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The Given World

A Novel

About The Book

“Complex and haunting…vivid and unforgettable” (People), this story of one injured but indefatigable young woman is a stunning portrait of a family, a generation, and a country all coming of age.

From a quiet family farm in Montana in the 60s to the grit and haze of San Francisco in the 70s to a gypsy-populated, post-war Saigon, The Given World spins around its unconventional and unforgettable heroine, Riley. When her big brother is declared MIA in Vietnam, young Riley packs up her shattered heart and leaves her family, her first love, and “a few small things” behind. By trial and error she builds a new life, working on cars, delivering newspapers, tending bar. She befriends, rescues, and is rescued by a similarly vagabond cast of characters whose “‘unraveled souls’ sting hardest and linger the longest” (The New York Times Book Review). Foolhardy, funny, and wise, Riley’s challenge as she grows into a woman is simple: survive long enough to go home again, or at least figure out where home is, and who might be among the living there.

Lorrie Moore said, “It’s been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world.” The Given World is “an immensely rewarding and remarkable debut” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).


Given World 1. Hawks
They say our early memories are really memories of what we think we remember—stories we tell ourselves—and as we grow older, we re-remember, and often get it wrong along the way. I’m willing to believe that, but I still trust some of my memories, the most vivid, like this one: there was a newspaper, and a headline, bigger than the everyday ones. It was morning and I was alone at the kitchen table, sleepy, my feet resting on the dog—he was a cow dog, speckled black and white, name of Cash—on the floor underneath. I had a spoon in my hand and was waving it around; drops of milk splashed on the paper.

The headline said, “Johnson Doubles Draft to 35,000.” It was summer and I was nine. I knew who Johnson was. He was the president. He was tall and talked funny, and his nose took up half his face. The reason he got to be president was on account of the last one getting shot in Texas, by Lee Harvey Oswald, who got shot by Jack Ruby, who did not get shot by anyone. JFK was the president when I first started school. John-John and Caroline were his kids and his wife looked like a movie star. When they buried him, she wore a black veil over her face so no one could see if she cried. John-John held her hand.

President Johnson, in the paper, said Vietnam was a different kind of war. I knew I could ask Mick about that: about how many kinds of war there were, or how there could even be different kinds, but he was outside. My parents were out there too—Mom probably in the garden already, digging up potatoes before the sun got so high and hot it would turn them green, and Dad fixing fences or tractoring or scaring up dopey runaway calves. The usual. Our life.

I collected the bowl of apples and the peeler Mom had left on the counter for me and went out to the front porch. I balanced the bowl on the railing and slid my feet between two spindles to stand on the bottom rail, so I could lean over and get a better look at my brother. Mick was crouched in the driveway next to a black Triumph motorcycle, his high school graduation present to himself. He was hoping to catch a girl with it, I knew, or to go away on it, or both. I was not in favor of either, but he was over the moon. The bike was magnificent.

His toolbox lay open in the dust, and a greasy rag dangled like a cockeyed tail from the back pocket of his coveralls. Most of his blond hair was tucked up under a train engineer’s cap, but a few wayward strands crept down his neck and caught the poplar-filtered morning light like filaments of some shiny spun metal. No one else in the family had hair like that. Not even close. I thought about sneaking up behind him with a pair of scissors and snipping off a piece, but it seemed like a lot of work and probably not worth the repercussions. Instead, I looked around for something small to throw at him, as it was my habit to be annoying. I did know better than to hit him with an entire apple.

Without looking at me, he said, “Don’t even think about it,” and gave one of the screws on the engine an infinitesimal turn.

“I wasn’t thinking about anything,” I said. I was still searching, but there was nothing. I’m sure I sighed. I was a great sigher in those days. I picked up the bowl and sat down with my back to the wall, scissored my legs open, and set the bowl between them. The peeler was still on the porch railing.


“What’s wrong? Can’t find a weapon?”

“I left the peeler. It’s on the rail.”


“Get it for me?”



“My pleasure, Cupcake.”

I didn’t move. I sniffed the air and it smelled like cow farts. I said so.

Mick said, “What smells like cow farts?”

“The world.”

“Probably not,” he said. “Probably just Montana.”

“Oh.” I pondered my entire range of geographic and zoologic knowledge, not coming up with a whole lot. “So, does that mean Africa smells like hippo farts?”

“I doubt it. Hippos fart underwater.”

“So what other animals are there?”

“Anywhere? Or just in Africa?”

“There. In Africa.”

“You have an encyclopedia, Riley. Why don’t you look it up?”

“I have to peel these.” I took an apple out of the bowl and balanced it on the top of my head. “Plus, it wouldn’t hurt you to just tell me.”

I heard him sigh. I think he must have taught me how. “All right. Then will you be quiet?” No promises. I made a noise, like hrrmm.

He pulled the rag out of his pocket, dipped it in a tin of rubbing compound, and began to buff a tiny scratch on the gas tank. “Elephants. Don’t even tell me if you didn’t know that already. Antelope, zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, warthogs . . .”

“Warthogs?” I sat up straighter. “You made that up.”

“No,” he said, “I did not.”

I tilted my head forward to drop the apple into my hand, put it back in the bowl, and slitted my eyes like a snake. I considered my options. My tendency to doubt was well earned, but I still believed most of what Mick said, unless the bullshit was totally obvious. He was ridiculously smart. He read tons of books and remembered what was in them. Not like some people.

“What do they look like?” I said, still not sure which way this was going to go.

“Like bristly little pigs. Their tails stand straight up.”

