An Unfinished Life

An Unfinished Life

by Mark Spragg


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In an extraordinary tale of love and forgiveness, Mark Spragg brings us this novel of a complex, prodigal homecoming.


Jean Gilkyson has a history of choosing the wrong men. After yet another night of argument turned to violence with her boyfriend, Roy, Jean knows it's time to leave—if not for herself, then for her ten-year-old daughter, Griff. But the only place they can afford to go is Ishawooa, Wyoming, where Jean's family is dead and her deceased husband's father Einar wishes Jean was too.

Of course, Griff knows none of this—only that here in Wyoming, with a grandfather she has never known and his crippled friend Mitch, she may finaly be able to find a home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400076147
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/09/2005
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 131,702
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

Mark Spragg is the author of Where Rivers Change Direction, a memoir that won the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers award, and the novels The Fruit of Stone and An Unfinished Life,which was chosen by the Rocky Mountain News as the Best Book of 2004. All three were top-ten Book Sense selections and have been translated into fifteen languages. He lives with his wife, Virginia, in Wyoming.

Mark Spragg is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (


Cody, Wyoming

Date of Birth:

March 20, 1952

Place of Birth:

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


B.A. in English, University of Wyoming, 1974

Read an Excerpt

The sapwood snaps and shifts in the low-bellied stove, and the heat swells up against the roofboards and weathered fir planking, and the whole small building seems to groan.

It's the first cool night of the fall-a good night for a sweat-and Einar adjusts his wet back and ass in the webbing of the lawn chair. He feels the full weight of his seventy years and wishes he'd thought to bring a towel to drape over the webbing, but he was in here just this spring and hadn't remembered one then either. He scoops a dipper of water from the pail beside the chair and casts it across the stovetop where it sizzles and steams.

He wishes he'd have known this was the way it was going to be.

"Some old son of a bitch should've explained getting old to me," he says aloud and then bows his head against the wet pulse of heat. "Some old son of a bitch probably did and I wasn't listening."

The sweat drips from his nose and chin.

He reaches his denim shirt from where he hung it on a nail, soaks it in the bucket and then stands to wring it and mop his face and chest.

He spreads the shirt over the chair and sits back down, staring at the chair that stands empty before him, both chairs raised up on this platform into the heat.

Through the west window he watches the amber moonlight on the pasture and remembers the fall they skidded in the fieldstones and mortared them into the foundation under this board floor. The building was Griffin's idea. He'd said: "Dad, I need it. I really do."
"You need a sauna?" Einar had asked.
"I'm a Viking," the boy said. "It's what the Vikings did."

All of this twenty years ago, Mitch helping them frame the walls and the headers for the door and windows, and Griffin just a boy, but already used to working with the diligence of a man. And not a boy who'd ever asked for much.

They put in a south-facing window, this one to the west, and a square of double-pane glass in the slanting roof so they could see the stars. And a smaller pane low in the east wall for the benefit of the boy's dog, so Karl could lie on the porch and stare in at them.

When they were finished, Griffin took each man by a hand, standing between them, and bowed his head. "God bless this place," he said. He was serious, original, not just repeating something he'd heard.

"Is there anything else you need?" Mitch had asked.

The boy shaded his eyes, looking up at the man. "You could sit in here with us." Mitch's face shone even blacker in the sun, like wet obsidian. "Even though I'm no Viking?" He bent down over the boy. "Even though my great-granddad was an African man?"
"Does that mean no?" Griffin asked.

Mitch shoved him away playfully, the way men roughhouse with boys. "I guess I won't," he said. "I believe I've sweated enough in this life already."

Einar smiles at the clarity of the memory. He works his jaw, and his ears pop as if he were descending from a great height. The old dog fidgets on the porch, then settles its grayed jowls on its crossed forepaws and stares in through the little window. His name's Karl, but it's not the original Karl, just another dog taken from the town shelter, worked and fed and given a place to rest and grow lame. The first Karl lies buried behind the barn. Dead and buried like his son, Griffin, and his wife, Ella.

