English 321 – American Frontier Literature

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Discussion Questions: The Jump-Off Creek

from Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin Company Reader’s Guide


  1. Did you enjoy reading this book?  Why?  Share with the class a passage in the book that stayed with you after you finished the book.
  2. Ursula Le Guin says that The Jump-Off Creek describes “the West behind the swaggering and hokum” and other critics claim that the novel dispels all of our stereotypes of the West and the frontier.  What myths and stereotypes of the West does Gloss challenge?
  3. Consider the literary conventions that we associate with the classic Western novel.  What conventions does Gloss use in her narrative?  What conventions does she discard?
  4. What details of frontier life emerge from Molly Gloss’s portrait of the Blue Mountain homesteaders in the 1890s?  What is the significance of the name Jump-Off Creek for Lydia and the earlier pioneer women with whom she feels kinship?
  5. What has driven Lydia Sanderson to homestead on her own in the remote, sparsely populated Blue Mountains of Oregon?  What is the significance of her statement to Blue Odell that “I was seeking the boundless possibilities that are said to live on the frontier”?  What are some of these boundless possibilities, and do they change for Lydia?
  6. In Chapter Four, we learn that Lydia “had a habit of going quick in these events, before the misgiving would set in.”  What instances are we shown of Lydia’s “going quick” (15, 16) when confronted with difficulty or danger?  In what ways does this habit serve her well, or not?
  7. In Chapter Thirteen, Blue sees Lydia “hiding [a] little flash of satisfaction” (60) when she brings down a calf for the first time.  Why does this incident fill Lydia with such satisfaction?  What other activities provide Lydia with a sense of reward or pleasure?
  8. Lydia writes in her journal, “I am used to being Alone, in spirit if not body, and shall not be Lonely, as I have never been inclined that way” (1).  Yet, Evelyn Walker, in Chapter 16, reflects on her own loneliness and triggers a similar unspoken response on Lydia’s part.  How does Lydia deal with being alone?  How is Lydia’s journal entry similar to Henry David Thoreau’s attitude toward solitude as expressed in Walden?
  9. What gender issues are raised in this novel?
  10. How would you describe the reality of women’s lives on the Northwest frontier?  How does each woman—Lydia, Evelyn Walker, Doris Oberfield—cope with the challenges of living as a woman, single or married, on the frontier?
  11. Every once in a while Lydia feels “a sudden itchy need for sympathy, or for forgiveness” or for just some human interaction.  In what ways does she deal with those needs?


  1. Why do you think details of Lydia’s Pennsylvania past and her reasons for heading west begin to emerge nearly halfway through the novel, after we have already begun to form an impression of her?   What details of Lydia’s past help explain her determination to go it alone, and change our view of her?
  2. We learn of Lydia, as she is stitching up Blue’s back:  “She was tender, but pitiless, having never gained pity and so never learning it.”  What are some of the hardships endured by Lydia and the others that require both tenderness and an absence of pity?
  3. What might be Tim’s motives for suggesting marriage to Lydia (108), and Lydia’s for saying no?  What other indications are there that marriage is expected of Lydia and other women?
  4. As cold nights return in October, Lydia admits that she “had no instinct yet for the weather in this country.”  How does Lydia prepare for the onset of winter?  Are her preparations adequate?
  5. One of Tim Whiteaker’s infrequent aphorisms is “Carelessness is something that will get people killed.”  What does he mean by this?  What instances are there of carelessness and of caregiving, and what are the consequences of each?
  6. Lydia notes that Tim and Blue’s house “looked well established and was soundly built.”  And Gloss adds, “She set a high value on those things.”  What are some other examples of what Lydia values?  Are her values “feminine” or universal?
  7. This story takes place in the early 1890s.  What is the significance of that period of frontier history to the novel?
  8. In her first journal entry at Jump-Off Creek, Lydia writes, “I have not lost Heart, having done so in years past and no false hopes this time.  There are Graces at all events” (35).  What are the “Graces” to which she refers?  What additional graces does she discover during the subsequent six months?
  9. What impact does the wolf bounty have on the motivations and actions of the Blue Mountain homesteaders, trappers, and ranchers?  What are the consequences?
  10. What is the “quick, small grief” that Lydia unexpectedly feels when she learns that Evelyn Walker will go to her mother’s to have her baby?  Why does Lydia experiences this grief, which she finds inexplicable?
  11. What are some of the ways in which the outside world encroaches on the inhabitants of the Blue Mountains?
  12. How does The Jump-Off Creek change what you thought you knew about the West, men’s and women’s roles on the frontier, and homesteading at the turn of the century?  What was the biggest surprise or challenge to a preconception you might have had about frontier homesteading?