I was eyeing the peeler, and even went so far as to set the bowl next to me so I could get up to retrieve it.

“What else?”

Mick said, “I’ll draw you a picture later.”

“When later?”

“After now.”

We were almost done. I could tell.

“Where do these guys live?”

“At the beach.”

“The ocean?” To me, the ocean was the most magical place in the world, even though I’d never seen one, never been farther outside Montana than the North Dakota Badlands. But even the Badlands had once been underwater, or so I’d been told.

“Yes. At the beach at the ocean. Where beaches are.” Mick popped off the spark plug wire, reached into his toolbox for the ratchet, and loosened the plug. The noise the ratchet made was a bit cricket-like. I wondered if I could tie that in somehow to make the conversation go further. Gave up.

Mick looked over his shoulder at me. I wasn’t moving. I could have been dead. “Are you going to peel those apples or what?”

“What,” I said, but that was it. I knew it was going to be.

I got the peeler and began skinning apples, imagining for a short time they were small rabbits and me a wily trapper collecting pelts, but it didn’t make me feel very good; it made me feel a little sick, in fact, so I tried to take it back, in my head, but couldn’t. By the time I finished, Mick had disappeared into the garage. I took the apples inside and set them on the counter. “Here are your rabbits,” I said—whispered—to no one.

I whistled Cash from his refuge under the table, and together we padded the two flights up to my room, which had once been the attic. It was small, because the whole house wasn’t very big—just a tallish box, perfectly square with the exception of a two-story addition off the back. I could get to the roof of it from my window but had to be careful on account of the steep pitch, for snow. The walls were blue, with tiny green and yellow fish trailing like ivy around the windows. Mick had painted them when he and Dad fixed the space up the summer before.

I was nearly asleep on the floor, one hand buried deep in the fur around Cash’s neck, when I heard the bike start up. I bolted down the stairs, banked off the bannisters, miscalculated, and slammed my shoulder hard into the wall at the bottom. I hesitated just long enough to straighten a framed picture there, which was long enough to miss Mick’s turn from the long driveway onto the frontage road. I stood on the porch, tracking his progress beyond the hedgerow by the rooster tail of fine Montana silt he kicked up. I watched until all evidence of my brother and his bike disappeared from sight, a mile or more away. Cash leaned against my leg, and I reached down to scratch behind his ears.

“Shit,” I said. I did not realize my mother was standing at the screen door until I heard my name.

“Riley,” she said, “I really wish you wouldn’t swear so often.” Mick was teaching me. He was doing a good job.

“Sorry, Mom. But damn . . .”

“Riley. I know.” She pushed the door open and held it with her hip, laid her hands on my shoulders, rubbing the one that hurt. I wondered how she knew. “Maybe I’d like to go with him too.”

I snorted. “You would not.” I tilted my head straight back so I could see her expression, but it was upside down and I couldn’t tell anything from that angle. Not that my mother was all that decipherable anyway. We never knew from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour, which mom we were going to get. There was quiet mom, silly mom, fierce-but-not-mean mom, and mom with the faraway look in her eyes. That mom was almost but not quite the same as quiet mom, who still knitted and cooked and made us do our homework. Faraway mom just stood at the window, looking out at what I would remember later, after I’d gone away: the distant mountains, the buff-colored wheat fields, red-tailed hawks drifting with the thermals, poised to drop out of the sky, like missiles, onto errant field mice.

“Mick’s leaving, Mom. Isn’t he?”

She leaned down and kissed the top of my head. “Looks that way.”

“Where’s he going?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think he does either. Hopefully to college.”


“Soon, I imagine. He hasn’t told us yet.” She did not sound particularly unhappy at the prospect of Mick going off to school, and that confused me, since I could see nothing good coming of it. At all.

I went to his room that night after dinner to ask him about hawks. Dozens of drawings were pinned to the walls, of everything, seemingly, he’d ever seen when he went outside, or the pieces of outside he brought in: wildflowers, rocks, sticks, bones, trees, birds, reptiles, mammals big and small, mountains, clouds, planets.

He finished the song he was playing on his guitar, set it down, pulled a dog-eared book from the shelf and read: “ ‘Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk is a very pale race found in the Great Plains. These are light mottled brown above and nearly pure white below. The belly band is often indistinct or absent, and the tail is usually light rust above and creamy below with faint barring.’ ”

“ ‘A very pale race,’ ” I said, or mumbled. I was lying on the floor with a stuffed animal draped across my forehead like some bizarre woolly headdress. “Aren’t we a very pale race?”

“We are,” Mick said. “Paler than most.”

A minute passed. Then two. “Most what?” I didn’t even know what I was asking.

“Go to bed, Riley.”

Mick played for a while. Bob Dylan. Peter, Paul and Mary. I loved the dragon Puff. Hated it when he had to go. Finally, Mick laid his guitar on the bed, scooped me up off the floor and carried me to my room. I tried to not be entirely deadweight, but I wasn’t so easy to carry anymore.

“You’re going to be too big for this pretty soon, you know.”

“I know. But you’ll be gone anyway. So it won’t matter.”

I waited. I kept my eyes closed.

Mick said, “Good night, Punk.”

“Night, Bozo,” I said. I think.

I heard him leave on his bike again, sometime in the deep middle of the night. Cash woofed in my ear.

“Forget it, dog. He’s not taking either one of us.”

When I rolled over I heard something rustle. I pulled a piece of notebook paper from underneath me and held it up to the light coming through the window. I could tell what it was by the straight-up tail and the bristles. It was standing under a palm tree on a beach, gazing out at the waves.