He straightens in the chair and wonders if the dog wishes it had a boy for company. Not his boy, just some other kid. He wonders what it is that dogs long for, or if they long. Maybe they just wait patiently for some improvement in their lives. He thinks he's a man who knows something of waiting, but the heat's gotten to him and he feels his stomach come up and shorten his breath. He cracks a window and sucks at the draft of night air. He drops his head back and stares through the window in the roof.

Pegasus has risen in the dark sky, poised as if for a run of magic, or that's what he used to think. Now he looks at the stars and sees only a silent, uncaring witness, and tonight feels this press of steam-thick heat, smells the odor of living wood reduced to ash. No magic.

He pops a wooden match with his thumbnail and lights a candle on the shelf by his elbow. He shakes the match out and looks down at his shriveled thighs and worn knees. His legs are white as summer cloud, blue-veined. At least his arms and shoulders are still strong, and he tightens his chest, the muscles in his neck. To the empty chair he says, "I've always been puny through the hindquarters, from the get-go. That's not news."

He scoots forward on the chair and takes the quart Mason jar from the shelf, holds it below him and pisses it half full before setting it down by the water bucket. He thumbs the sweat from his eyebrows and blinks at the walls and shelves, at the fist-size chunks of agate and quartz, the petrified wood and half a dozen of the boy's favorite books. There're the hawk feathers he'd hung on the walls. The skull of a black baldy bull. A map of Norway cut out of a National Geographic, carefully, with a razor blade. One of Iceland. The picture of a bearded man in a horned helmet, and another of a tall black man with a spear, balanced on a single leg. Both from National Geographic, the Norseman and the Senegalese hunter. The boy saw himself as dangerous, raised as he was by the descendants of warriors.

Einar stares down at the dog again and thinks it would be a fine thing to have that kind of focus. To have a small window, with something to stare at on the other side. He wishes for his own window and wonders what he might see. He wonders if Mitch has gone to sleep for the night.

He pushes out of his chair and opens the door. He carries the jar at his side and steps to the edge of the porchboards and sloshes the piss out into the darkness. He stands steaming in the cool air. The dog shifts but doesn't rise, its hips so brittle with arthritis that it moves only when it must. Einar turns back to the doorway and says, "Just like old times."

The dog blinks its clouded eyes and yawns, and Einar thinks this is an animal that should be called out into the tall weeds and shot in the head and buried next to its namesake. But he knows Mitch would never stand for it. Mitch believes in suffering as a right, a burden, even sacred, for both man and beast.


She sits on the side of her bed and reaches back to run the flat of her hand over the sheet. She'd slept on her back, legs straight, arms at her sides. She can feel where the fabric's cool and where it's warm, just there, where her fingertips edge into the outline her sleeping body has made. She imagines the warmth whispering softly that she was here, but in a minute or two there'll be no proof she was ever in this bed, or even this trailer house, like she's invisible. She likes thinking that she can't be seen. It makes her smile.

She listens. There's the noise of her mother in the kitchen, the gurgle of the coffeemaker, water running at the sink. She stands and smooths the wrinkles on the bottom sheet, pulls up the top sheet and cotton blanket and tucks them tight, then fluffs the pillow at the head of the bed, her small hands working in the dim light. She climbs onto the bed and edges a fingernail under the heads of the thumbtacks pressed into the wallboard above the window. The tacks hold the brown bath towel she puts up every evening for a curtain, and they've worn divots in the wallboard, and little particles always fall out when she removes them, like sawdust, but she doesn't think the wallboards are made of wood. She doesn't fool herself about much. She knows everything in this trailer's fake, that it just tricks you into thinking it's real.

The window faces west, and she started putting the towel up in the summer so the setting sun wouldn't overheat her bed. But now it's the end of September, and she's grown used to sleeping in the darkened room. She folds the towel and places it on her pillow. Outside, a tractor is pulling a machine along the edge of a field, the cornstalks falling as it passes. She thinks she might ask Roy what this machine is called, not today, but sometime later. Roy puts guardrails up along the county roads, and since he needs machines to do that she thinks he might know what this one is called.

