Powder by Tobias Wolff – Focus on Character

Powder is a short story written by Tobias Wolff, who also wrote This Boy’s Life, which is Wolff’s memoir that later became a motion picture by the same name.

Leonardo DiCaprio and why This Boy's Life is a coming-of-age classic

“Tobias Wolff writes prose that is clean and honest. He deals with the gritty realities of experience, sometimes relying on his own years as a soldier and sometimes on his upbringing, including the often strained relationships among family members, as in the following story, ‘Powder,’ about a boy and his father navigating a hazardous winter road.” Meyer & Miller, The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, pg. 66.

Powder – Tobias Wolff

Just before Christmas my father took me skiing at Mount Baker. He’d had to fight for the privilege of my company, because my mother was still angry with him for sneaking me into a nightclub during his last visit, to see Thelonious Monk.

He wouldn’t give up. He promised, hand on heart, to take good care of me and have me home for dinner on Christmas Eve, and she relented. But as we were checking out of the lodge that morning it began to snow, and in this snow he observed some rare quality that made it necessary for us to get in one last run. We got in several last runs.

He was indifferent to my fretting. Snow whirled around us in bitter, blinding squalls, hissing like sand, and still we skied. As the lift bore us to the peak yet again, my father looked at his watch and said, “Criminy. This’ll have to be a fast one.”

By now I couldn’t see the trail. There was no point in trying. I stuck close behind him and did what he did and somehow made it to the bottom without sailing off a cliff. We returned our skis and my father put chains on the Austin-Healey while I swayed from foot to foot, clapping my mittens and wishing I was home. I could see everything. The green tablecloth, the plates with the holly pattern, the red candles waiting to be lit.

We passed a diner on our way out. “You want some soup?” my father asked. I shook my head. “Buck up,” he said. “I’ll get you there. Right, doctor?”

I was supposed to say, “Right, doctor,” but I didn’t say anything.

A state trooper waved us down outside the resort, where a pair of sawhorses blocked the road. He came up to our car and bent down to my father’s window, his face bleached by the cold, snowflakes clinging to his eyebrows and to the fur trim of his jacket and cap.

“Don’t tell me,” my father said.

The trooper told him. The road was closed. It might get cleared, it might not. Storm took everyone by surprise. Hard to get people moving. Christmas Eve. What can you do.

My father said, “Look. We’re talking about five, six inches. I’ve taken this car through worse than that.”

The trooper straightened up. His face was out of sight but I could hear him. “The road is closed.”

My father sat with both hands on the wheel, rubbing the wood with his thumbs. He looked at the barricade for a long time. He seemed to be trying to master the idea of it. Then he thanked the trooper and with a weird, old-maidy show of caution turned the car around. “Your mother will never forgive me for this,” he said.

“We should’ve left this morning,” I said. “Doctor.”

He didn’t speak to me again until we were in a booth at the diner, waiting for our burgers. “She won’t forgive me,” he said. “Do you understand? Never.”

“I guess,” I said, though no guesswork was required. She wouldn’t forgive him.

“I can’t let that happen.” He bent toward me. “I’ll tell you what I want. I want us all to be together again. Is that what you want?”

“Yes, sir.”

He bumped my chin with his knuckles. “That’s all I needed to hear.”

When we finished eating he went to the pay phone in the back of the diner, then joined me in the booth again. I figured he’d called my mother, but he didn’t give a report. He sipped at his coffee and stared out the window at the empty road. “Come on, come on,” he said, though not to me. A little while later he said it again. When the trooper’s car went past, lights flashing, he got up and dropped some money on the check. “Okay. Vámonos.”

The wind had died. The snow was falling straight down, less of it now and lighter. We drove away from the resort, right up to the barricade. “Move it,” my father told me. When I looked at him, he said, “What are you waiting for?” I got out and dragged one of the sawhorses aside, then put it back after he drove through. He pushed the door open for me. “Now you’re an accomplice,” he said. “We go down together.” He put the car into gear and gave me a look. “Joke, son.”

Down the first long stretch I watched the road behind us, to see if the trooper was on our tail. The barricade vanished. Then there was nothing but snow: snow on the road, snow kicking up from the chains, snow on the trees, snow in the sky, and our trail in the snow. Then I faced forward and had a shock. There were no tracks ahead of us. My father was breaking virgin snow between tall treelines. He was humming “Stars Fell on Alabama.” I felt snow brush along the floorboards under my feet. To keep my hands from shaking I clamped them between my knees.

My father grunted thoughtfully and said, “Don’t ever try this yourself.”

“I won’t.”

“That’s what you say now, but someday you’ll get your license and then you’ll think you can do anything. Only you won’t be able to do this. You need, I don’t know — a certain instinct.”

“Maybe I have it.”