I traced it with my finger. “Hey, little buddy.”

I fell asleep, still hearing the sound of the motorcycle long after it had faded, and dreamt of rabbits, hairless and round, like little moons.

At breakfast the next morning Mick didn’t even look tired. I searched his face for some clue as to where he might have been, or what he might have seen, or what he was thinking about. He looked exactly the same as he had every morning of my life.

He said, “Quit, Riley.”

“Quit what?” I stared at my bowl, at the cornflake crumbs floating there. Like I was an astronomer and they were a newly discovered constellation. Discovered by me.

“Looking at me like that.”

“I’m not looking at you. Obviously.”

“Riley,” Mom said. She didn’t finish, but I knew.

Arguing wasn’t going to get me where I wanted to go, especially since I didn’t know where that was. I sneaked a look at my father, on his second cup of coffee and getting ready to light a cigarette, to see if any help might be coming from that quarter. He tapped the cigarette on the table and a few strands of tobacco fell out. I could smell it, sharp and bitter. Mom stood up and started clearing dishes, raising an eyebrow at Dad when he looked at her. There was a new no-smoking policy in the house, and sometimes he forgot. He put the cigarette behind his ear.

“Was there something you wanted to ask your brother, Miss Riley?”

“No, sir.”

“I think there is, and you’re probably not going to get your answer by staring a hole through his head.”

“I wasn’t—”

“What,” Mick said, “do you want to know?”

He said it gently enough, but it didn’t matter anymore. I knew if I asked, whatever it was, and got an answer, I wouldn’t like it, unless he said he was staying put, and I knew that wasn’t even a distant possibility. Mick didn’t want to be a farmer. He wanted to see the world. He’d been telling me that since I could remember, but I had never realized it meant he’d be leaving me. I’d always imagined us somewhere together; somewhere that looked a lot like home.

I said, “Never mind.” I excused myself, put my bowl in the sink, and left by the back door. Cash came with me, wagging his tail hopefully.

•  •  •

When the college catalogues came, Mick pored over them at the kitchen table. I helped by tearing the corners off the pages, piling the bits of paper together, and blowing on them so they scattered. Havre and Great Falls were okay, close enough that he could come visit. Missoula was too far away, on the other side of the mountains. Mick had that catalogue open.

“You aren’t thinking about going there, are you?”

“Yes, nosy. I am thinking about it.”

“But it’s so far.”

“Not so far, really. Not nearly as far as some places.”

“So far really.” I started another pile of corners. When it reached a decent size, I blew on it. Hard. Some fell on the floor.

Mick looked at me like he might be angry this time, but wasn’t. “This is what people do, Riley. They get out of high school and go away to college. Or some do.”

“What about the other ones?”

“They do other stuff.”

“Other stuff around here?”

“Some of them.”

I waited.

“That’s not going to be me, kiddo.”

I sat down hard on the chair next to his and flipped through the pages of the Havre catalogue. “This looks nice,” I said after a while, even though I wasn’t really seeing it.

Mick laughed. “Relax. I haven’t decided anything yet.” He turned my chair around and tilted my chin up so I had to look at him. My eyes kept blinking, and I swallowed so hard my throat hurt. Mick pushed back from the table and pulled me onto his lap. “I was never going to stay here forever, Riley. I thought you knew that.”

I leaned into him, lowering my head to bite one of the buttons on his shirt. “I didn’t,” I said, sort of, because I had a button in my mouth. “You should have told me.”

“I should have,” he said. And we left it at that. For a little while it felt okay.

Then he brought a girl home. There had been others, but I hated this one the most. She and Mick disappeared behind his bedroom door, and with my ear pressed to the wood I could hear them murmuring. Whispering. I hated her, and I hated it. He was telling a stranger his plans.

I went down to the creek with Cash, to escape the house and the heat and the terrible tightness in my chest. We lay in the shallow water and I watched the cottonwood leaves turn in the sun, even though there wasn’t any breeze. I groped for stones in the sandy bottom and threw them at the far bank. After a while Cash started to retrieve them. “Silly dog,” I said, and hugged his wet fur.

I wondered what they were doing in Mick’s room—if he was reading to her or playing songs for her on his guitar. I turned over and put my face in the water, to see if I could leave it there long enough to drown. He’d be sorry. He’d hate her too because she was there when it happened, distracting him. I held my breath as long as I could, staring at small, current-smoothed rocks, water plants and tiny fish. It wasn’t going to work. I raised my head and took a deep breath.


Mick’s bike was still parked in the driveway when Cash and I got back to the house, and I didn’t want to go in there. I draped myself over the porch rail and watched the water from my hair puddle on the wooden planks under me. I was dizzy, and my face felt fat and bruised. When my stomach started to hurt from the pressure, I slid toward the edge, until my hands were flat on the porch and my legs stretched out behind me. My mom called, but I couldn’t answer. I tried to slide back to where I’d started, but instead I crept forward even farther, until my feet went up and over my head, and I did a handstand into the garden, landing on my back instead of my feet. I never was much of an acrobat.

It might have been funny if it didn’t hurt so much. My right arm was twisted under me, and even though I’d never broken a bone before, I knew I’d broken one this time. Cash was crazy barking at the front door, and my mom and Mick and that girl came out. When Mick picked me up, the girl stood off to one side. She was crying. She was.

At the clinic in town they set my arm and put my shoulder back where it was supposed to be. The shot they gave me knocked me loopy, but it drove the pain away, or at least deep enough I didn’t care about it.