On the north side of the cornfield there's the interstate, with the cars and big trucks heading east and west filled with people who know nothing about her. She wonders if anyone ever looks her way, or imagines what it's like to live here. If they even notice the three crooked rows of old trailer houses, whose trees aren't big enough yet to climb or to shade the flat metal roofs. The dog next door barks, and she remembers it's Thursday and the garbage truck has turned in off the lane. She's never heard the neighbor dog's name.

She kneels by the bed and pulls out her suitcase and lifts it up on the blanket. Its clasp is rusted, its corners scuffed and peeling.

The first Thursday morning she saw the garbage truck she thought it looked a lot safer than the trailer houses, and all summer she prayed that if a tornado came it would be on a Thursday morning when she could hide in the garbage truck. Then the tornado could crumple this fakey trailer and suck Roy right up from the broken trailer parts and put him down somewhere else. She knows there's no use in killing the man who lives in the trailer. Dead or alive, her mother would just replace him. Before Roy in this trailer in Iowa there was Hank in the trailer in Florida, and before Hank there was Johnny in the little house that smelled like cat pee, and before Johnny there was Bobby. She can't remember Bobby very well, but there've been four. Everybody's mother is good at something. Her mother's good at finding the same man, no matter where she lives.

Her mother tells her that children are a calendar. She says it at least once a month, like it's some new idea she thought up all by herself. Her mother says that if she, Griff Evans Gilkyson, had never been born, never learned to walk, dress herself and speak, then she herself could still think she was a young woman. Griff thinks her very own calendar is her mother's men. Four men. About a year and a half for each one, and before that she was too little to keep track. She shrugs and whispers, "So, I'm nine and a half."

She strips off the T-shirt she slept in and folds it and lays it in the bottom of the suitcase. The suitcase smelled of mothballs and mildew when her mother bought it at the John 3:16 thrift shop, and it still does. She opens her hands flat and presses down against her chest. No titties, she thinks. She's still safe. She thinks that one morning she'll wake up with breasts, maybe the start of hair between her legs, and everything will begin to go wrong. Just like things have gone wrong for her mother. Breasts attract trailer houses and pickup trucks and lots and lots of tears. She wishes her father were still alive. If he weren't dead it would be safe to let her titties grow.

She puts on a pair of tan corduroy pants, a ribbed cotton chemise and a striped polo shirt. She laces her tennis shoes and opens the bottom drawer of her dresser. The dresser and the desk are made of the same pressed particleboard, and she likes them because they don't even try to look like wood. The drawers stick, so she has to be careful to keep them quiet.

She empties all the dresser drawers into the suitcase, every piece of clothing she owns. When she gets a bigger suitcase she'll get more clothes. No sense in owning something she'd need to leave behind. That wouldn't make any sense at all.

She slips her schoolbooks and notebooks into a small backpack. The backpack is orange, with zippered pockets on its sides for her pencils, pens and Magic Markers. Roy bought it for her. He told her orange was a good color for Iowa. "You'll be easy to spot whether there's snow or not," he'd said. "Some hunter won't think you're just a little brown rabbit and shoot you for dinner." She hates the backpack. She prays the tornado will get that too.

She kneels beside her bed and slips her hand between the mattress and box spring. When she feels the coolness of her diary she stops and listens. There's still just the sounds her mother's making in the kitchen, so she slides it out. The cover is lavender patent leather, so shiny she can see her reflection in it. She sits at her desk and opens the diary to its last page: THINGS I HATE ABOUT MY MOTHER.

1. I hate that she's pretty.
2. I hate that she thinks she's not pretty.
3. I hate that she works at the dry cleaners. (But I like Kitty, her boss.)
4. I hate that she doesn't know karate.
5. I hate that she likes the same music Roy likes.
6. I hate that she doesn't believe in God or angels.
7. I HATE that she makes us live in Iowa.

