Winter Brothers Discussion Points

  1. Do you think diaries such as James G. Swan's reveal or conceal? How insightful a diarist do you find Swan?
  2. Ivan Doig has said in interviews that the art of the Northwest coastal tribes, particularly the use of templates to replicate motifs and patterns in elaborately carved totem poles, influenced the structure of Winter Brothers. An example is the dot of ellipsis mentioned on on page 202, which recurs in the "stone dot" of carved swan on page 244 "that puts period" to the winter and the book. What other examples of patterns of language, or spans of time or views of geographic places that serve as templates of similarity, or characters who weave in and out of the narrative like carved motifs, can you find?
  3. Landscape, particularly the Pacific Northwest "edge of America," interests both Swan and Doig. What are the similarities and differences in how they look at their chosen region?
  4. Winter Brothers is an unusual literary genre, a journal of a journal. Is this approach more or less effective than a straight biography of Swan would have been? Than a novel based on his life?
  5. Swan is shown perpetually scrambling for government jobs. Do you think he was unusual in this, among supposedly enterprising pioneers of his time, or did the government play a nursemaid role in settlement of the American frontier?
  6. Swan was an eyewitness, through his diaries, to the cultural clash between white and Indian civilizations at Neah Bay and elsewhere along the Pacific Northwest Coast, yet his relationships with members of the Makah tribe sometimes emerge warmly from his pages, as when he and the old chief joke about using a Navy mortar to hunt whales, or when the Makahs borrow Chinese-dragon motifs from one of his books for their own art, while Swan picked up recipes and weather lore from the Indians. In this kind of cultural trading, who influenced whom the most, do you think? In what specific ways?
  7. In the section titled "The White Tribe," are there differences in the way Swan portrays his fellow settlers at Port Townsend, compared with his earlier diary portrayals of the Makahs at Neah Bay? Are there differences in how he himself seems to function?
  8. The book's diary entry for Swan's eighty-second birthday turns out to have been written by Doig, in literary echo of Swan's voice. How much do the two men merge in the book? In what ways do they turn out to be similar or dissimilar?
  9. "The same winds blow spring on all men's dreams," it is said in the book, as lore is nudged into legend. Do you see Swan's diaries as a factual corrective to heroic legends of the American frontier, or not? Which do you think is more vital to us, unvarnished views of the past or vivid stories that live on as communal memories?
  10. The book has a brief portrait of the remote settler Lars Aalstrom, who persevered for decades on his farthest-west homestead, while Swan gave up his own land claim on the Bone River after a few years. What differences of personality would account for this? Which man might have been more typical of the American pioneers of the time?

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