American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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American Gods is an epic story that does something no other story has done: it describes the life-cycle of a god. In other words, the life-cycle of a system of beliefs. Gaiman weaves this concept into the story of Shadow, a man released a few days early from his prison sentence when his wife dies in a car accident. Shadow meets Mr. Wednesday on the plane ride home, a man who has an uncomfortable familiarity with Shadow’s life. When he is lured into making a compact with Mr. Wednesday, the story takes off—and we are introduced to a cast of characters, human and god. Shadow find himself in the middle of their conflict…and he must choose a side to survive. American Gods is a fascinating, engrossing novel on what it means to believe in something. Gaiman’s original story asks and answers questions you’ve never dreamed of: what happens to the gods, demons, and fairies when the people who believe in them come to America? How do they survive when people no longer believe in them? American Gods is a glimpse of the many different cultures represented in America as we follow Shadow and Mr. Wednesday on a great American tradition—the road trip!

Jump to American Gods Discussion Questions

This book club was a lot of fun, and not just because it had a lot more alcohol than usual! I wanted to include the drinks used to seal the compact at the beginning of the novel: Jack Daniels for Mr. Wednesday, Southern Comfort and coke for Mad Sweeney, and mead for Shadow…and also, Ketel One vodka for Czernobog <3. I really enjoyed American Gods. I love the creepiness that Gaiman inherently sprinkles throughout his books. I love the rich writing that draws you into a character or a scene and makes it stick in your memory. I love the vignettes interspersed throughout the novel showcasing how each religion either arrived in America or died out with its last believer. The stories felt genuinely rooted in each of their individual cultural contexts, they helped break up the story and keep the pace moving forward, and taken together they were a philosophical exercise on how we interact with religion. Do gods exist without humans? In Shadow’s words,

I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do.

American Gods introduces the concept that things we devote our time and resources to are the things we worship: in modern society, these things are foremost media and technology. The TV series adaptation elaborates on this theme by adding even more new gods, including new media (adjacent to technology), gods of conspiracy theories, globalization, cars, guns, cosmetic surgery, and drugs. I was waiting for them to show up in the book, so it was super fun to see them in the show. Also, what an interesting mental exercise / reality check—what are your devotions? What do you treat with respect and reverence? Where do you put your energy and your time? Is that what you consider worship? What if you were creating gods with the energy you were putting into your life. What would those gods look like?

Wine Selection & Tasting Notes

Danish Mjod Vikin Blod Mead. Very sweet honey-wine. Almost like a sherry. The hibiscus is detectable. The hops are not. The high alcohol is deceptive.

Research Into Gods & Myths

Gaiman did a great deal of research into different cultures, myths, and coming-to-America stories. The gods and myths that are included in American Gods are glimpse into bigger stories, it makes you want to find out more. This website has some great info on Mr. Wednesday, Mad Sweeney, Bilquis, Mr. Nancy, Czernobog, Ostara, the Jinn,  and the Zorya sisters. Here’s a discussion on Shadow’s identity

Exploring America’s Painful History

American Gods does something else really cool – in telling the story of different gods and myths in America, Gaiman tells they story of the multi-cultural beauty of America and the dark reality of slavery in our history. Through Gaiman’s coming-to-America vignettes, it’s painfully clear that some people came to America by choice, and some did not. Gaiman doesn’t shy away from the evils of humanity, and nowhere is it clearer than in the story of Agasu/Inky Jack/Hyacinth. Yes, his torturous life as a slave was in St. Dominique, but we know the abuse of slaves occurred in America, as well.  It’s hard to imagine such a horrifying past belonging to our country, but for the good of our future we must remember the sins of our past. American Gods tells us stories from our past, stories that should be told.

Female Characters Get More Attention in the Show

Here are the areas of the novel that I found less successful. In American Gods, the female characters were not as well developed. Perhaps Gaiman is more comfortable writing male characters. It’s even more evident when you watch the show and see how much more story is written in for the female characters that you notice its absence in the book. For example, I enjoyed seeing Bilquis in the show in the height of her glory as Queen of Sheba; the elaboration on her struggles living on nearly no worship in modern times was tragic and palpable. While her sexual story was still very present, the story of her power and her fall was also told. Laura in the show also received some love, as her character was fleshed out even as it lost flesh (haha…sorry). The show pulled a move that was simultaneously gross and fun when they

Laura’s emotions in life, including struggles with depression and conflicted feelings for Shadow, were very relatable. As an anchor character in the show, it was great to see her struggle to find meaning in life (a theme which resonates with the overarching theme of the show), and come to understand that she did want to live—even without the answers.

Shadow’s Role

The group brought something to my attention about Shadow that I hadn’t noticed. Throughout the book, his character remains flat—he doesn’t experience an arc, and he is largely propelled by the actions of other characters. Now that the other girls pointed it out, I can see it. He is what I call a “King Arthur” character. He is not interesting to read about, but he is the main character—all events occur around him. He is normally ethically-bound, strong, self-sacrificing….and a little bit boring. I’m going to fight for him a little bit, and argue that the only reason Shadow is boring is because he doesn’t change. He’s the same person at the beginning that he is at the end. He just knows more things. Even after his

 he acts like the same person afterwards! Who would be the same after that? This is hard for me to say, because I do love Shadow, but it is true that he remains constant in an unrealistic way. I suppose it’s hard not to love an underdog <3.

I thought it was pretty twisted how the show made Vulcan, the god of fire and the forge, a weapons manufacturer. Now every death from a gun produced in his facility is a ‘sacrifice’ for him and gives him power. What a gruesome and clever character to add to the story. According to this article, his story is based on a real steel town Neil Gaiman once visited in Alabama with a statue of Vulcan in it (there’s also one in Birmingham), where it was cheaper to pay out the families of those who suffered fatal accidents than it was to shut down manufacturing to repair the factory.

Selected Quotes

I had sort of lower expectations of American Gods. as my previous experience with Gaiman was not the best. It was either too upsetting (Coraline) or too pretentious (Good Omens) to enjoy. But I really did enjoy this one. Here are some of my favorite moments in American Gods:

Shadow looked at the corpse of the baby deer. He decided that if he were a real woodsman, he would slice off a steak and grill it over a wood fire. Instead, he sat on a fallen tree and ate a Snickers bar and knew that he really wasn’t a real woodsman.

Ten more minutes of walking, he guessed, and the bridge seemed to be no nearer. He was too cold to shiver. His eyes hurt. This was not simply cold: this was science fiction. … This, thought Shadow, is just a hair away from the places where air comes in buckets and pours just like beer.

There’s always been a God shaped hole in Man’s head; trees were the first to fill it.

(Alright you caught me, this quote came from the TV show, BUT Gaiman’s an executive producer so I’m pretty sure it had his blessing.)

And I’ll close with what I imagine to be the thesis statement of American Gods:

People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.

American Gods Discussion Questions

  1. Coming soon!