An unfinished life in Wyoming

  A new novel from Wyoming’s own Mark Spragg relies less on the distinctive landscape of the West and instead explores the more universal territory of a fractured family. Still, most of An Unfinished Life unfolds on a Wyoming ranch near fictional Ishawooa, "elevation 5,313, population 1,783."

Seventy-year-old Einar Gilkyson lives a lonely life on a rundown spread with Mitch, a Korean war buddy who is now a morphine-dreaming invalid, injured in a grizzly attack. Einar’s wife, Ella, died at the age of 41 and his son, Griffin, was killed at 21, when his truck rolled over. Griffin’s wife, Jean, had fallen asleep at the wheel, an accident for which Einar has never forgiven her. Out of penance, perhaps, Jean has drifted from one mistake to another, dragging her child Griff through all the ashes of her fiery relationships. On the morning the novel begins, Jean and Griff are in a trailer in Iowa that belongs to the abusive Roy. Jean has a black eye and a bruised jaw. The courageous Griff, whose 9-and-half-year-old point of view is expertly and sensitively expressed by the author, has already packed her few clothes and diary. She knows her mother’s habits too well to ever feel settled. Mother and daughter hit the road to Wyoming.

No happy homecoming awaits Jean at Einar’s, but the granddaughter the rancher never knew he had slowly wins his heart. Einar’s exchanges with Griff are some of the most powerful moments in the novel.

"Are those pictures of my dad?"

"Yeah, they are. The football helmet was his in high school."

"Where does he live now?"

Einar sits in a chair. There’s already a heap of clothes on the seat, but he just sits on top of them.

"He’s dead. Didn’t your mother tell you that?"

"She said you were dead too."


As with most family stories, An Unfinished Life does not end tidily. What lingers long after readers turn the final page is an unforgettable portrayal of the irrepressible Griff. She is the heartbeat of this novel and in her character, Spragg has created a masterpiece.

An Unfinished Life
Mark Spragg
272 pages, hardcover $23.
Knopf, 2004.