“You don’t. You have your strong points, sure, just not this. I only mention it because I don’t want you to get the idea this is something anybody can do. I’m a great driver. That’s not a virtue, okay? It’s just a fact, and one you should be aware of. Of course you have to give the old heap some credit too. There aren’t many cars I’d try this with. Listen!”

I did listen. I heard the slap of the chains, the stiff, jerky rasp of the wipers, the purr of the engine. It really did purr. The old heap was almost new. My father couldn’t afford it, and kept promising to sell it, but here it was.

I said, “Where do you think that policeman went to?”

“Are you warm enough?” He reached over and cranked up the blower. Then he turned off the wipers. We didn’t need them. The clouds had brightened. A few sparse, feathery flakes drifted into our slipstream and were swept away. We left the trees and entered a broad field of snow that ran level for a while and then tilted sharply downward. Orange stakes had been planted at intervals in two parallel lines and my father steered a course between them, though they were far enough apart to leave considerable doubt in my mind as to exactly where the road lay. He was humming again, doing little scat riffs around the melody.

“Okay, then. What are my strong points?”

“Don’t get me started,” he said. “It’d take all day.”

“Oh, right. Name one.”

“Easy. You always think ahead.”

True. I always thought ahead. I was a boy who kept his clothes on numbered hangers to ensure proper rotation. I bothered my teachers for homework assignments far ahead of their due dates so I could draw up schedules. I thought ahead, and that was why I knew there would be other troopers waiting for us at the end of our ride, if we even got there. What I didn’t know was that my father would wheedle and plead his way past them — he didn’t sing “O Tannenbaum,” but just about — and get me home for dinner, buying a little more time before my mother decided to make the split final. I knew we’d get caught; I was resigned to it. And maybe for this reason I stopped moping and began to enjoy myself.

Why not? This was one for the books. Like being in a speedboat, only better. You can’t go downhill in a boat. And it was all ours. And it kept coming, the laden trees, the unbroken surface of snow, the sudden white vistas. Here and there I saw hints of the road, ditches, fences, stakes, though not so many that I could have found my own way. But then I didn’t have to. My father was driving. My father in his forty-eighth year, rumpled, kind, bankrupt of honor, flushed with certainty. He was a great driver. All persuasion, no coercion. Such subtlety at the wheel, such tactful pedalwork. I actually trusted him. And the best was yet to come — switchbacks and hairpins impossible to describe. Except maybe to say this: if you haven’t driven fresh powder, you haven’t driven.


“There are a total of four characters in this story: the narrator, his father, his mother {who is not technically in the story, but whose physical presence is significant), and the trooper [I’m adding this. In my opinion, the car is another character.] The mother and the trooper are minor characters who both represent the same oppositional force; they set the rules and parameters that the narrator’s father breaks. The story would not be the same without them: it might not even exist. …

“We evaluate fictional characters in much the same way we understand people in our own lives. By piecing together bits of information, we create a context that allows us to interpret their behavior. … One of the most crucial techniques to pay attention to in determining character is to observe the balance between dialogue and description. Dialogue simply refers to the words people speak in a story. … Characters have histories, habits, quirks. and psychological responses to their environments, all of which combine to tell us who they are. …

“Physical descriptions can indicate important inner qualities: disheveled appearance, a craft smile, or a blush might communicate as much as or more than what a character says. …

“Authors have two major methods of presenting characters: showing and selling. Characters shown in dramatic situations reveal themselves indirectly by what they say and do. The general preference in modern fiction is to choose showing over telling when there is a choice. … The narrator of Wolff’s story has the option of telling you the type of person his father is; he might say, ‘My father was a jazz enthusiast who love me and my mom, but who was bad at fulfilling duties to the point of reckless irresponsibility.’ Instead, the author shows the father’s love of jazz: he once got in trouble for sneaking his son into a club tos ee the legendary Thelonious Monk, he hums ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’ as they barrel through the virgin snow….” Meyer & Miller, The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, pgs. 69 – 70.

Static Characters and Foils

“…Huck’s friend, Tom Sawyer is a static character because he does not change. As static characters often do, Tom serves as a foil to Huck…. A foil helps to reveal by contrast the distinctive qualities of another character. We can see a similar dynamic in ‘Powder.’ Meyer & Miller, The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, pg.. 72.

Considerations for Critical Thinking and Writing from Meyer & Miller,  Flat characters tend to be one-dimensionals. 69 – 73.

Flat Characters versus Round Characters

“A flat character embodies one or two qualities, ideas, or traits that can be readily described in a brief summary. For instance, the Trooper in Powder….He’s just a cop doing his job. Flat characters tend to be one-dimensional….they are not created to be psychologically complex.” Meyer & Miller, The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, pg.. 73.

Flat characters are like flour. They are staples, but they are not the whole meal.

“Round characters are more complex than flat or stock characters. Round characters have more depth and require more attention. They may surprise us or puzzle us. Although they are more fully developed, round c