2007 – The Winners
Sarah B, Silver Springs
What stayed with me after reading this book are the parallels between the language, the relationships and the landscape. We first meet the characters going about their daily routines in a quiet, matter-of-fact way. Then, after a little excitement along the road to Wyoming, there is the anger, fear and sadness of Jean and Einar’s reunion. The pit holding the dying bear that had attacked Mitch at the zoo feels like the only variation in a flat, dry topography. As Griff allows herself to consider loving her grandfather and Mitch, and Jean begins to determine her own life the world starts to open up with such things as sunshine and wading pools and mountains where the bear can be released. The future isn’t always easy, there are troubles from the past to clear up and headstrong determination to make it possible.
Julie C., Oakfield
Mark Spragg purposely wrote “An Unfinished Life” in the present tense so we could experience first hand the transformation of his characters. Rugged, worn-out Einar Gilkyson squirms with bitterness when his widowed and floundering daughter-in-law, Jean, shows up at the homestead unexpectedly. Mitch Bradley, Einar’s crippled war buddy, grits his teeth when pain overpowers him, because he believes suffering is the secret to redemption. Griff ferrets out the life she always thought she could have. This book, a tale of broken lives being redeemed, depicts the beauty of growing up and growing old. Spragg’s use of dry humor and his employment of visual and somatic images enrich his in-depth character development and the true-ness of life’s hardships. As Einar said to Mitch after a few days of living with granddaughter Griff, “She is a good get.” So is Spragg’s novel.
Meghan H., Perry
When readers meet Griff Gilkyson, she is methodically packing her suitcase in hopes of leaving yet another physical abuser’s trailer, an exercise we discover she undertakes each morning. At age 10, Griff, the most compelling character in Mark Spragg’s “An Unfinished Life,” has already learned the poignant skills of making herself “invisible” and reading men for signs of danger.
Griff finally encounters a different kind of male when she and her mother Jean seek refuge in Ishawooa, Wyoming. From gruff Einar, the grandfather she never knew existed, to tender, dying Mitch, Griff learns that not all men are mercurial beasts. At the same time, Griff’s spirit kindles affection in a series of deeply flawed characters who had forgotten they could feel anything but bitterness. Throughout the troubling events that unfold, readers feel assured that these subtly blossoming relationships will sustain Griff and redeem all of the book’s characters.
Frances M., Batavia
Readers have so many choices. Therefore having a committee make our selection simplifies matters. And maybe we watch too much television and see too many movies. Consequently this book was somewhat predictable, but enjoyable none the less.
The author’s description of rural Wyoming takes readers to a place unfamiliar to many of us, but the relationships described are certainly recognizable. Family tensions and conflicts are age-old, especially those involving “in-laws.” Likewise are disagreements and clashes between parents and their children. Einar’s efforts to overcome anger and disappointment at the choices and actions of his deceased son, combined with his grief and the inability to reconcile these issues after his son’s death, evokes a sadness readers can understand. Love and anguish often go hand in hand.
I feel the committee made a good selection. The book is a worthy example and reminder of family love, which should be valued – and cherished.
Catherine R., Batavia
In “An Unfinished Life” Mark Spragg reveals a reversal of roles between a widowed mother and daughter. The daughter, Griff, a mere 10 year old, appears to be the mature adult and the mother, Jean, is the immature, guilt-driven woman, whose repeated mistakes almost destroys their lives. I responded to the way the daughter learns to adapt as well as she can to her mother’s unwise choices of men.
When Jean and her daughter flee to Wyoming, I worried about the choice the author had made. Was Jean’s embittered father-in-law, Einar Gilkyson, the right choice for any normal life Griff might have? But the author gives Griff an almost uncanny knowledge of how to act towards this old man and his equally old, severely damaged friend, Mitch.
The run-down ranch location in Wyoming was a good choice. The success of Griff’s attaining at least a part of a delayed childhood resulted in a feel-good story. Insipidness is avoided, however, by the author’s willingness to use bodily functions and profanity. Would Griff finally have the “childhood” she so richly deserves? I could never be certain until the very end, which was what kept me turning the pages!