And this morning she adds:

8. I hate it that she's not really, really hairy. So hairy that only kangaroos would fall in love with her.

She's always especially liked that kangaroos travel with their own little pouches, like luggage.

She closes the diary and puts it in her suitcase and cracks her door open, then steps into the hallway and holds her breath. She listens. Her mother shuts off the water in the kitchen. Her mother and Roy's bedroom is at the end of the hallway and the door's closed. The bathroom is the next room toward the kitchen.

Reading Group Guide

“Spragg unfolds a marvelous, unsentimental family story.” —The New York Times

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Mark Spragg’s An Unfinished Life, a moving and memorable story about a family’s search for forgiveness.

1. Near the opening of the novel Griff thinks, “Everybody’s mother is good at something. Her mother’s good at finding the same man, no matter where she lives” [p. 8]. How has Griff been affected by witnessing Jean’s abuse at the hands of her boyfriends?

2. What does Griff’s diary tell us about her feelings for her mother? What is good about their relationship? Which scenes indicate that Jean is a good mother? What does Griff admire about Jean?

3. How important are routines in the lives of Mitch and Einar? How is their humanity revealed in their daily activities? Does the novel suggest that it is routine that keeps them alive? How does the arrival of Jean and Griff alter these routines, and who benefits most from the changes?

4. How does the mood and tone of the novel change when the setting switches to Wyoming? What is the effect of Wyoming life and landscape on Griff?

5. As he massages Mitch’s shoulders, Einar “knows if he shuts his eyes he’d forget they weren’t the same man, that he wasn’t working the liniment into some scarred part of himself” [p. 21]. Why is the bond Einar feels with Mitch so profound?

6. How do details like Mitch’s dreams and his antler carvings illuminate aspects of his character? How is Mitch’s personality a counterpoint to Einar’s, particularly in their dealings with Griff?

7. When Starla, the sheriff’s receptionist, offers Jean a pistol, what stereotype of battered women does she reveal she believes in? How does Jean respond? What acts of bravery does Jean commit to create a better life for herself and Griff? How accurate is the novel’s depiction of domestic violence?

8. What is the significance of the bear in Mitch and Einar’s relationship? Why does Mitch want to set the bear free? Does the bear have a symbolic as well as literal presence in the novel? Why is the series of events involved in setting the bear free so important?

9. What does Jean’s return home reveal about her character? What do we learn of her relationship with Griffin? Why does she put her box of belongings back into the hole in the closet floor [p. 172]? What does it mean for her “to believe in chance as random as weather” [p. 172]?

10. The story proceeds at a quick pace, with some details about the characters’ pasts implied but not stated directly. For instance, how long ago was Mitch attacked by the bear? When did Einar start drinking heavily? What was Ella like, and how did she die? What other questions does the plot raise? Does it matter that these questions aren’t answered?

11. Which scenes and details best express the way Einar reacts to the realities of aging? How does he attempt to combat the aging of his body and for what reasons? Why has Spragg chosen an excerpt from Mark Strand’s poem “Not Dying” for the novel’s epigraph?

12. Describe the most admirable elements of Griff’s character. In which scenes does she seem indomitable, and in which scenes is she vulnerable and scared? In what way does Griff seem wiser than a typical ten-year-old, and how has she become that way?

13. How do power and control define Roy’s relationship with Jean? When is Roy most dangerous? If the novel can be said to have two dangerous antagonists, Roy and the bear, which—the human or the animal—is more threatening?

14. What characteristics did Einar value most in his son? In what ways does Griff remind him of Griffin? If Griffin’s life was “unfinished” [p. 43], as his father emphasized, does Griff represent a chance for its completion?

15. How does Jean’s guilt affect her life and relationships? How does Einar’s grief affect his life and relationships? What does the novel suggest about people’s need to hold on to their pain? How do Jean and Einar change over the course of the novel?

