Friday, April 11, 2014

Orphan Train Book Discussion Guide

Book:       Orphan Train
Author:    Christina Baker Kline
Edition:    HarperCollins softcover, 2013

You can purchase Orphan Train online at Huge Bookstores.

Online Resources

I recommend reading Orphan Train Myths and Legal Reality for an in-depth look at the facts of the orphan trains.  Find the pieces that may be most relevant for your group.  Perhaps your group is in one of the east coast cities and may want to discuss the economic pressures that left children neglected in Boston or New York.  Or you may want to focus on the towns where the placements were made or even focus on the railroad as a placement tool for orphaned children.

The Washington Post also has a comprehensive article on the orphan trains.
The National Orphan Train Complex has compiled a number of stories of the children who rode the trains to be placed in foster care.  They also have a museum and research center.

Twenty-one photos of orphan train riders have been compiled on the CBS News Website of orphan train riders.  One or more of them may trigger a discussion for your group. 

Major Characters

Characters in Niamh’s childhood

Vivian Daly, known as Niamh (pronoucned ‘Neev’) as a child, an orphan train rider in 1929; in 2011, a 91-year old woman in Spruce Harbor Maine 
Maisie, Vivian’s younger sister 
Mrs. Scatcherd and Mr. Curran, chaperones for Niamh’s train ride
Carmine, baby Niamh cares for on her orphan train ride
Hans, nickname Dutchy, fellow orphan on Niamh’s train and later her husband
Mr. and Mrs. Byrne, women’s clothiers and first foster family for Niamh, whom they rename Dorothy
Fanny, senior employee of the Byrnes
Mr. Sorenson, local agent of Children’s Aid Society
Mr. and Mrs. Grote, foster parents in Niamh’s second home in Minnesota
Miss Larsen, Niamh’s school teacher in Minnesota
Mrs. Murphy, Landlady at Miss Larsen’s boarding house
Mr. and Mrs. Nielsen, general store owners and Niamh’s third and final foster family where she takes the name Vivian

Characters in Spruce Harbor Maine

Molly, 17-year old Penobscot Indian girl in foster care
Dina, Molly’s foster mother
Ralph, Molly’s foster father
Jack, Molly’s boyfriend
Terry, Jack’s mother and caretaker for Vivian
Lori, Molly’s social worker
Mr. Reed, Molly’s American History teacher

Discussion Topics

The following topics are just a beginning to form a conversation around Orphan Train.  Your group may want to focus more on the story in the novel or more on the historical context or ties to the lives of your group members.  Let your group channel the discussion in ways meaningful to your members.  

Writing Style

The book alternates between Vivian’s childhood as an orphan and Molly and Vivian’s relationship 80-plus years later in Spruce Harbor, Maine.  Vivian’s childhood chapters are all written in the first person, while the Spruce Harbor chapters are written in the third person.  

Often a first person narrative is more intimate and works well for a particularly unconventional or well-defined character.  A first person narrative also relies exclusively on the narrator’s perspective.  Third person can be more immediate and allows the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters to be expressed.   However, the Spruce Harbor chapters focus on Molly’s thoughts.

Why do you think the author made this narrative change?  Does one narrative form draw you into the story more completely?  How does memory and the gaps or perspective of memory parallel a first person narrative and even make a first person narrative more believable than a third person account?  Did you find the first person helped to create a more intimate feeling about an event that occurred long ago or that the third person kept the novel rooted in the present?  Did the change in narrative help you keep the two time periods distinct or detract from your reading as you moved from past to present?


Vivian’s boxes in her attic, her claddagh cross necklace from her grandmother, Molly’s nose ring and hair dye are just a few of the symbols the author uses to weave together the development of the characters and the past and the present.   

As Vivian and Molly begin unpacking boxes, they are also unpacking Vivian’s memory of her childhood.  In the end, Molly says they are 
“organizing things.  So they’ll be easier to find.” page 173.
As they organize the boxes, so they are organizing Vivian’s memories, memories she hasn’t shared with anyone before.  Molly tells Jack,
“But I think what she really wanted was to see what was in those boxes one last time.  And remember those parts of her life.” Page 256
The cross serves as a symbol for Niamh’s connection to her birth family.  Mrs. Murphy notices her ‘guarding’ it when they are first introduced, page 163.  While living with the Neilsen’s Niamh realizes that all she has left from her family is the Irish cross from her grandmother. 
"And though I rarely take the claddagh off, as I get older I can’t escape the realization that the only remaining part of my blood family comes from a woman who pushed her only son and his family out to sea in a boat, knowing full well she’d probably never see them again,” page 199. 
Where do you see her necklace as a symbol for connection to family?

