Then Came the Evening
By Brian Hart
These discussion questions are designed to enhance your group’s conversation about Then Came
the Evening, a gritty and luminous novel about the repercussions of violence in the American West.
About this book
Bandy Dorner, a Vietnam veteran, awakes from an alcoholic bender to learn that his cabin has burnt to the ground, with his wife, Iona, presumed inside. Reeling from his losses, Bandy shoots and kills a police officer. Meanwhile Iona, alive and well, walks away from the ashes of her old life, without telling her new boyfriend that she is pregnant with Bandy’s child.
Eighteen years later, as Bandy awaits parole, he learns that he has a son, Tracy. Now that he is an adult, Tracy wants to reclaim his grandparents’ house in Lake Fork, Idaho. He is eager to prove
himself in Lake Fork – and to get away from his mother, Iona, who has turned reckless after her second husband’s death. When Tracy suffers a near-fatal accident, Iona returns to Lake Fork for
the first time in eighteen years. Bandy makes his way home, too, ravaged from his time in prison and unsure how to fit in with his ex-wife and son. Just as the three Dorners begin to rebuild their broken family, Bandy is forced commit one last crime. Iona and Tracy, abandoned again, resist the gravitational pull of land and family, staking new claims in their modernizing town. As Bandy struggles to return home, yet again, he must face the broken pieces of a family shattered by violence.
1. Then Came the Evening begins and ends with house fires, and Bandy also dreams of a
mill fire from Lake Fork’s history. Discuss who set each fire, and why: Bandy and Iona’s
cottage, Tracy’s restoration of his grandparents’ home, and the old mill fire. What is
destroyed in each of these blazes, and what is rebuilt?
2. Describe the opening scene of the novel, when Bandy Dorner commits the crime that
changes his life. Why is Bandy so violent when he awakes in the canal? How does the
situation escalate so quickly into murder? How does Bandy look back on this incident
during and after his jail sentence?
3. On her way toward a new life with Bill, Iona thinks, “Bill was no longer her shadow man;
he was in the light. Bandy was in the dark.” (9) Discuss the love triangle of Bandy, Iona,
and Bill. What does Bill offer Iona that Bandy cannot? What elements of light and
darkness exist within each of Iona’s romantic relationships?
4. In a review of Then Came the Evening, the New Yorker praises Brian Hart as “an astute
observer of the transitional Western landscape.” What changes to Lake Fork do Bandy,
Iona, Tracy, and Wilhelm witness? How do they feel about their evolving town?
5. As Tracy approaches the old Dorner house for the first time, “He wondered, on a blood
level, how much do you get from one parent and how much do you get from the other?”
(22) What personality traits does Tracy have in common with each of his parents, Iona
and Bandy? Which traits seem entirely his own?
6. Consider Iona’s character at the beginning, middle, and end of the novel. How does Iona
change between the year she leaves Lake Fork with Bill and the year she returns with
Tracy? What low point does Iona reach on her fortieth birthday in Spokane? How does
she turn her life around? Do Tracy and Bandy seem to appreciate Iona’s self-reinvention?
Why or why not?
7. Consider the relationship between the Dorner and Guntly families. Why does Wilhelm
Guntly hold a grudge against Bandy Dorner, and how does his relationship with Tracy
affect those old resentments? Why does Iona refuse to identify with Ellen Guntly’s
checkered past in Kansas City? Why do you think Ellen continues to bring Bandy
groceries during his last winter illness?
8. Discuss the rekindled romance between Bandy and Iona. Why does Iona allow Bandy
back in her bed after eighteen years apart? What regrets does she have after Bandy leaves
9. After living under the same roof as Bandy, Tracy decides that “his ideas about family
suddenly seemed very childish.” (147) What does Tracy expect of Bandy when he invites
him to live in the house? How does Bandy fulfill or disappoint his son’s expectations?
Why, after the murderous trip to Butte, can Bandy “tell in some small way that his son
was actually proud of him, of what he’d done?” (243) Discuss Tracy’s pride and shame
of his father at the end of the novel.
10. As he relearns to walk after his accident, Tracy realizes, “Accidents happen and
afterwards it’s just a matter of salvage. Maybe all the time it’s a matter of letting what
you can while you can, haul the lumber up the bank, save what you can from the fire. Let
it go.” (209) Over the course of the novel, what does Tracy learn about accidents,
consequences, and letting go? Which accidents must Tracy recover from, and what
thoughts, feelings, and possessions must he let go of?
11. Although the novel takes place in Midwestern America, two international wars are
happening in these years: the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. How do the novel’s
characters talk about each of these wars? How does each war affect everyday life in Lake
12. Compare Bandy and Tracy’s reactions when they find out that it was Dan Cole who
stripped the Dorner house. How are their reactions similar, and how are they different?
Why is Jack’s footlocker so important to Bandy? What does he discover when he gets it
13. Review Bandy’s long journey from Butte back to Lake Fork, with a terrifying detour into
a river. How does this journey compare to Bandy’s ordeals in prison? How does Bandy
manage to survive these terrifying situations and find his way home twice?
14. Discuss how violence is passed on from one generation to another in the novel. How does
Tracy suffer for Bandy’s crimes? How do Jake and Olin absorb the fight between Tracy
and Dan Cole at the Piatt house? Iona hopes that “With grandchildren came a promise of
redemption” (251) – can these cycles of violence come to an end? Why or why not?
15. When Iona realizes Bandy has died, “She hated herself for being relieved.” (254) Discuss
Iona’s feelings at this moment. Why do relief and self-hatred mix in with grief? Why
does Iona respond to these feelings with fire?
16. At the end of the novel, Bandy can’t bear to slaughter Tracy’s steer, Lyman, while Tracy
makes his first kill during a hunting trip with Wilhelm and the Piatt brothers. Why can
Tracy now shoot and kill, and Bandy cannot? What is the significance of each man’s new
relationship to violence and the land?
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men; Philipp Meyer, American
Rust; Larry Brown, Father and Son; Ron Carlson, The Signal and Five Skies; Robert Stone, Dog
Soldiers; Sam Shepard, Day Out of Days: Stories; Jim Harrison, The Farmer’s Daughter; Annie
Proulx, Brokeback Mountain; Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned; Jane
Smiley, Private Life.
Born in Idaho, Brian Hart spent years working as a carpenter, welder, commercial fisherman, and framer of elevator shafts before earning his MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. He was the winner of the 2005 Keene Prize, one of the largest student prizes for literature.