‘Sometimes a Great Notion’

Aaron J. BrownCome look: Where the big pile of uncracked books rises up against the ocean of my bed, see the wide river of reading failure flow down to the ocean, ebbing back up with the tide of unfinished scripts and banal blog posts. But I did finish reading one book, one big, rickety book that came out before the space age, back when we thought there might be a space age. Fifty years. 1964. The old days, but not the good old days.

A week ago, I rode a quota of logs down to the mill, finally finishing “Sometimes a Great Notion” by Ken Kesey. A week later it’s still gnawing at me. Who do you tell about a thing like this? I figure I’ll write it up

Still considered the quintessential novel about the American Pacific Northwest, “Sometimes A Great Notion” is one of those books you’d put on a list for the arguably cliche motif of the “Great American Novel,” the impossible ideal that hack writers like me sweat through our sheets hoping to write someday. And it is a great book — flawed, but epic in its imagination and risk-taking. I am partly embarrassed for having not discovered it until now, having read and enjoyed Kesey’s more famous “One Flew Over te Cuckoo’s Nest” in high school.”Sometimes a Great Notion” introduces us to a family of loggers near the Oregon coast. The Stampers came west with the surge of settlement of the early 1900s and stuck, if only because there was no more West but the unforgiving expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Patriarch Henry Stamper imparted one slogan to his who family, a sentiment that rules the whole book:”Never Give An Inch.” Even in his advancing age and increasing infirmity, his stubborn, relentless drive rules the story.

Henry’s son Hank runs the logging operation and mill now, emerging from his father’s shadow as an impressive person in his own right, though just as stubborn. The family operation is in the process of breaking a strike by the loggers and mill workers in town, pitting them not only against the dangerous work of the forest, but against virtually every other person in the book.

imageEnter Hank’s younger half brother Leland Stamper, a bookish schizophrenic beatnik hell-bent on punishing Hank for a childhood wrong and you can see how this takes off. The title, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” is taken from the old folk song “Goodnight, Irene,” and fans of that song will see something in the formation of this story.

As you can imagine, the story spans generations and touches on the notion of fate and free will (as any story with stubborn characters might). The challenge of reading “Sometimes a Great Notion” comes in the voice. This isn’t a first person narrative, nor is it third. The book is written in dozens of voices, which alternate page to page, but also paragraph to paragraph. It takes a good 100 pages to fully orient yourself with the voice, but the result is refreshing once you have the rhythm.

The death of one of the book’s most likable characters near the end is one of the most tragically, touchingly written passages I’ve read in recent memory. And the way the book conveys Hank’s overwhelming physical strength is interesting. We don’t see him fight until the big family battle at the end. His legend permeates the action before and after all preceding fights occur. This was an impressive way to build for the climactic scene.

Kesey’s flaw in “Sometimes a Great Notion” might be a product of his times, his own hang-up or something else, but it stands out in 2014 to this reader: women. The novel is blessed with a wonderful female character in Hank’s wife Viv Stamper, but she receives far less treatment and understanding than at least four of the male Stampers. Her choice in the end feels like a mystery. All of the other female characters are either nagging wives of sad men, literal or figurative whores, or dead. Old classics like Moby Dick are similarly bereft of fully formed women, but also do not try — and “Sometimes a Great Notion” is modern enough to know at least a little better. This imbalance might have been part of the culture of 1960s Oregon, but it takes about two seconds of qualitative research to understand that women matter greatly, even in patriarchal societies, and that a novel about real people in their family lives cannot overlook this.

In short: this uber-omniscient narrator is a bit of a sexist, which means this narrator is not omnibenevolent, ergo the narrator is not God; he’s Ken Kesey, a whacked out 1960s writer known for his hippie lifestyle and eccentric interviews. But the story is powerful, especially for people with mommy/daddy issues like yours truly. I can’t promise everyone’s experience would be the same. But it was a haunting story that will reverse the notions you had when you started, and a few times more during your worthwhile reading of “Sometimes a Great Notion.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. The next show is 5-7 p.m. this upcoming Saturday, June 14 at Vermilion Community College in Ely. Call 800-662-5799 to reserve free tickets. This post first appeared in the Sunday, June 8, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune


  1. John Ramos says

    A good book, made into a good movie starring and directed by Paul Newman.

    For another great American novel from about the same time period that deals with mommy/daddy issues, I would suggest Joyce Carol Oates’s fantastic and disturbing book them.

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