Back at home, Mick carried me up to my room and put me in my bed under the covers. I groped around for the stuffed animal I always slept with and sometimes still dragged around with me. When I found it, I laid it on my chest.

Mick said, “What is that thing, anyway?”

“It’s a rabbit. See?” I held it up by its one remaining ear.

“Damndest rabbit I ever saw.”

“Still a rabbit.”

I slept for a few hours, and when I woke up saw that Mick and that girl had both signed my cast. I tried to rub out her name. It was Gail. Stupid name. Stupid girl.

A few days later we met, officially. She said, “Well aren’t you a cutie pie?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not.”

Mick said, “You think she’s cute? Better get your eyes checked.” I wanted to hit him with something hard and heavy. They both laughed and walked away across the yard, her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. I sat on the porch steps and banged my cast against the handrail while Cash watched, looking worried. It hurt a lot. My dad found me doing it and made me stop. He sat with me and tried to tell me it’s natural for things to change, and for us to not like it much, but then we get used to it, and after a while it’s as if things are the way they were always meant to be.

“You’re going to survive this, Riley.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I do think so, and I’m the dad. Got it?”

“Sure.” I didn’t want to make him feel bad, but I didn’t believe him for a second. I leaned my head against his arm, and we sat there until my mom came out.

“What are you two up to?”

“Just sitting here.” He scooted me and him over a few inches, to make room.

She sat down and smoothed her skirt over her knees. “Grass could use a mowing,” she said.

“Thought I’d get to it tomorrow. That be okay?”

“Sure. Or the next day.”

“Fair enough,” he said.

We all heard the bike but no one moved except Cash, and he only moved his head, and just a little. Mick and Gail waved as they headed down the driveway. We waved back, but they didn’t see.

She came almost every day for a while. Sometimes she stayed for dinner. I don’t remember what she talked about, if she talked at all. She was pretty, and her hair was blond, but not as blond as Mick’s. She liked him a lot. It was kind of sickening to see.

But then she stopped coming. I asked my mom why, and she said I should ask Mick. Because she didn’t know.

“She wanted to go steady.”

“And you didn’t?”

“Seems sort of pointless.”

“Because you’re going away?”



We were in the driveway. He reached into his toolbox, came out with a screwdriver and held it in his hand, looking at it like he’d never seen one before—like it was a new specimen; a previously undiscovered species.

“Did you break her heart?”

“She says I did.”

“Are you sorry?”

He put the screwdriver back and picked up a crescent wrench; tapped it on the hard-packed dirt.

“Yes. I am. Is that okay with you?”

“Sure.” I didn’t want him to feel so bad. Not about that. I knew he didn’t mean to break anyone’s heart. Not even mine.

“That’s the way the cookie crumbles, isn’t it.”

“It is,” he said. And he tried not to smile, but I saw.

Eventually he took pity on me, bored out of my skull and not able to do very much. He let me help with the bike: hold and hand him tools, turn screws, tighten bolts, polish; especially polish.

“Jeez, Mick, It’s shiny already.”

“So’s your face, punkin’ head. Keep rubbing. You missed a spot.”


And he took me riding. I didn’t even have to ask. I couldn’t believe it. He showed up one day with a new red helmet and we took off for the Little Rockies, a small mountain range thirty or so miles away, completely surrounded by the pancake flatness of the plain.

I held on with my good arm, the mending one tucked between us like an injured animal, while we drove through a narrow canyon that began on the rez, just past a small white church and the picket-fenced graveyard behind it. I had to get off and wade while Mick coaxed the bike through a sandy creekbed to solid ground. We rode slowly through sunlight and shadow, between the craggy limestone canyon walls where windblown conifers and ferns improbably, and probably ill-advisedly, tried to grow. On the ridgetops I could see lines of stunted trees, like crouching soldiers waiting for their orders. Charge. Take cover. Retreat.

Mick told me about some animals that lived in the Montana mountains not so long ago, like ten thousand years. Saber-toothed cats with canine teeth seven inches long; dire wolves; short-faced bears; a lion with long, long legs, bigger than a Bengal tiger.

I asked him where they went.

“Probably somewhere they thought people would stop trying to kill them all the time.”

“Are there any left?”

“Not the same ones. Newer ones.”

“Like what?”

“Like timber wolves. Elk. Bears.”

“Regular animals,” I said.

Mick laughed. “Exactly.”

•  •  •

The day he started packing for Missoula, I was ready on the roof outside my window. I had an old Easter basket full of rocks—bigger than pebbles, but nothing too lethal. I waited for him to come out of the house, to head out to the garage for a trunk or a duffel bag. I could see Cash in the yard, watching, with his head resting on his crossed front paws. Dad’s tractor was kicking up great clouds of dust along the far fence line; it hadn’t rained in months, and the grasshoppers were eating everything in sight. The forecast said soon, though, and I’d heard my parents talking about how they thought they could smell it coming, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky you couldn’t see clear through.

My cast had finally come off, almost on its own, so we hadn’t had to go back to the clinic and pay a doctor to do something, as Dad put it, you didn’t need to go to medical school to figure out. My arm from wrist to shoulder was as pale as it had probably ever been. I remembered talking with Mick about a “pale race,” but couldn’t remember what we’d been talking about. I thought it might have been something about birds.

I heard the screen door slam and scooted to the edge of the roof, braced my feet against the rain gutter, and waited. When Mick appeared I leaned over the edge and threw the first rock. It went wide, but he heard it and looked up.