Molly’s character uses the nose ring and her hair dye as two of the symbols to represent Molly’s separation from a family life.  As Molly becomes more connected with Vivian and willing to share her own story, her social worker, Lori, notices that 
“First the nose ring disappears.  Now you’ve lost the skunk stripe.” page 261.
Books are another repeated symbol.  What do books symbolize in both Molly’s and Niamh’s lives?  Which symbols were most memorable to you?  What symbols have been touch points in your own life? 

Hidden Commonalities

Despite Molly’s and Vivian’s significant differences as children in a foster care system of their time period, their common bond as orphans draws them closer.  Both Molly’s and Vivian’s fathers died while they were children and both of their mothers were institutionalized. Near the close of the novel, 
“When Vivian describes how it felt to be at the mercy of strangers, Molly nods.  She knows full well what it’s like to tamp down your natural inclinations, to force a smile when you feel numb.  After a while you don’t know what your own need are anymore.” page 170.  
Yet before Molly and Vivian share Vivian’s past with Terry and Jack, Jack and his mother find it exceedingly difficult to believe that two such different people could have anything in common.  
Similarly, Dutchy and Niamh are bound 
“laughing— at the absurdity of our shared experience,” page 229.
Where else in the novel do common experiences create a bond?

Where have bonds been formed in your life with individuals who appear so different on the outside, but with whom you share a similar experience?


The epigraph is from Women of the Dawn by Bunny McBride:
“In portaging from one river to another, Wabanakis had to carry their canoes and all other possessions.  Everyone knew the value of traveling light and understood that it required leaving some things behind.  Nothing encumbered movement more than fear, which was often the most difficult burden to surrender.”
The theme of portaging is in the school project Molly is assigned in her history class.   The students need to conduct an interview with a relative or friend.
“...about their own portages, the moments in their lives when they’ve had to take a journey, literal or metaphorical… The questions on the assignment sheet are: What did you choose to bring with you to the next place?  What did you leave behind?  What insights did you gain about what’s important?” page 131
Where do you see each of these characters portaging?  What does each choose to leave behind and what does each chose to bring along with her both literally and figuratively?  When portaging as a group, the group shares the movement of the belongings from one waterway to the next.  Who is part of Molly’s and Niamh’s groups as they portage?  When are they on their own?  In what instances does each leave behind her fear?

Have you ever portaged a canoe?  How did it feel to reach shore and pack up for the portage?  How did it feel to reach the next body of water?  Where and when have you figuratively portaged in your life?  What did you bring with you and why?  What did you leave behind and when did it feel liberating to leave something behind?  When have you regretted what you left behind?


The names of the two main characters play a central role in the novel.  

Niamh’s name is changed several times, first with the Byrnes, 
“For goodness sake Raymond, it doesn’t matter what she thinks… Dorothy is our choice and Dorothy she will be.” page 72.  
Then when Niamh starts school in Minnesota, Niamh responds to her teacher’s roll call saying, 
“I used to be Niamh.  Sometimes I forget what my name is.” page 123.  
She goes back to using Niamh and is returned to being called Dorothy before the Nielsens ask her to take the name of their daughter, Vivian, who died of diphtheria. 

Molly herself was named for Molly Molasses, page 133, a famous Penobscot Indian.  

When Vivian searches on the web for Carmine, and finds out a record of his life Molly comments, 
“They didn’t change his name?”
How does changing names affect who Niamh is and who she becomes?  How does her name change affect how others know her?  How is Molly’s name significant in her journey?

How do names influence who we are?  Have you changed your name or had your name changed for you?  What were the positive and negative aspects of changing your name?

Orphan Trains in Historical Context

The Washington Post article  summarizes the explosion of orphans in larges east coast cities in the 19th century.   Orphaned and abandoned children were living and working on the streets.  “In 1850, when New York City’s population was 500,000, an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 homeless children lived in the streets or were warehoused in more than two dozen orphanages.”

