Summary and book reviews of An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg

An Unfinished Life

by Mark Spragg

An Unfinished Life
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2004, 272 pages
    Aug 2005, 272 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

Set in the high-country of Wyoming, this is a riveting tale of hard-won friendship, old wounds, fresh pain and love lost and found.

"One of the truest and most original new voices in American letters," as Kent Haruf has written, Mark Spragg now tells the story of a complex, prodigal homecoming.

Jean Gilkyson is floundering in a trailer house in Iowa with yet another brutal boyfriend when she realizes this kind of life has got to stop, especially for the sake of her daughter, Griff. But the only place they can run to is Ishawooa, Wyoming, where Jean's loved ones are dead and her father-in-law, the only person who could take them in, wishes that she was too. For a decade, Einar Gilkyson has blamed her for the accident that took his son's life, and he has chosen to go on living himself largely because his oldest friend couldn't otherwise survive. They've been bound together like brothers since the Korean War and now face old age on a faltering ranch, their intimacy even more acute after Mitch was horribly crippled while Einar helplessly watched.

Of course, ten-year-old Griff knows none of this–only that her father is dead and her mother has bad taste in men. But once she encounters this grandfather she'd never heard about, and the black cowboy confined to the bunkhouse, with irrepressible courage and great spunk she attempts to turn grievous loss, wrath, and recrimination–to which she's naturally the most vulnerable–toward reconciliation and love.

Immediately compelling and constantly surprising, rich in character, landscape, and compassion, An Unfinished Life shows a novelist of extraordinary talents in the fullness of his powers.


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...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book

Jean Gilkyson works in a dry-cleaning shop and lives with her boyfriend Roy in his trailer in Iowa. Her nine-year-old daughter, Griff, has made her mother promise that the next time Roy beats Jean up they will leave him, so Griff is thrilled when she and her mother finally drive away alone, determined to start a new life. When the car breaks down and the money runs out, Jean takes Griff to a place she's never told her about before: her hometown in Wyoming. For years, Jean has been running away from the night when her young husband, Griffin, died in a car accident while she was driving. His father, Einar, has never forgiven Jean for the accident that took his son's life. Einar's wife died at forty-one, leaving...
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BookBrowse Review


Somewhat similar in style to Kent Haruf's Plainsong - but grittier.  The voice of the abusive boyfriend, Roy, is particularly convincing.  In the interview that you can read at BookBrowse, Spragg says that the most difficult part of the book was to convey Roy's voice accurately, particularly 'his sense of being misunderstood, his burning righteousness and his sentimentality of violence'.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (268 words).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

An old rancher reluctantly takes in his daughter-in-law and granddaughter in this moving and well-crafted, if rather derivative, second novel by Spragg (The Fruit of Stone). 

Booklist - Bill Ott

Starred Review. Spragg completes a sparkling hat trick with his second novel, following his equally fine debut, The Fruit of Stone (a Booklist Top 10 First Novel in 2002), and his much-acclaimed memoir Where Rivers Change Direction (1999)....Each word counts for more than it says in this achingly beautiful story of courage and endurance. Spragg belongs in the same category with such tough-and-tender western writers as William Kittredge, Ivan Doig, and Larry Watson. 

Library Journal - Bette-Le Fox

Highly recommended for general fiction collections. 

Author Blurb Pam Houston
Mark Spragg invents characters that are as richly drawn and lovingly rendered as the landscape in which he sets them down. An Unfinished Life is honest, engaged, deeply satisfying, and full of an uncanny grace that resides both in the beauty of the language and in these valuable lives.

Author Blurb William Kittredge
Wyoming, its winds and distances, never quits. What a pleasure it is to watch a few of its hard-forged citizens stay with the task of forgiving, cherishing and caring for one another. Mark Spragg has got the territory dead right in this moving testimony to seeing things through.

Author Blurb Jeffrey Lent
Mark Spragg's An Unfinished Life is a tremendously accomplished, elegantly written and paced tale of love and loss, the bonds of grief and blood, and the complex turnings of the human heart. This is a heartbreaking yet uplifting novel that is most deeply satisfying. These characters, these people, will remain with me a long, long time.

Reader Reviews


I'm moving to Wyoming
My local library highlighted An Unfinished Life as an appropriate bookclub selection and I'm glad they brought it to my attention - I loved reading it. Mark Spragg draws a full and engaging picture of several lives intersecting with vivid emotional ...   Read More


Where's Robert Duvall?
I just finished reading "An Unfinished Life" and loved it. The characters were real and it was easy to identify with their emotions and the situations. The little girl, Griff, was wise beyond her years with very few child-like traits. She seemed ...   Read More


Nice read
This was a nice read - not spectacular, just really nice. As I read it I felt as if I was part of this family. I enjoyed all of the characters, especially Griff, the young girl. I am very interested to see the movie version now.

C. Hutt

An Unfinished Life
The cover caught my eye. Being a Wyoming native antlers are a part of my life. Once I started reading the book I could not put it down. So many of the situations are familliar to me...not just the story line but the "local way of Ishawoa life"...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Before this book, Spragg published a memoir (Where Rivers Change Direction, 1999) and a novel, The Fruit of Stone.  The movie of An Unfinished Life (starring Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez) was originally due to be released around Christmas 2004 but is now scheduled for September this year.  Spragg and his...

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