“Damn it, Riley. If you hit me, I swear—”

He stood in the yard, waiting, daring me to throw another one. I did. I missed again and grabbed the biggest one in the basket. I held it for a minute while we stared at each other, and then threw it as hard as I could. Mick didn’t duck or try to get out of the way. The rock glanced off his forehead, and it began to bleed. A lot. He disappeared and I heard his feet thump the porch steps.

I pushed on the gutter with my heels, in a hurry to get up and away, but the gutter came loose, and then bent, and came looser, and instead of sliding up the roof backward, I was sliding down. I tried to hold on to the shingles, but there was nothing to grab.

“Crap,” I said to myself. And just like that, I was airborne again.

It was nothing like flying, even from that height. I landed on my back, again, but with my arms straight out this time like scrawny, useless wings, and all the wind knocked out of me. It hurt a lot worse than the first time, all on one side, and as soon as I started to breathe again, I tried to stop. Mick was kneeling over me, blood from the cut on his forehead dripping onto my neck and chest, and he was telling me I had to do it, had to breathe, had to stay still. He kept wiping the blood off, saying, “It’s going to be okay.”

I wanted to say I was sorry, but couldn’t get the words out. He pushed the bangs off my forehead. He said, “Hang on, Riley. Hang on. I’ve got you.”

A helicopter came, and they strapped me to a canvas stretcher to lift me up and into it; I held on and didn’t make any noise. They flew me to the hospital in Glasgow and my mom came along. Dad and Mick drove over.

I remember a bright, cold light, and starting to count backward from a hundred. Then a thick bandage, wrapped completely around my middle. They were all standing around my bed.

I said, “Hi,” and tried to think back. I pressed on the bandage, to see if I could figure out where the pain was coming from. “What happened?”

Mick told me. Twenty-five feet. Three broken ribs and a punctured lung. I thought he was making it up. “I fell? Again?”

“Yup.” He nodded. He looked proud. “And this time you bounced.”

A few fuzzy seconds went by. “You didn’t know I could do that, did you?”

“Nope. I sure didn’t. You’re a clever girl.” There was a small piece of gauze taped to his forehead. I reached for it, and he leaned down so I could touch it.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to hit you.”

He said, “Sure you did.” And if he smiled, it meant that he forgave me. It meant there was no way he’d move away from home because his kid sister was rotten, not very bright, and a pain in the ass. No way.

Mom looked tired, and something else I couldn’t read. Trapped, maybe. Ready to run. But I knew that couldn’t be right. They all kept going in and out of focus. Dad stood at the end of the bed and held both my feet under the covers in his warm, rough hands.

I closed my eyes. I didn’t have a choice.

No one had to teach me to love the morphine, the way it dropped me into a warm pool of amber-colored light and forgetting. For a long time there was no clear boundary between what was real and where the shots took me. Mick and my folks came to visit as often as they could, and Mom stayed over sometimes, and sometimes I knew who was actually there.

After Mick came to say he was leaving, it was easy to believe it was a dream, that he’d changed his mind and wasn’t going anywhere. I could believe I’d grown hawk wings and could fly, so falling wouldn’t be a problem anymore. With the shots, I could believe all of it. I could believe whatever I wanted to.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Given World includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Marian Palaia. 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.



In her riveting debut novel, Marian Palaia courageously explores love, loss, and survival, offering a candid and unforgettable look at what it means to be human. Unable to come to terms with the disappearance of her beloved brother in Vietnam, Riley leaves her home in Montana behind and sets out on a wild and uncertain journey to find peace. From San Francisco to Saigon, she mingles with a cast of tragic figures and misfits—people from all walks of life, bound by the unspeakable suffering they have endured and their fierce struggle to recover some of that which they have lost. Spanning more than twenty-five years, the coming-of-age story of one injured but indefatigable young woman explodes into a stunning portrait of a family, a generation, and a world rocked by war—and still haunted by it long after.


Topics for Discussion 

1. Why does Riley leave her home in Montana? What informs the choices she makes about where she travels? Does she ultimately find what she is seeking in each place?

2. How do Riley’s parents respond to her departure and her long absence? Consider how the author uses shifts in point of view to reveal this information. Are the reactions of Riley’s parents expected? Surprising?

3. In the first chapter of the book, Riley says: “They say our early memories are really memories of what we think we remember—stories we tell ourselves—and as we grow older, we re-remember, and often get it wrong along the way. I’m willing to believe that, but I still trust some of my memories.” Is Riley a reliable narrator? How can we determine it? What does the novel seem to indicate about the nature of memory? Is memory a benefit or a curse?

4. Many works of literature depict the effects of war on soldiers, but The Given World offers a look at the effects of war on those left behind. Why might the author have chosen to focus on civilian life rather than on the soldiers? How are those civilians affected by the war?  What commonalities are there in the effects of the war on the civilians and on the soldiers who have made it home?

5. The novel features a relatively large cast of characters. What common experiences or feelings do they seem to share? What message or messages does the book contain about common experience and what it means to be human?  

6. How is redemption treated in the novel? What about faith, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation: do they contribute to redemption?

7. Many of the characters featured in the book are addicts. Discuss the author’s treatment of addiction and recovery.

8. Riley goes by many names within the story. She creates some of the names herself, but is also given various names and nicknames by others. Is the variety of her names related to the theme of identity?

9. Loss is a recurring motif within the novel. What examples of loss occur? Could any have been prevented? How do the characters left behind cope with it? How do they grieve? Do they find meaning or comfort in grieving?

10. The novel exposes various cultural prejudices based on race, gender, and sexual preference. Describe some examples. Do you think such prejudices have waned in the present era?

