60 pages 2 hours read

Neil Gaiman

American Gods

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


American Gods is a 2001 fantasy novel by English author Neil Gaiman. Blending folklore, mythology, religion, and American culture, the novel brings together gods from disparate cultures and times as they reckon with an existential threat. The novel has been adapted for television, and Gaiman has expanded the American Gods universe with indirect sequels such as Anansi Boys. The book won critical acclaim and many awards, including the 2002 Nebula and Hugo awards, two of the most prestigious awards for science fiction and fantasy books.

Gaiman’s comics and fiction writing career began in the late 1980s, and he gained prominence for The Sandman comic series (1988-1996) and Good Omens, which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett in 1990. These works, alongside Stardust (1999) which drew inspiration from British folklore, established Gaiman’s reputation for blending mythology, folktales, and classic fantasy tropes with dark themes and contemporary writing and perspectives.

This guide uses an eBook version of the 2011 10th Anniversary edition of American Gods published by HarperCollins. This author’s preferred edition is slightly longer than the original text.

Content Warning: The source material contains graphic violence and sexual activity, drug abuse, and suicide and suicidal ideation.

Plot Summary

After three years in prison, Shadow Moon is set free two days early due to the death of Laura Moon, his wife. Shadow travels home to Eagle Point. While traveling, he meets a strange man named Mr. Wednesday. They have never met, but Wednesday knows about Shadow’s life. He wants to offer a job to Shadow, who refuses despite his desperate situation. Shadow tries to escape Wednesday. He rents a car and stops at a bar, but Wednesday is waiting for him inside.

While at the bar, Wednesday continues to show Shadow magic and confidence tricks. During this time, Shadow learns the truth about his former employer, Robbie. Though Robbie was Shadow’s friend, he is implied to have died during the same car accident that killed Laura. Shadow believes that Laura and Robbie were having an affair. In the bar, Wednesday continues to press Shadow to take the job. Events become more confusing; Wednesday introduces Shadow to Mad Sweeney, who is a leprechaun and can perform genuine magic with a gold coin. Shadow is swayed by Wednesday’s arguments, and they seal the agreement by drinking mead. When drunk, Shadow agrees to fight Sweeney and beats him. By the following morning, however, Shadow hardly remembers anything that happened. He finds a gold coin in his pocket but does not know where it came from.

Shadow begins his job as Wednesday’s driver. Together, they drive to Eagle Point, and Shadow attends Laura’s funeral. There, he confirms that Robbie and Laura were having an affair. The truth hurts Shadow, but he attends the funeral anyway. He throws the strange gold coin into Laura’s grave and leaves. While returning to the motel where he is staying with Wednesday, Shadow is attacked by a man who is being driven around in a white limousine. The man passes Shadow a message for Wednesday, saying his time is over. Unbeknownst to Shadow, the gold coin brings Laura back from the dead. As a semi-living figure, she sets out to find Shadow.

Wednesday and Shadow drive across the United States. They meet Czernobog and the Zorya Sisters, one of whom hands Shadow a silver coin plucked from the moon that provides protection. Gradually, Shadow realizes that Wednesday is actually the Norse god Odin. He, like many gods from the “old world,” is waning in power as fewer people in America believe in them. Odin wants to convene the gods from the “old world” and battle against the gods of New America, such as media, internet, and transportation, as well as their leader, Mr. World. Shadow’s job brings him into contact with many gods from Africa, Europe, and Asia. These include Mr. Nancy, Easter, Whiskey Jack, and John Chapman.

Shadow is kidnapped by the new gods, but the resurrected Laura rescues him. Wednesday tells Shadow to hide with Egyptian gods Ibis and Jacquel at a funeral parlor and then in Wisconsin. Shadow hides under a false name, becoming a member of the Lakeside community. Occasionally, Wednesday returns and summons Shadow for various jobs. When he is arrested for breaking his parole, the old gods help him escape. The new gods kill Wednesday, but their actions only inspire the old gods to follow Wednesday’s original plan. The gods plan to gather at a tourist attraction in Rock City. Shadow follows through on his promise to hold a vigil for Wednesday by spending nine days hanging from the World Tree. He dies and is brought back by Easter. In doing so, he learns that he is actually Wednesday’s son and a vital part of Wednesday’s plan. He discovers that his former cellmate, Low Key, is actually the Norse god Loki. Loki and Wednesday conspired to arrange everything in Shadow’s life that brought him to this point. They hope that the battle between the new and old gods will actually be an elaborate sacrifice to Wednesday, which will make him very powerful.

Laura stabs Loki with a branch from the World Tree. Shadow brings the battle to a halt and explains Wednesday’s plan, leading the gods to depart the battlefield. At Laura’s request, Shadow takes the gold coin from her and allows her to die. Shadow returns to Lakeside and discovers that the town is actually filled with dark sacrifices to an old god. Then, he travels to Iceland and meets a different incarnation of Wednesday and Odin. After they talk, Shadow returns to America.