In her article Orphan Train Myths and Legal Reality, Rebecca Trammell posits that “orphan trains were a detriment to the children the movement sought to protect. The forced relocation of 200,000 children, primarily from vulnerable immigrant families, worked against proper recognition of the rights of a child by substituting a “quick fix” for increased immigration and broader economic troubles.”

Acording to Trammell, Orphan trains declined as the need for farm labor decreased, midwest states decried being a dumping ground for dependents from other states and new laws and new support structures were put in place for families and orphaned children,   In her article, Trammell states that the orphan trains stopped running in 1929, the year Niamh boards her train for Minnesota.

What did you know about the orphan trains before reading this book?   How well do you think the novel portrays the historical reality of orphan trains?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Tenth of December Discussion Guide

Book:       Tenth of December
Author:    George Saunders
Edition:    Random House hardcover, 2013

Online Resources

Most of these stories have appeared in the New Yorker along with many other of his short stories, so you can find a treasure trove of insights on The New Yorker online .  I recommend two particularly fascinating interviews.  The discussion he has with the New Yorker about The Semplica Girl Diaries offers a range of insights for discussion.  In January 2013, a discussion on Tenth of December explores Saunders as a writer and how creating “semi-fantastical worlds” elevate his writing.

In May 2013, George Saunders delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University.  While his speech may not be directly intertwined with a discussion around this book, it’s a) a wonderfully emotive and full-hearted prescription that can be enjoyed by many far beyond college seniors garbed in caps and gowns and b) seeing and hearing the author provides a perspective on the soul behind the pen. 

Story Synopses

Victory Lap, a boy watches the attempted abduction of the girl next door and needs to decide whether to act.
  Characters: Alison and Kyle.

Sticks, 2-page story of a metal pole a dad drapes with sentiments of life.
  Character: dad.

Puppy, two mothers, one trying to raise a child with severe issues and a second trying to love her kids better than she felt loved by her mother, meet over a puppy.
  Characters: Marie, mom looking for puppy; Callie, mom selling puppy.
Escape from Spiderhead, pharmaceutical experiments change feelings into lust and the title character, Jeff,watches and meets death.
  Characters: Abnesti, manager administering experiments; Jeff, Heather, Rachel, Rogan, Keith all experiment subjects. 
Exhortation, a memo from a boss creates an analogy between unnamed work in a dysfunctional company and cleaning a shelf.
 Character: Todd, memo-writer.
Al Roosten, a deluded man participates in a charity benefit and keeps a running commentary of his daydreams.
  Characters: Al Roosten, title character; Larry Donfrey, local business owner also in charity benefit.
The Semplica Girl Diaries, a diary kept by a dad in a parallel dimension details the chasm between the haves and the have nots and the oppressed as well as the similarities we share in the lengths we will all go to for family happiness.  
  Principal characters:  Dad, narrator; Pam, wife; Lilly, daughter for whom party is made; Eva, daughter who releases SGs.
Home, a soldier returns home to live with his mother and tries to make sense of the rift between his past life and the present.
  Principal characters: Mike, narrator; Ma, Mike’s mother; Harris, Ma’s boyfriend; Renee, Mike’s sister.
My Chivalric Fiasco, an employee witness his boss rape a colleague and is given a promotion to keep quiet.
 Principal characters: Ted, narrator; Martha, work colleague who is raped; Don, boss.
Tenth of December, in the title story an awkward boy unknowingly heads toward a cancer patient planning to commit suicide by freezing in the wilderness and soon the tables are turned.
 Principal characters: Robin, boy; Don Eber, old man.

Discussion Topics

The following topics are just a beginning to form a conversation around Tenth of December.  Let your group channel the discussion in ways meaningful to your members.  If there is one story or one theme that is particularly captivating for your group start there and see where you wander.  Or if you have group members who can’t always set aside time for reading, you may want to select several stories in advance, ensure everyone reads them, and delve into those.   

Collection of Stories

Short stories, as with any work of fiction and often non-fiction, can be read on so many levels from the straightforward pleasure found in slipping into someone’s else’s tale to unpacking the complex emotions and connections that the stories raise in your psyche.  How did you read this collection?  Did the depth of your involvement waver from story to story, or as you read more of the stories?  Did you read them sequentially or in some other order?

How did having these stories bound together enhance or detract from your reading pleasure?  