11. Many of the characters in the novel keep secrets and tell lies. What are some of the lies, and why do the characters choose not to tell the truth? Do any of the characters ultimately come clean? If so, how is the revelation received? What message or messages does the book ultimately offer on the subject of truth?

12. When Riley wanted to know the meaning of what she found in Frank’s books, Frank responded that “most of the time there was no single meaning; a lot depended on who was trying to figure it out, and what they brought with them to the show.” What did he mean? Do you agree with him? If so, what can it teach us about the way we read and interpret literature?

13. At the conclusion of the story, is Riley fulfilled? If not, is she left wanting? What does the conclusion ultimately indicate about her journey? What has she gained and lost as a result of the journey? Would you say her journey was worthwhile?


Enhance Your Book Club

1. Compare The Given World to other novels you have read about the Vietnam War and postwar living. What do the stories have in common? How are the characters alike? Who are the narrators of the various stories, and what points of view are represented? How does The Given World stand out from or differ from the other works? Would you say that Marian Palaia offers a new view of war and conflict? Which storytelling styles seemed to you the most persuasive?

2. Have you ever left your country of origin and spent significant time in another? If so, did the experience change you? Did it alter your perspective of yourself or your life back home? Consider other examples of characters in literature who undertook a journey. Did they face obstacles? Were they transformed along the way? Did they return home? What is homecoming all about?

3. Use the novel as a starting point to explore the effects of the Vietnam War. How did the conflict affect the soldiers on both sides? What impact did it have on civilians? What effect did it have on the natural landscape of each country? How did it contribute to cultural and industrial changes in each country? How did the war affect the family unit or alter common ideas of love and faith? How have more recent conflicts affected the people and countries engaged in those conflicts? Do the effects differ?


A Conversation with Marian Palaia

Can you tell us about your inspiration for The Given World? What were the novel’s origins? How did you begin?

I wrote one chapter of the book (“Girl, Three Speeds, Pretty Good Brakes”) years ago as a standalone short story, about a girl in a gas station who was missing her brother and a good part of “whatever it is that centers us.” In 2010 I went back to school to get my MFA at Madison, and during the first semester, while working with Lorrie Moore, I wrote two more stories in which the girl of that first piece turned up again. Lorrie and I met, took a look at the three stories together, and decided it would be a novel. Well, she kind of decided—with my permission, of course—but I kind of went, “Oh, damn,” because the thought of writing a novel terrified me. I really had to fool myself into writing it by telling myself it was just a bunch of short stories about this particular character. Then, when it came time to align the thing as a “real” novel, the editing process was quite daunting, but it was work that felt really good and right, and I learned a massive amount about plot, structure, tension, arc, et cetera, from doing it. Plot had never been my strong suit, and still isn’t, but revising this book made me much more aware of the kinds of things you need in a narrative if you want people to keep reading.


What was interesting to you about the particular settings that you chose for the book? Why that particular time period, and those places?

I was a teenager in the 1970s, and Vietnam was very much on my radar. My parents were involved in the antiwar movement, and we lived in Washington, DC, at that time, so we went to the marches, we protested, we watched the war on TV. Years later, when I drove a newspaper truck for the San Francisco Chronicle, many of my carriers (aka paper boys) were Vietnamese, and I got to know them and their families, and some of their stories. That experience, along with having grown up during the war, led (in a not terribly direct fashion) to my moving to Saigon in the mid 1990s. Everyone thought I was crazy, but for whatever reason, I had to do it. It changed my life in a big way. Nothing I had imagined, good or bad, turned out to be true, and I spent enough time there for some things essential about the place to become ingrained in me. Which is not to say I really know Vietnam, or entirely understand its present or its history, but I got a much clearer picture of how much I did not know. Maybe writing The Given World was my way of trying to better understand something so totally ineffable. Aside from that, I have always been deeply affected, for whatever reason, by stories of the people damaged “collaterally” by war: soldiers on both sides, their families, their communities. I think if we ever had to admit to how many lives, generations even, are irrevocably damaged or destroyed by war, maybe we’d try harder to find a better way to settle our differences. Which, really, at the most human level, aren’t differences at all.


What made you decide to tell the story from Riley’s perspective—that is, from the point of view of a civilian and more particularly a young woman—rather than from anyone else’s?

Hers was just the first voice, the first life that came to me. In some ways she is very much like me in some of her experiences and outlook, and in other ways not at all. Without getting too much more specific, let’s just say I never stabbed anyone, or lived in my car for more than a few nights.


How did you conduct research for the novel? Were any historical texts particularly useful or enlightening, or did you rely more upon your own preexisting knowledge of the subject?

At my house in Montana I have an entire library of Vietnam books, both fiction and nonfiction. I have read them all, most of them more than once, and it is still so much to grasp: all the intricacies of the decisions, the mistakes that were made, how arrogant we were, how little we understood that the war we thought we were fighting was not the one the Vietnamese were fighting—and that’s why we pretty much got our asses handed to us and why all those people died or had their lives wrecked so unnecessarily. That being said, the book isn’t really about the war itself; but however much or little I do know about it informs everything Riley experiences, even as it stays so deeply in the background. I purposely kept it subtle, probably so subtle at times as to be completely undetectable.


Did you interview any veterans or other people who lived during the Vietnam War? If so, what struck you most about their accounts of postwar living?

