The Heart of a Distant Forest

A Novel by Philip Lee Williams

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About the book

Retired history professor Andrew Lachlan has returned to his family home on a pond in central Georgia to die. And yet, despite suffering from the first stages of cancer, he has never felt so alive, so ready to learn about the natural world around him.

Having taught all his life, he is ready for quiet solitude. But a young country boy, Willie Sullivan, disrupts Andrew’s search for order and rekindles memories Andrew thought long dead. While Andrew tries to teach Willie and become the family Willie lacks, another connection links Andrew to his past.

He becomes involved with Callie McKenzie, a woman he loved years earlier, and they soon begin to see in each other reflections of the lives they once led. This novel, in the form of Andrew’s journal of his last year by the pond, leads him to a deeper understanding of himself and the world.

About the author

Philip Lee Williams won the Townsend Prize in 1986 for The Heart is a Distant Forest, which was his first novel. He is the author of eleven books, including The True and Authentic History of Jenny Dorset (Georgia) and Crossing Wildcat Ridge (Georgia). His most recent novel, A Distant Flame, won the 2005 Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. Williams lives with his family near Athens, Georgia.

For discussion

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a novel in the form of a journal? How does the format lend immediacy to Andrew’s year by Shadow Pond? Name some other books that use the “solitary sojourn” as a story’s background.
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  3. Andrew has spent his life teaching history at a junior college. Why do you think the author placed him there instead of at a major research university? What is Andrew’s attitude toward American Indian history and how does his own lifestyle reflect it?
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  5. Why does the author create a relationship between Andrew and Willie Sullivan? What does each character get out of it?
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  7. How do the opinions of the natural world differ between Willie and Andrew? Give some reasons why Andrew has retreated to the country of his childhood to spend his last months.
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  9. Why is Andrew drawn to re-establish a relationship with Callie McKenzie, who had been his girlfriend from decades before? What does each of them get out of the relationship?
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  11. How do the characters in the book approach their spiritual lives and how does nature intersect with those lives?
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  13. As a professor of history, Andrew has lived much of his life in the past. But what are the limitations of such a life? How does Andrew’s current situation make such a life more or less valuable?
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  15. Life keeps intruding on Andrew’s desire to live out his life in solitude. Does this happen as a matter of chance or does Andrew put himself in the position of needing human companionship?
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  17. How does humor play a part in The Heart of a Distant Forest? What characters would you consider humorous characters and why?
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  19. What is Andrew’s attitude toward aging and death? Does he fight against them or does he seek a pathway toward acceptance? Several people die during the course of the novel. How does Andrew react to their passings?
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  21. What does The Heart of a Distant Forest tell us about fathers and sons? How does the relationship between Willie and Andrew come to mirror that of a father and son, or does it?
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  23. Stories are usually built on archetypes—stories that have been told over and over since the beginning of time. What archetypes can you identify in The Heart of a Distant Forest?
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  25. Even though the novel is in the form of a journal, the author uses dialogue extensively. How does this dialogue help move the story along?
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  27. Near the end of his life, Andrew writes: “I do not know if there is a God or if there is goodness or evil in the earth. I have lost too much. I will praise what I can embrace.” How does Andrew, as an academic, view doubt? Does this passage indicate a positive or negative attitude on his part?
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  29. The novel is in a circular format—it ends at the pond where it begins. What other “circles,” in character or plot, can you find in the novel?