What commonalities across the stories appeared to you as you read? 

Which of the stories most struck a chord, positive or negative, with you?   

After reading through the New Yorker interview with Saunders, did you see other similarities?  

There are ten stories in this collection.  How intentional do you think that is given the title of the book?

Writing Style

Whether in the first person or third person, Saunders often employs a running commentary going on in the characters’ minds to show both the action and the characters’ reaction to what is happening.  
  • In both Victory Lap and Puppy,  there are two principal characters.  Although written in the third person, as the viewpoint shifts from one to the other, we, as readers take in the world through the thought process of the character controlling the perspective.   
  • Escape from Spiderhead and Home are both written in the first person as a running commentary of what the protagonist is seeing and feeling, with interspersed dialogue.  
  • Exhortation and Semplica Girl Diaries are both written as a correspondence, the first a memo and the second a journal.

How does this running commentary shape your feelings towards the principal characters?  Do you like this style?

Ties to Your Life

Many of these stories have futuristic or science-fiction elements.  Yet all are grounded in emotions of human beings.  Which of these stories seemed most grounded in realism to you?  Which aspects of the stories drew upon emotions you have encountered as an employee?  As a parent? As a human?  How did the science fiction elements of the stories intensify or minimize those emotions?

In his interview on Tenth of December, Saunders states,
“even though the settings and situations in the stories were sort of cartoonish and overwrought, my real beliefs and anxieties were being mapped out onto these fictive worlds more powerfully and exactly (albeit inadvertently and in a sort of fun-house manner) than they ever had in anything more “real-life” that I’d written. And, in fact, the weird thing was that these new stories were sort of leading me to understand what I believed about the life I was living, in a way that no amount of rational thought could have done.”
So often we see ourselves in contrast to similar individuals around us whether our colleagues, or classmates, volunteers we work with or neighbors we meet on the block.  Making comparisons with individuals who are similar to us might be an ego-booster or ego-buster. Yet when we are apart from our usual circle, our reflection can change markedly.  Where in your life have you seen your self-awareness refined through a contrast with an out-of-the ordinary experience or against an atypical backdrop?   

Connections Between Stories 

Some stories are similar in perspective of writing style, others are similar in content.  For instance Victory Lap and Tenth of December  both focus on two characters who have a life-saving impact on one another.  Both swerve toward a cliff and teeter on the edge before taking a step back. In what ways is the life-saving a two-way street in each?  How does each character fundamentally change another’s life?  Where do the two stories diverge from one another?

In an interview with the New Yorker discussing the short story Tenth of December, Saunders comments, 

“So that was interesting to me, and also I felt this story to be somehow connected to another one—“Victory Lap”—which ran in the magazine a couple of years ago; I could feel both stories asking questions like: Given the nature of the life (nasty, brutish, short), how is it that good does, in fact, manage to get done? Or: when goodness manifests, how does it manifest? What does it look like and sound like, what are the qualities of the people who do it?”

Escape from Spiderhead and My Chivalric Fiasco use trademarked pharmaceuticals as a means to drastically change an individual’s feelings and inhibitions.   How did the drugs place the time period or universe of the story?   How did these pharmaceuticals connect the stories?  If these drugs did not have an health risks aside from those exhibited in the story, would you take them?  In what situations?

Did you see these stories as connected?  Were there other stories that seemed connected to you?

Emotional Response to the Stories

Novels can certainly take a reader through a full circle of emotions, yet short stories often pull on our emotions more quickly and more unexpectedly.  Overall, how similar or disparate were your emotional reactions across this collection?  On the whole were you hopeful, distraught, relieved, frustrated, angry?  Or was your reaction to each story stand alone and disconnected from the others?

In an interview with the New Yorker in 2011 Saunders says, 
“I started to feel that, at certain points in some of the stories, the most interesting aesthetic motion—the plot twist, if you will—was the one that swerved away from what I might call the habitually catastrophic.”  

Would you agree or disagree as you consider your reaction to each story and the collection as a whole?

You can purchase Tenth of December online at Hugo Bookstores .

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain Discussion Guide

Book:       Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain 
Author:    David Eagleman
Edition:    Pantheon Books hardcover edition, 2011

Online Resources
In The War on Reasonan article in the March 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Paul Bloom presents an opposing viewpoint to "human beings are little more than puppets of their biochemistry".  Definitely worth reading for a fuller discussion of the essence of this book.

