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. 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. What makes Shadow such a compelling protagonist? What are his most appealing qualities? At what crucial points in the novel does he demonstrate courage, compassion, intelligence, a willingness to sacrifice himself? What does his relationship with Laura reveal about him? What is the significance of his obsession with coin tricks?
  2. At the end of the novel, Shadow thinks to himself: “People believe…. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.” Would you agree that what people believe in are largely projections of their own needs and desires? What does Shadow mean when he says their beliefs “make things happen”?
  3. To what extent do you agree or disagree that other cultures are subsumed into American culture? Do you see this as good thing or a bad thing or both?

“The use of the gods was … to talk about the way people come to America and abandon culture, abandon places they came from and what they brought with them, and what happens to the things they’ve forgotten,”

– Gaiman to Reuters
  1. In pursuing their survival, how are the gods a reflection of the humans who created them? How is the story of faith a story of survival?
  2. Which is greater: man or the gods they create? Who has more power?

“Gods are great,” said Atsula, slowly, as if she were comprehending a great secret. “But the heart is greater. For it is from our hearts they come, and to our hearts they shall return.”

  1. Gaiman, who now lives in the U.S., is originally from England. How might his perspective as a relative outsider affect his view of America? In what ways can American Gods be read as a satire or critique of American life?
  2. In Gaiman’s tale there are new gods in America, gods of technology, highways, media. Are there any new gods you thought were missing from the story?
  3. The narrator, discussing how we relate to the suffering of others, writes that “Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out thorough other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page and close the book, and we resume our lives.” What does American Gods reveal by letting readers see through the eyes of a collection of down-at-heel and nearly forgotten divinities? What vicarious deaths does it allow us to experience?
  4. Who are some of the more vividly drawn secondary characters, human and divine, in the novel? What do they add to the overall impression of the book? How do they affect Shadow?
  5. After shortchanging a waitress, Wednesday tells Shadow that the American people “don’t sacrifice rams or bulls to me. They don’t send me the souls of killers and slaves, gallows-hung and raven-picked. They made me. They forgot me. Now I take a little back from them. Isn’t that fair?” What are the implications of a god like Odin becoming, essentially, a con-man? What is the biggest con he tries to pull off in the novel?
  6. Late in the novel, the narrator says that “Religions are, by definition, metaphors…. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.” Would you agree with this assertion? What are the gods in American Gods metaphors for? What is the difference between a world view based on worship, sacrifice, and belief in the divine and a world view based on the accumulation of material wealth and comfort?
  7. How are the gods in American Gods similar to celebrities or politicians or the uber-rich?
  8. American Gods quotes Herodotus and Shadow interprets it to mean that you can’t assess a life until it’s over, for happiness or ostensibly any trait. Another more prevalent interpretation is that Herodotus actually meant that fortune or fate or divinity could interfere with happiness at any time, so you can’t count on a man’s happiness until he’s dead and fully out of the reach of such forces. What is your take on the Herodotus quote, given the two perspectives?

“Call no man happy until he is dead. Herodotus.” Mr. Nancy raised a white eyebrow, and he said, “I’m not dead yet, and, mostly because I’m not dead yet, I’m happy as a clamboy.” “The Herodotus thing. It doesn’t mean that the dead are happy,” said Shadow. “It means that you can’t judge the shape of someone’s life until it’s over and done.”