The Sea Runners Discussion Points

  1. The death of one of the four central characters is foretold in the book's opening scene. Does it turn out to be the character you would have chosen, to further the plot of the novel? Why or why not?
  2. Ivan Doig has said that as a result of his research trips along the Pacific Northwest coast, the coastal landscape made itself the book's fifth character. Can you find examples of the coast as a living presence?
  3. It has been said of The Sea Runners that tension and movement mark this novel, compared to the more leisurely rhythms and fuller portraits in Doig's Montana fiction. Do you think the pace of the book is at odds with the characterizations? Are the characters "types," or distinct personalities?
  4. First names are revealed only at climactic points—the death of one character, and the book's last line—and one character's first name never is told. Does it change your perception of the characters to know their full names, or not? What do you suppose was the author's purpose in using the names this way?
  5. In a journal he kept during the writing of The Sea Runners, the author noted "the effort I'm making to put a proverbial sound into this manuscript." (Sayings such as "paper is the schoolman's forest," for example.) "The aim is to tap into the interest proverbs hold for us; they are nuggets of idea and language, and we all respond to their gleam. Thus, the proverbial tang of Melander's dialogue....I have ransacked a number of books of seamen's slang and the like, to pattern Melander's talk on. Also, I trust that my proverbs aren't diluted too much by the fact that a number of them, I've made up." Are the characters' sayings, often Bible-based or rural in origin, an artifact of their time—the l9th Century—or do we similarly rely on such given expressions to guide our thinking? Is a proverb any less a proverb if it's made up by a novelist?
  6. In the same journal, Doig recorded that he was deliberately "trying to make the dialogue take the course it would in life, sparse at first, then looser and fuller as the men get to know each other." Is mimesis of "real life" of this sort a worthwhile technique of fiction? Are there other ways the author enhances the actuality of the story through writerly technique?
  7. The decision to attempt an escape from New Archangel, down the long and dangerous coast, was an enormous one. What drove each man to it? Are their decisions consistent with their personalities?
  8. The cast of the book—the Russians, the Tlingits, the four sea runners—are all held in the mesh of colonialism, described on page 20 as vast and constellation-like, "lines of star-web across the planet." Why is it only the four individuals who attempt to break the bonds of colonialism? Are they exceptions to their time, or indicators of larger historical forces that are forming?
  9. Some lines of the book are poetry-like: page 71, the phrase "who sneak about the streets at night" with its echo of Robert Frost's "whose woods these are I think I know," and p. 171, the fragment sentence "Old bleak places gray-scarved above the green shore." Does the author apply poetic touches of this sort more often to descriptions of nature or of people? Which is more effective?
  10. Melander initially misleads the others about their vital trove of maps, and Karlsson feels he has no choice but to continue the deception. Do you think it was a necessary ploy of leadership, in both cases? What does it say about the two of them, or the nature of leadership, that both men believed the journey would be jeopardized by the truth?

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