Cheri S, Bergen
“You promised.” These are the first words we hear Griff utter. Two simple words packed with meaning and emotion. In “An Unfinished Life” by Mark Spragg, conversations between the characters are short and to the point. To make this happen, the author has to choose his words wisely and put them in phrases that say a lot with a little. “You promised” means “I’ve had enough. I’m not going to watch you get beaten one more time by Roy. I’m packed and I’m ready to go.” But instead of these 20 some words, the author chooses two – “You promised.” And the meaning in those two words is crystal clear.
Words. They are the tools an author uses to tell his story. Mark Spragg, in his book, “An Unfinished Life,” chose those tools well. His words were succinct, emotional and told a story I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
Julie C., Oakfield
Mark Spragg punctuates his story by using the viewpoint of an arthritic,
tail-thumping dog. On page one Karl stares in at the grandfather taking
a sauna while the old man cogitates about getting oldd. Spragg then
entangles the lives of his characters at a fast clip. But Karl tempers
the story’s pace with his slow circling and companionable laziness. The
dog “comes off the porch only far enough to where the sun has warmed the
work yard.” He is too crippled to want to use himself up.” Karl barks to
announce Jean’s arrival. Karl accepts chin scratching and baloney from
Griff as she and Mitch form their relationship. Karl whines when Mitch
or Griff are threatened. At the story’s climax Karl howls not to be
quieted. Spragg artfully portrays the subtleties of growing old enough
through this particular unfinished life of Karl, while providing a
reposing undercurrent to his story.
Julie C., Oakfield
White looks whiter against black. So it is with Spragg’s characters as
they develop in contrast to Roy Winston. Roy’s narration reveals his
self-absorption, his arrogance and his vile thinking. Even the questions
Roy asks when first introduced – “How are my girls this morning?” –
suggests people are just possessions to him. Roy believes there isn’t “a
woman in the world who can keep her mouth shut long enough … where she
won’t need to get smacked.” Griff hears him use the “make-nice voice”
and sees him “close his dirty guard-rail fingers into a fist” before
getting hit. At the end, when he gets his comeuppance, Roy sounds like a
scared kid and Griff observes: “He wasn’t trying to be somebody else”
for once. Roy is generally wrong throughout the story, but he’s right
about one thing: “It is all about the leave.”
Julie C., Oakfield
“Some old son of a bitch should’ve explained getting old to me,” (Einar)
says … “Some old son of bitch probably did and I wasn’t listening.”
Wanting to learn how to grow old, I listened to Spragg’s characters.
Here’s what I got:
From Jean: “Stop pretending you haven’t made a mistake.”
From Mitch: (When he was young he was too busy to dream, according to
Einar, but now he enjoys his dreams.): “I dreamt I’m a bear. A large
bear out on open land. An animal satisfied with its life, prepared to
lie down and sleep forever.”
From Griff: “Stop walking next to walls and listening hard to the words
people say. … maybe you don’t have to pay attention to the rules any more.”
And finally, from watching Einar, even though he claimed he didn’t know
how to grow old: Walk with ease and purpose.
Dave S., Le Roy
“An Unfinished Life” by Mark Spragg is a novel written in the minimalist
style made famous by the great Earnest Hemingway. If there is any
symbolism here, the author isn’t about to stop and tell you about it. It
would be easy to read Spragg’s entire novel and not notice any symbolism
at all. But that would be a big mistake.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the big grizzly bear was the symbol of
something. Before the freeing of the bear, the grandfather, Einar, is
full of pent-up feelings of acrimony and recrimination. It is only after
the bear is released that Einar can let go of those feelings. Only then
is he finally able to forgive his daughter-in-law, Jean, for the
accident that killed his son, Griffin.
And so there you have it. The caged bear is in effect the symbol Einar’s
repressed feelings of resentment. Only when the bear is gone is Einar
free of those feelings. How else can you explain his elation afterwards?
In a new generosity of spirit he proclaims, “I wouldn’t have missed last
night for anything in the world. Not one bit of it.” The bear is free
and so is he – free from the blame and self pity that was weighing him
down, free from the bitterness that was robbing his life of meaning.
Once again he can truly say, “I am the same boy my mother used to kiss.”