16. Discuss the novel’s structure and narration. In what order is the story presented? From whose point(s) of view is the story told? With which character(s) does the reader become most intimately acquainted?

17. Describe Mark Spragg’s writing style. Is there a relationship between his style and the emotional impact of the story?

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Unfinished Life 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
MrsO More than 1 year ago
I usually pass books on that I've read to a thrift shop, but think I will keep this one on my bookshelf just in case I want to read it a second time. Einar and Mitch and Griff were instantly admirable and believable and the story was a little bit of everything from sad to funny to suspenseful. Each person was so well described that I could picture them in my mind as I read and didn't want the story to end because I don't know when I will find another story that I've enjoyed so much.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this novel, if you want a broken woman who needed something in her life and a man who needed healing then this is the book for you. I has almost everything you could have always wanted sex, violence, true love (not in a relationship kind of way), and family. I would strongly recommend this book for everyone who enjoys a good laugh and cry (I loved the movie also)... Pick up this book and read it you will fall in love with it as much as I have,
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mark Spragg's An Unfinished Life is an absolute treasure! Without a doubt one of the best novels of recent years. Exquisite! Highly recommended.
Deb32 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great book - I loved the relationships between the characters; they could be very touching. The writing was very good. Didn't see the movie as I am always disappointed if I have already read the book.
nyiper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very good "story" told in the different voices of the main characters in the audio version. There is a wonderful relationship between the two older men. The development of their feelings about Griff---as well as her complete appreciation of them, is a very satisfying reading experience. She is a very old ten-year-old.
kayceel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jean and daughter, with nowhere else to run, go to Jean¿s father-in-law, who blames her for his son's death. Loved the language and simplicity of description. Also, Einar (the father-in-law) and Mitch¿s lifelong friendship is wonderfully rich and deceptively simple.
Asperula on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great story of grief, commitment and connections.
tjsjohanna on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm sure that I read this book before - but I don't remember when. The movie was on t.v. a few weeks ago and the story was so familiar that I was surprised not to find the book in my LibraryThing account. I rectified that by re-reading the book. This is a beautiful book of redemption, of being able to forgive, of love. The characters are so well drawn and, with the exception of Roy, very likable, despite their flaws. There is some rough language, particularly when the story is told from the point-of-view of Roy - which makes sense but might be objectionable.
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AZ_Jim More than 1 year ago
Wow. Mark Spragg manages to do more with a sentence than most writers do with a chapter. The spare, beautiful language reminds me very much of Kent Haruf, who is evidently a friend of Spragg's. He creates characters that you care about and root for. Several times, I would stop reading to make sure that I took time to savor what I just read. I think that the best Spragg book that I've read is "Where Rivers Change Directiions," but this one comes in second.
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words917 More than 1 year ago
As a student of literature and fiction writing, to say I read a lot is an understatement. However, I rarely get to immerse myself in a book without seeing it through my rather brutal, analytical lens. Fortunately, Spragg's beautifully rendered narrative just wouldn't have it. The raw humanity of each character and the compassion with which their stories are unfolded is stunning, and there is much to be learned from the tenderness and forgiveness, the open-hearted approach to life's most wounded, and the blessing of lasting love and friendship that Spragg mines to bring this story to the page. I can't say nearly enough of this generous novel, or share it with as many people as ought to experience it. I've already added Spragg's other work to my shelf. I can't wait.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Mark Spragg's books should be bound in leather. They are classics. An Unfinished Life about ordinary people in Montana is lyrical, insightful, deep with emotion. I will keep it on my shelf to read again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most perfectly constructed, lovingly rendered novels I have ever read. Each character is portrayed with equal depth and we are able to see the humanity in each of them. I am an avid reader and, although I read many good books, the journey I took with this patchwork family was one of the best I've ever taken. Each character is rawly real and develops through the book. This is one of those books where the characters live on in your head long after the last page. The really great thing is that the author is able to zero in on the pain and the joy that each of us feels, until we are led to ah-ha moments, and this book is full of them. READ THIS BOOK!