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 experience?
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 relationship?
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 reference implied?
8. When Billy kills the ailing Ferns the cat (p. 45), the Chisums and even Garrett are impressed. But Angela D is terrified. Why?
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 this?
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 they change?
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 important?
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?