The closest I came to interviewing anyone was talking with my uncle, who served two tours in Vietnam as a Green Beret and was based at Cu Chi, and who has not had the easiest time of it since coming home, but who is still, thankfully, here. Other than that, I have known quite a lot of people over the years who were either veterans of that war or relatives of the soldiers who fought it. In Vietnam I met and became friends with a lot of Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans during the war, including the mechanics who are now fixing bicycles on the sidewalks, and a photographer who worked with the AP and wound up in a reeducation camp afterward. What struck me most about all those people was how necessary it was for them to try to get on with their lives, despite how difficult it must have been. They seem to have turned that page, at least in regard to what they want to talk about, and they are busy living now and don’t have the luxury or the desire to revisit or revise history. As for being able to relate the stories of that generation and the impacts of the war and its aftermath, my oldest friends and I are that generation. That part is firsthand knowledge.


Are there any works of fiction about the Vietnam War and its aftermath—or about other wars—that you find particularly inspiring or important?

God, so many. The ones that immediately come to mind are Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien; Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places; Robert Olen Butler’s Good Scent From a Strange Mountain; Michael Herr’s Dispatches; Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake; Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War; Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, and Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History. Way too many more to name, but there is no leaving out The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. Such a perfect book. I love that one so much— I’ve probably read it a dozen times. The rest, maybe five or six or seven, only.


Excerpts of your novel have appeared online prior to the novel’s publication. How do you feel about their having a life independent of the book?

Since I began as a short-story writer, and since those pieces were more or less written as short stories, I am quite comfortable, and in fact I really love having them out there. It took me a while to get used to writing chapters that would not also pass as standalone stories, but those chapters, I think, do okay on their own.


On David Abram’s blog, The Quivering Pen, you said: “A collection of clever lines is not enough . . . it is only a starting place. I think many writers mistake it for a destination.” Can you speak more about that? What would you say is required of a good or successful work of fiction?

Wow. That’s kind of a huge question. I guess I could begin by reiterating that thought: it’s not enough to be clever, in your sentences or in your ideas. And it’s not enough to get from Point A to Point B, that is, simply telling a story. Writing is hard. One of the hardest parts is creating believable, complex, forgivable characters, but the really hard part is being completely emotionally honest. Ripping the scabs off. Uncovering your own heart and showing it to other people.


To which of the characters in your novel do you most relate—and why?

I guess that depends on what “relate” means, but Riley, for sure, a lot, because so many of her experiences mirror mine, but also Grace, the girl on the train—but maybe that’s not so surprising, since she is sort of a reflection of a younger Riley, by the time they meet. Funny, it was not deliberate, and until I went back for, like, the seventh revision, I didn’t see their similarities. The other characters I relate to in different ways, but every one of them was (and is) important to me, because a lot of them are the kinds of people who brought me up, more or less, when I first got to San Francisco. I was incredibly clueless, then, about so many things, and the people I learned the most from were the ones who had the least access to equilibrium and were the most scarred, inside or out, or both.


How has The Given World influenced your current writing projects or changed the way you write? Do you think you will revisit any of the characters or themes from this novel?

I am working on a new novel, and am much more deliberative about keeping the narrative cohesive, making sure all the pieces fit. I go back to the beginning a lot, to make sure the alignment is tight, and to make sure anything new I add is not random but actually belongs there. Nothing drives me crazier, when I am reading a book or a story, than to come to a part which feels as though the author woke up one morning, sat down at his or her desk, and said, “Oh, here’s an interesting thought I was having,” or “Here’s something unique I overheard; I think I’ll just throw it in,” or “Here’s this paragraph I’ve been saving, and I don’t have much to say today, so let’s just try to squeeze this in and hope no one notices it doesn’t belong.” I believe it is an author’s obligation to build a story, in the same way physical structures are built: you have to have a solid base, and each level (or chapter) has to be supported by what has gone before. Writing The Given World the way I wrote it, and having to go back to make sure that the structure was there, has taught me to stay on top of it all the way through. Going back to the beginning over and over means it will take me a very long time to write the first draft, but it also means less time (maybe) spent revising, even though revision is my favorite part of writing. So maybe going back to the beginning is actually a way to keep doing the part I like, and avoiding the hard part, which is creating new material. Who knows? As far as revisiting characters goes, Lu, or someone who is much like Lu, makes an appearance in the new book. She just kind of showed up, and I liked her, so I kept her. Themes? Oh, yeah. War and the wounded. Bad behavior and what underlies it. Wondering where, or what, home is. Loving the wrong people, or loving the right people the wrong way. Those will always be my themes.


Who are some of the storytellers who have influenced your work?

Graham Greene, James Baldwin, Malcolm Lowry, Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy, James Welch, Lorrie Moore, Barry Hannah, Louise Erdrich, Thomas McGuane, Jim Crumley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. For memoir, Joan Didion, Mary Karr, Alexandra Fuller. For poetry, Richard Hugo, Terrance Hayes, Jane Hirschfield. A million others in all camps.


About The Author

Photograph by Erika Peterman

Marian Palaia was born in Riverside, California, and grew up there and in Washington, DC. She lives in San Francisco and has also lived in Montana, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Marian has also been a truck driver, a bartender, and a logger. The Given World is her first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 5, 2016)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476778044

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Raves and Reviews

"Complex and haunting...vivid and unforgettable."

– People

"Ardent, ambitious....These glimpses of other lives are where the poetry of Palaia's writing is most striking....these 'unraveled souls' sting the hardest and linger the longest."

– The New York Times Book Review

"In The Given World, Marian Palaia has assembled a collection of restive seekers and beautifully told their stories of love and lovelessness, home and homelessness, with an emphasis on both makeshift and enduring ideas of family. It has been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world. She has a great ear for dialogue, a feel for dramatic confrontation, and a keen understanding of when background suddenly becomes foreground. She is a strong, soulful, and deeply gifted writer."

