English 251: Introduction to Literature

Study Guide
to Robert Olen Butler's "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain"

Use your initial reading of the work to get your general bearings in it.

What is going on here? 

What is the general situation of the story?       Who tells it?        What's his history, and where is he now?

Are there any words you need to look up in a dictionary?  (The editors provide a number of useful notes.  Still, there may be some elements of the work's vocabulary with which you are unfamiliar.  Use a good college desk dictionary.  A paperback version will be too skimpy for this purpose.)

There are a few allusions it will be helpful to be aware of during your first reading.  They are indexed here by paragraph.

¶19:  Woodrow Wilson was the President of the United States, Lloyd George the Prime Minister of England, and Georges Clemenceau was the Prime Minister of France, representing the victors of World War I at the negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles (signed at the Palace of Versailles, outside of Paris, France) at the end of what was then known as the Great War (and afterwards as World War I).  England and France were the pre-eminent European colonial powers, with extensive occupations throughout the "third world."  India, for example, was a British "possession," along with a number of territories in Africa.  France had long been entrenched in Algeria and several sub-Saharan territories in Africa, as well as in Indo-China (Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam).

¶21:  La Vie Ouvrière -- "The Worker's Life" -- was a newspaper published by the French Communist Party in those days.

¶75:  General Thiêu was the final one of a succession of heads of state of the Republic of South Vietnam, which came to an end with the American evacuation of Saigon.

Do not read further in this Study Guide until you have completed your first reading of the work.

Before you undertake your second reading,  you should be clear about the answers to the following questions

How did the narrator and Quóc come to know each other in the old days?  Where?  What was each doing there?

What has happened to the newspaper editor in the local immigrant community?  Who is behind this, and for what reason?  What is the division of opinion in the community about this happening?

What is the significance, for the narrator, of his daughter's response concerning his question about the doorknob?

In your second reading:

Get clear on the "punctuation" of the narrative:  where do the distinct and successive apparitions begin and end.

Is there a progression here?  If so, what are the deeper differences that distinguish the successive encounters?

You should sharpen your sense of the differences and sympathies between Ho Chí Minh (Nguyên Aí Quóc) and the narrator, Ðao.

You may want to divide these into those that emerged in "the old days" and those that surface in the present encounter.

In particular:  how should we understand the essential spirit of the particular kind of Buddhism that the narrator has chosen to follow?  How does this affect his attitude towards life?

How are we to understand the particular assumptions and allegiances of Quóc (Ho)?

Are there any surprises here from what you might have been led to suspect, as an American who has heard about the Vietname War from whatever sources these pictures came to you?

[Does the biographical note on p. 397 dispose you to take the story as a useful guide to your framing questions about this historical episode, or does it prompt you to dismiss the story as "unreliable"?]

And you'll want to get into clear focus the differences and sympathies between Ðao and the members of his extended family in America.  Specifically:  how does the narrator feel towards/about each of the following, and why?

his son-in-law?

his daughter?

his grandson?

his deceased wife?

Take careful note of what Quóc was seeking from Woodrow Wilson, and what the result of his efforts was.  What are we to suppose explains this result?

In ¶28, the narrator says:  I had always admired the sense of humor of my friend Quóc, so I said, "You never did stop painting the blush into the faces of Westerners."  What is this referring to in the Parisian past of Ho?  What is is referring to later on?  (How is this an example of both pun and verbal irony?)

What are we to make of Ho's response?

Who is Monsieur Escoffier?  What role does he play in the history between the two main figures?

Do not read further in this Study Guide until you have completed your second reading of the work.

In your third reading:

Pay special attention to the obvious motif of smells.

Do the smells here all indicate "the same thing," or do they organize themselves into distinct groups, with possibly different implications?

Key items to incorporate into your reflections are the following.  (They are not the only ones, only the most obvious.)

At the very end of the the story the narrator states:  "His kitchen was full of such smells that you knew you had to understand everything or you would be incomplete forever."  What is he driving at here, and how are we to feel about him on the basis of the answer you give.  Explain.

Is the narrator a sympathetic and admirable character?

Is the person who appears (in what we take to be his waking dreams) also a sympathetic and admirable character, as he imagines him?

Can you explain your answers?

Is there a climactic moment in this story?  Does it involve an epiphany?  (Can you explain your answer?)

  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to lyman@ksu.edu

  Contents copyright © 2000 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 11 February 2003.