National Geographic has a number of recent articles on the brain available online.  National Geographic may require registration to view some of their articles:

Major Characters
Your Brain

Discussion Topics
The following topics are just a beginning to form a conversation around Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.  Let your group channel the discussion in ways meaningful to your members.

Your Brain in Action

Many experiments and brain functioning scenarios are presented in the book.  Which of the brain functions could you most identify with?  Do you see a calendar floating in front of you?  (Page 81) Do you have a wider spectrum of color recognition than most?  Do you drive home from work and not remember taking the exit off the highway?  Do you ever play the observation game and try to remember what a particular person or place looks like?  Have you ever been hit by another car and the other driver said, “He wasn’t there”? 


As part of his writing style to help the book appeal to the lay reader, Eagleman offers many analogies between the brain and areas of life including the following:
  •  a comparison to a newspaper (page 6)
  • an analogy comparing the consciousnesses to the brain as earth compares to the Milky Way or the universe (page 19)
  • a comparison to a young monarch giving no credit to the workers running the kingdom (page 99)
  • an analogy relating the brain functions to a government with rivalries (page 107)
Which of these analogies worked best for you?  Which opened up new ways to think about the brain—its vastness, its multiple and overlapping subroutines?  Is there another that is more effective for your understanding?

Future Self / Present Self

Eagleman writes about the time shifting of the brain in several ways.  One is the comparison of an individual in the present to the same individual in the future facing different inputs.  When have you made a Ulysses contract (page 122) with yourself to keep your future self from going down the wrong track?


When is it hardest for you to keep a secret?  How did Eagleman’s presentation of a secret as a struggle between competing parts of the brain (page 147) help you understand secrets—yours or ones that have been shared with you?

The February 2014 issue of the Atlantic summarizes 6 studies on secret keeping.  Maybe J.K Rowling tapped into the essence of our brains and secrets as she created Secret-Keepers in her Harry Potter series.

Chicken Sexers

On page 57 Eagleman describes the ability of individuals to separate male and female chickens and how this seems to be done entirely by the subconscious.  Is there anything that you find yourself doing more in the subconscious than the conscious?  Would you call that a hunch? (Page 66) Have you ever known the answer but been unable to explain how you came to it?


Eagleman recounts the story of Arthur Alberts recording voices in Africa and the natives finding the tape recorder counterintuitive (page 3).  Throughout time the currently unknowable has appeared magical. 

What moments in history are the most vivid to you of times when humans were unable to comprehend what we now understand?

Eagleman also discusses the umwelt (page 78), the environment, and the umgebung, the bigger reality.

What do you want to know a lot about, but feel is unknowable? If you could accelerate the learning in just one area of science so you could find ‘answers’ in your lifetime, which area would you chose?  Why?  What do you think about that you wish you could comprehend – a 5th dimension?  An infinite universe?  An infinite time scale?

Speed and Energy Efficiency and Evolution

On page 72 Eagleman writes that the advantage of having an activity hardwired in the brain are speed and energy efficiency. 

How does this balance with your view of evolution and the brain?  What about with our ability to create artificial intelligence?

Religion and Emotion

Religion and emotion, both of which many consider stuff of the human brain, aren’t explored in great detail beyond emotion of criminal acts.  How do you integrate religion and emotion into the physical stuff of the brain?

Criminal Justice System

Eagleman devotes an entire chapter to what all this means to the criminal justice system. Some readers have reacted negatively to this analysis.  Here are two quotes from Goodreads:
"Eagleman uses a "slight of hand" writing style. Just as he describes how magic tricks deceive the brain, Eagleman uses this entertaining little book to advocate for a social and justice system that disregards civil rights…Our criminal justice system, in fact our whole legal framework, is based on the underlying assumption that individuals have the right to control their own bodies. Even when they have forfeited the right to be physically free and are imprisoned, our government does not have the right to force medical treatment and that includes psychological treatment. Eagleton is advocating for "treating" criminals. This should send a chill up his readers' spines. Our sordid history of "treating" criminals includes institutionalizing gays and lesbians and "treating" them for their "disorder", medical experiments with African American prisoners, and institutionalizing people with developmental disabilities for the minor offenses."
"I found, though, that the chapter on culpability in relation to crime rubbed me the wrong way, somehow. He built his theories up to the point where it seemed as though he wanted to take any responsibility for anything we do away from us, attributing every bad action to neurological irregularities. He even seemed to discount any sociological outside factors, landing firmly on the nature side of the nature vs. nurture argument, virtually reducing human beings down to a series of electrical impulses in the brain."
Whether his use of the term ‘warehouse’ or his seemingly slippery slope of a criminal not being responsible for acts his brain controls, these readers have difficulty calmly reflecting on what Eagleman is putting forth.  In addition, Eagleman focuses on the accused in the criminal justice system, but what about the witnesses? 

