Gabriel's Story
by David Anthony Durham


The discussion questions that follow are intended to enliven your group’s discussion of this intriguing adventure.


Gabriel Lynch is fifteen when his mother, after the death of her husband, decides to move the family from a comfortable brownstone in Baltimore to a sod hut on the plains of Kansas. Here she is reunited with Solomon, a man she had known and loved in the South. Solomon persuades her to share his dream of building a successful farm. Unlike his younger brother Ben, Gabriel chafes against the drudgery of farm life and quarrels with his new stepfather. Opportunity for escape presents itself when a hardened but strangely compelling cowboy named Marshall Hogg allows Gabriel and his friend James to join his gang of cowpokes on their travels to Texas. But Gabriel quickly discovers that Marshall and his men are horse thieves, and when Marshall accidentally kills a man, the boys are caught up in the gang's fugitive flight and increasingly desperate violence. When they are pursued into a narrow canyon, Gabriel flees, assuming Marshall and all his men have drowned in the raging river by which they tried to escape. Weeks of lonely wandering bring Gabriel back home with a new respect for the simple pleasures of farm life and for the religious strength and stability of his mother and stepfather. But he is not yet free of the evil he thought he'd left behind. The novel's final climactic scene brings a moment of searing decision and the final test of Gabriel's courage.

Written with a vivid feel for the landscape and for the chaos and cruelty that can emerge in an essentially lawless world, Gabriel's Story is a tale of Biblical grandeur about the forces of good and evil, the changing relations between blacks, whites, and Indians in the post Civil War West, and one boy's journey home.


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?


Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian; Toni Morrison, Paradise; Leif Enger, Peace Like a River; California Cooper, The Wake of the Wind

Courtesy of Anchor Books