– Lorrie Moore, author of Bark

"Not all the American casualties of Vietnam went to war. In stunning, gorgeous prose, in precise, prismatic detail, Palaia begins with that rupture and works her way deep into the aftermath -- its impact on one person, on one family, on one country. Riveting and revelatory."

– Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

“Much of this deeply felt work reverberates with the tones of a modern Western — except that its tough-talking hero is a woman... Riley’s voice, all surliness and cheek, easily suggests the shattered heart below the surface. This is not a small feat: It’s a balancing act to deliver a self-punishing, defiant, vulnerable character without veering into caricature — while still inciting readers to want to know more. Palaia has managed it....The novel’s fine accomplishment is to move Riley steadily through her quest against such jagged odds that we can only cross fingers she’ll make it… rich, often dark, intricate plotting… All [the characters] are painted vividly; they’re individuals we can see, hear, and smell — as is Saigon, our own fog-cloaked city, sticky barroom interiors, and Big Sky country… the book’s final pages take readers on a scenic train ride to the gentlest, most throttled reckoning I can remember, and to the quiet possibility — scarcely there — of a next chapter.”

– San Francisco Chronicle

"Palaia is skilled at mixing bitter and sweet — an uplifting ending is loosely constructed and leaves a reader floating in a way that feels entirely grounded in how it captures life’s unpredictability."

– San Francisco Examiner

"A haunting meditation on the aftermath of war and the search for inner peace."

– San Jose Mercury News

“Riley's a mess and knows it; but in Palaia's very capable hands, she's a survivor and an admirable mess…The Given World is a moving novel of an era that just won't go away.”

– Shelf Awareness

"Palaia demonstrates a magnificent command of craft for a first-time novelist, but it's her emotional honesty that makes this story so rich and affecting....An immensely rewarding and remarkable debut."

– Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"There is no denying Palaia's immense writing talent. She is able to convey three pieces of information in one elegant sentence, and she writes paragraphs that build meaning upon metaphorical meaning that leave your highlighter used up and dry--and you anticipating her next novel."

– Booklist

"The novel’s true strengths are the variety of characters Riley meets on her journey and the sense of America changing with the decades. In the end, what the reader takes away is a visceral appreciation for how many lives, both on and off the battlefield, were permanently altered by the Vietnam War.”

– Publishers Weekly

"Palaia's prose is hypnotizing...fresh...not without a dark beauty."

– Library Journal

"What is likely to remain with reader is the haunting vividness Palaia brings to Riley’s isolated Hi-Line ranch, her down-if-not-quite-out San Francisco streets, and the decadent expat bars of postwar Ho Chi-Minh City."

– Billings Gazette

"Marian Palaia is a writer of remarkable talent. In Riley, she has captured Vietnam's long shadow with prose that cuts straight to the bone. Readers who enjoyed Jennifer Egan's The Invisible Circus will love The Given World."

– Suzanne Rindell, author of The Other Typist

"Marian Palaia is a writer of startling grace and sensuous lyricism—reading her, you feel as if you've never heard language this beautiful and this true."

– Jonis Agee, author of The River Wife

"Some rare books give you the sense that a writer has been walking around with a story for years, storing it up, ruminating on it. This is one of those books. I'm grateful for the slow and patient emergence of these words on the page. No sentence is wasted. However long The Given World took, it was worth every minute."

– Peter Orner, author of The Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

"From the moment I met Riley I was drawn into her world, which is really ours, America in the last century as it careened into this one. I found this novel as thrilling and surprising as a ride on a vintage motorcycle, along the winding, sometimes hair-raising but always arresting ride that is Riley’s life. It is a trip I will always remember."

– Jesse Lee Kercheval, author of My Life as a Silent Movie

"Marian Palaia has imaginatively engaged the Vietnam War these many decades later and transformed it into a brilliant and complex narrative able to transcend that war, all wars, all politics, all eras and illuminate the great and eternally enduring human quest for self, for an identity, for a place in the universe. The Given World is a splendid first novel by an exciting new artist."

– Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

"The Given World is astonishing in every regard: the voice, the range of characters, the charismatic, colloquial dialogue, the ability to summon, through telling detail, geographically diverse worlds that are far flung, but still cohere. Vietnam, counter-cultural San Francisco, the Vietnam War draft’s resonance on a Montana reservation, all give evocative shape and texture to an historical era. It’s edgy, often cutting, humorous, and impassioned."

– Rob Nixon

“Palaia is a lovely writer, adept at creating characters who linger in the mind even if they only last on the page for a few pages. By the end, each of these glimpses comes together to form a fully-rounded portrait of a woman on the run, and how she finally arrived somewhere.”

– Capitol Times

"The Given World is about a lost generation coming of age too quickly… It shows us the effects of war from an unusual perspective – that of a devoted little sister who is looking for her MIA brother or, heartbreakingly, a way to live in the world without him. This is also a love story in many of its dimensions: the intimacy of friendship between two women, the temporary but crucial bonds of expats, a love between two gay men that is tested when one infects the other with HIV, a mother's love for her daughter, and a sister's love for her brother.”

– Missoulian

“The reader’s payoff is found over and over again in Riley’s acute observations of all that searching, disappointment, and moving on. Palaia’s prose is acrobatic and elegant… [She] slathers these pages with her gift of language, sentence-making, and wise observation.”

– Washington Independent Review of Books

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