How did you react to his view of the criminal justice system with respect to the human brain?  If the witnesses are recounting what they saw, heard or sensed, how reliable is their testimony in light of what Eagleman presents about the human brain and perception?


Eagleman presents that the value of consciousness from an evolutionary perspective is to allow us to be cognitively flexible (page 142).   What is consciousness to you?  What do you see as the value of consciousness? Do other animals have consciousness?  Eagleman offers his perspective on page 144.


On page 167 Eagleman states “however, at this point, no one can see a clear way around the problem of a nonphysical entity (free will) interacting with a physical entity (the stuff of the brain).”  He does admit that this is “predicated on what we know at this moment in history, which will certainly look crude a millennium from now.” 

How does lack of freewill sit with you?  Do you agree that at this point in time the essence of free will makes no sense?  Do you believe we will gain understanding that will show free will as scientifically existing?  Is free will a scientific question to you?

True Self

Eagleman presents many studies that have shown conflict between what one consciously does and what one unconsciously does.  For instance, consider the experiment on page 60 for subjects to note what they like and dislike. Or chapter 5, The Brain is a Team of Rivals.    In the end he comes back to this question (page 203) discussing the you and soul and finally on page 224 that there is so much we don’t know about our brains that indeed it seems like magic.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Book for Book Lovers: Step Out Of Time

Book:     The Emperor of Paris
Author:  CS Richardson

A book I am delighted to own; to hold; to re-read.  But not a story for everyone—the reader needs to be comfortable with holding the threads of multiple characters as they slide between the pages of the book and drift from the present to the past, creating ripples as they gently bump against one another; each telling his or her own story and also sharing the story of stories. 

A story can begin with a word, or by stepping onto a book, or with the glimpse of an object, or with the stroke of a paintbrush or with the uncovering of a scar.  Each character shares her own personal way of stories and lets the reader become deliciously wrapped up in them, a chuckle here, a tear escaping there, a sigh.

The Emperor of Paris is as different from The Ocean at the End of the Lane as can be and yet they share the essence of story.  Curl up with this book and let the story be unwrapped for you.

“The place I call there is not as cruel as you may think and you don’t have to go far to reach it.  Sometimes all you need do is walk to the end of the street and turn the corner.  And remember, no matter how far you wander, here will always be here." page 172

Friday, February 21, 2014

Discussion Guide for Twelve Years a Slave

Book:       Twelve Years a Slave
Author:    Solomon Northrup
Edition:    Kindle

Because this book is an historical account, I recommend reading some of the online resources below to create context before reading the narrative itself.

Twelve Years a Slave is a slave narrative as told to the editor David Wilson, by Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. 

The book was published in 1853 and according to Documenting the American South,  the book “sold over thirty thousand copies. It is therefore not only one of the longest North American slave narratives, but also one of the best-selling.”

Online Resources
There are many outstanding online resources that provide context both from the antebellum period in which the narrative was written as well as modern perspectives that reflect back on slavery in the United States.

The University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sponsors Documenting the American South which has several resources that are helpful to read before or after you read the book.   Not only is the entire text of the book with illustrations online (worth viewing the illustrations if your version didn’t include them), there is also an article from the New York Times in 1853 that preceded the publication of the book.  The New York Times article offers a synopsis of Northrup’s kidnapping and years in slavery and an account of the legal proceedings against Burch.

Documenting the American South also has a Publisher’s Advertisement for Twelve Years a Slave.  The book sold in 1853 as a 350 page volume for $1— comparable to the 99 cent Kindle version (of course the Kindle version doesn’t contain the illustrations).

