1. Ondaatje subtitled this book "Left Handed Poems." The real
Billy was not left-handed, though a century of mythology has
described him as such. What do you think was the appeal of
left-handedness to the mythology? Does Billy's left hand have extra
significance in this book? In what other ways does Ondaatje play
with the "truth" of the mythology surrounding Billy?
2. Billy says: "Not a story about me through their eyes then.
Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, to dig it
out. Here then is a maze to begin, be in." (p. 20) What is Ondaatje
saying in this passage about the process of reading this book? How
did you read it? Did you read it beginning-to-end, or did you find
yourself doubling back to earlier pages? Did any of the passages
change in meaning for you as you read on?
3. Discuss the meaning of the various photographs and drawings
in the book. The first page contains an empty black-rimmed frame.
What is its significance? The final image, off-centre and dwarfed
in the large empty frame, is in fact a photo of Ondaatje himself,
as a boy in Ceylon. What do you think Ondaatje is conveying with
its presence and placement?
4. In Billy's first narrative in the book, he lists himself as
one of "the killed." (p. 5) How does this statement affect the
meaning of the following pages?
5. In the credits, Ondaatje states, "With these basic sources I
have edited, rephrased, and slightly reworked the originals. But
the emotions belong to their authors." Did you find yourself
returning to these credits, to see if what you were reading was a
quotation? Were you ever uncertain? How did this affect your
6. Discuss the differences and similarities in the personalities
of Billy and Garrett, who could be described as flip sides of the
same coin. Does Ondaatje's authorial voice fit into this
7. Compare the attributes of Angela Dickenson and Sallie Chisum,
the primary female presences in the book. They each have power over
Billy, in different ways. Sallie Chisum was a real person, and
narrates some of the passages. Angela D/Dickenson is fictional and
voiceless. Is this significant? Why did Ondaatje assign her this
name? Say the name "Angela D" aloud. Might there be another
8. When Billy kills the ailing Ferns the cat (p. 45), the
Chisums and even Garrett are impressed. But Angela D is terrified.
9. Compare Billy's description of his meandering voyage with
Charlie (p. 20) with the description two pages later of Charlie's
"perfect, incredible straight line" (p. 22) as he walks his last
paces into the arms of Garrett. Ondaatje emphasizes the
straightness of this line repeatedly. Is there significance to
10. Certain objects in the book seem to carry with them highly
charged associations, for instance birds, rats, dogs, wrists and
hands, the sun and planets, flowers, windows, clocks and machinery.
Discuss the ways in which these objects are associated with
particular ideas. Do the ideas remain hooked to these objects? Do
11. What is the significance of John Chisum's story about
Livingstone and the dogs? Consider that Billy shares his real first
name Henry (McCarty or Antrim) with the Chisums' dog. Is this
12. There are many voices in this book, often overlapping in
their very different descriptions of Billy and the events of his
life. Could you trust any of them? Did you ever have difficulty
distinguishing the voices? How did this impact your experience?
13. Do you see a pattern in the choices Ondaatje has made in
presenting the story in collage form? When does he use poetry, and
when prose? How does one affect the other?
14. Consider the passage on pages 76-77, in which Billy
describes the horror of feeling his body turned inside-out due to
heatstroke. There are many other instances in which the interior of
the human body is exposed-do you see similarities in these
descriptions? Do they convey an underlying theme?
15. Read the passage on p. 105 that begins, "It is now early
morning, was a bad night." Who is speaking? What is the
significance of this passage?
16. In one of the final passages about Billy, describing his
grave, comes the description "his legend a jungle sleep." (p. 97)
What does this phrase mean to you? Consider where Ondaatje spent
his childhood. Does this affect the meaning?
17. Ondaatje said in an interview that with this book, he was
trying to make the film he couldn't afford to shoot. He did adapt
it for theatre. How would you render this book for such media? What
would be gained? What lost?
18. Often when we encounter violence in a work of literature, we
anticipate that there will be some sort of resolution of that
violence, some redemption or justice served. Do you think this
happens in this book? Why/why not? This book was written at the
beginning of the Vietnam war. Do you think this is relevant
19. Who are the legendary outlaw figures of today, whose
mythology overwhelms their fact? Are there any contemporary Billy
the Kids? Why/why not?