. Both Hiram and Ben shoot at it and think they have killed it only to find the animal vanished, as if into thin air. At the novel's climax, when Caleb and Marshall are threatening the family, Ben discovers the wolf's remains, which he regards as a providential sign [p. 284]. How does Ben interpret this "sign"? What does the wolf symbolize in the novel?

10. When Gabriel comes upon a dead deer entangled in the branches of a tree, he observes that it "seemed somehow Biblical, some amalgamation of a burning bush and a living crucifix. . . . Once more this journey had given him an image he'd carry ever after" [p. 164]. Why is this image so potent for Gabriel? What other images sear his consciousness on his journey? What effect do these images have on him?

11. In the novel's climactic scene, as Gabriel is about to open the box in which he'd buried the gold brick, Marshall tells him that if God produces and places a second gold brick in the box, Marshall will spare them. "You people have faith, don't ya? Let's put it to the test" [p. 287]. But when Gabriel puts his hand in the box he finds a pistol instead. Is this an act of divine intervention, a reward for the family's faith?

12. How does Gabriel's Story address the grand universal themes of good and evil, human vengeance and divine retribution, the outcast and the community?

13. Why does Caleb shoot Marshall instead of Solomon and Eliza as he's been ordered to do? Which aspects of Caleb and Marshall's tangled history would make him act in this way?

14. Gabriel's Story takes place at a crucial moment in American history, just after the Civil War when freed slaves were moving north and trying to make new lives as landowners, when Native Americans were being swept from the country, and when the frontier was being fully opened to the West. How does the novel portray the changing relations between whites, blacks, and Native Americans during this period?

15. Much of Gabriel's Story revolves around family--the effects of abuse on Marshall and Caleb's family, their destruction of the "little Eden" of the Mexican family they encounter, and the trials and ultimate triumph of Gabriel's family. What does the novel as a whole seem to be saying about the importance of family?

16. What qualities make Gabriel's Story unique in the Western genre? In what ways is the West, as is it portrayed in the novel, different from the myths that have been passed down through film and popular fiction? In what ways can recent American history--especially in terms of race, gender, and family issues--be seen in embryo in Gabriel's Story?

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Gabriel's Story 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is beautifully written. It tells the story of the 1870s American West from a rarely heard African American perspective. Anybody who loves westerns, mystery, history, family drama and poetic, descriptive writing should should read this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
If I could, I would give this novel a 3.8. I was just not engrossed in this book as most are. Maybe it's because my mind was still on another book I've just finished, prior to this one. Even so, I never did care for the wild west, or it's adventures, for that matter. I found myself unable to put the book down, only because I wished to be done of it as soon as possible. I never was one to abandon a book after I've begun it. However, I did like the well-developed characters, especially Dunlop. I also enjoyed Durham's literary techniques and the way he strung his words together. He is a writer who can paint great pictures with his words .. it was just that the topic did not appeal to me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
With Gabriels Story, young Mr. Durham has hit a homerun his first time at bat! McMurtry's Lonesome Dove & McArthy's All The Pretty Horses come to mind when I think of Western epics, and I'm sure Mr. Durham would say he owes a debt of gratitude to those great American authors, though the style in Gabriels Story is his own. In McMurtry's best books,even the bad guys have a certain appeal, due to their 'character'...don't expect that in this book! Durham's debut novel revolves around themes that are timeless, and it's to his credit that even with a formula that's 'tried and true' he can make it all seem so fresh. Some of the violence may be a bit much for some readers, but it is central to the story's theme and not overdone. What amazes me most about this book is that it's Mr. Durham's first novel published...Do yourself a favor and enjoy this work of one of America's great young writers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Okay, so I'm not usually a Western type of person. Too much macho gun play... But I picked this up, opened it randomly and read... And I loved the language. I was immediately engaged. I closed it, opened it again and read... And the same thing happened. So, I was hooked. The writing seemed too good to pass up. Bought it and began from the beginning. I'm not actually finished yet, but so far it's been pretty great. It is a Western, I guess, but it's written with an eye toward serious literature. The descriptions of landscape are wonderful, a pleasure to read just by themselves. It has it's violent moments, I'm learning, but the author keeps a tight control on it. He takes me right to the edge of my comfort zone, teeters there, and then moves on. It's not always comfortable, but it is always compelling. And I can't help thinking the story is working on more than one level... I'm glad to have a first edition of this one, and I hope to see more from the author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The plot is wonderful. The Characters are ungorgettable. The saga of a young black boy's will to survive the post-civil war era. Brutal. Yet honest.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just finished Gabriel's Story and I'm amazed. It's literature as it should be but rarely is. Firstly, Durham's writing is wonderful, thoughtful, full of vivid images, a large cast of characters and an historical backdrop that's well done but not overdone. But secondly, the narrative moves. He creates wonderful characters that you care about and then sends them on an amazing adventure. It's all perfectly believable, but crazy and dangerous as well. The tension builds right up to the end and, somehow, he manages to pull it all together in the last few pages. Literature, yes. A great read? Yes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Durham's first entry into the novel industry is an elloquently told tale of a young man, forced to grow up before his time. Themes of love, betrayal, maturity, and even racism are masterfully brought to life by Durham's skillfull use of metaphor. Such metaphor's produced some of the most memborable visualizations of the surroundings in the novel, and left an indelible mark in my mind. This book will undoubtedly become an American literary classic, and stand the test of time for all future generations to enjoy.