Slave narratives like Twelve Years a Slave are instrumental in documenting the first person account of slavery.   A comprehensive article in the Guardian, which provides background on the slave narrative as a genre, states “Slave narratives are the most powerful corrective we have to such distortions and evasions, firsthand accounts from some of the people who suffered the atrocities of slavery.”  

In addition to the narratives that were published in the 19th century, the Works Progress Administration created a Federal Writers’ Project to interview surviving ex-slaves during the 1930s.  These interviews became the Slave Narrative Collection which can be read online at the Library of Congress.  

Northrup was kidnapped in 1841 and remained a slave until 1853.  Understanding the Compromise of 1850 and The Fugitive Slave Act provides context for the fear among all blacks free and slave, lack of legal rights for blacks, and increased incentives and obligations for capturing slaves by all citizens.    The slave had no standing as a witness in a court.  As Northrup wrote “had he stabbed me to the heart in the presence of a hundred slaves, not one of them, by the laws of Louisiana, could have given evidence against him.”  At the same time, catching runaway slaves was, as Northrup says, a “money-making business.”

Major Characters
Solomon Northrup, author and free black man who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York (north of Albany).  He was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
Anne Hampton, Northrup’s wife with whom Northrup had three children.
Henry B. Northrup, a lawyer in Sandy Hill, NY who rescued Northrup as “an agent, with full power to effect” Northrup’s restoration.  Henry Northrup was a relative of the family who owned Solomon Northrup’s father.  Hence Solomon shared his name. 
Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, men who offered Northrup employment by playing his violin at their performances and who then apparently drugged him and sold him into slavery.
James Burch, slave trader in Washington, D.C.  Put on trial for kidnapping and selling Northrup into slavery and acquitted.
Ebenezer Radburn, Burch’s lackey.  Called as a witness for the prosecution against Burch.
Clemens Ray, John Williams, Randall, three other slaves held in the William’s Slave Pen at the time Northrup was brought there.
Eliza and her daughter Emmy, Randall’s mother and sister, brought to the William’s Slave Pen.  Eliza was mistress to a white slave owner, Elisha Berry, for 9 years, and Emily was his child. Berry’s ex-wife’s new husband sold Eliza and her children.  Sold from William’s Slave Pen with Northrup.
Arthur, slave who was also on the boat Orleans being transported to New Orleans, with whom Northrup plotted an escape plan.
Theophilus Freeman, slave pen owner in New Orleans.
William Ford, Baptist preacher who bought Northrup in New Orleans and lived in the Great Pine Woods 12 miles from Lamourie, Louisiana.
John M Tibeats, hideously cruel itinerant carpenter who purchased Northrup from Ford to satisfy a debt for his carpentry work.
Mr. Chapin, overseer on the Ford plantation where Northrup worked for Tibeats.
Peter Tanner, plantation and slave owner across the Bayou Boeuf from his sister Mistress Ford.
Edwin Epps, brutal slave owner who purchased Northrup from Tibeats; often drunk.  Leased a cotton plantation from a relative. It is here that Northrup was enslaved for 10 years.
Mistress Epps, Edwin’s wife who takes all her vengeance out on Patsey.
Patsey, 23 years old when Northrup was purchased by Epps, slave to Epps and “most remarkable cotton picker on Bayou Boeuf.”  Raped by Epps and constantly in danger of being murdered by Epps’ wife—"the enslaved victim of lust and hate."  Her spirit was flogged out of her by a devastatingly cruel whipping while she was staked to the ground.
Abram, slave to Epps, in his 60s, in failing health.
Wiley, 48 year old slave to Epps, silent.  Tried to run away from Epps in 1850 and was severely flogged upon his capture.
Phebe, slave to Epps, wife of Wiley, worked in the big house kitchen.
Bob, Phebe’s 23 year old son by a former husband.
Henry, Phebe’s 20 year old second son by a former husband.
Edward, 13 year old son of Phebe and Wiley.
Armsby, white man who worked in the fields and to whom Northrup confided his history in the hope of having Armsby mail a letter home on his behalf.  Armsby told Epps Northrup’s plan.
Bass, white Canadian abolitionist who traveled and worked at Epp’s plantation building a new house.  Bass develoted himself to securing Northrup’s freedom by writing and mailing letters on Northrup’s behalf.

Discussion Topics
Clearly there is a great deal to discuss both within the narrative and reflecting upon slavery in the United States.  The following topics are just a beginning to form a conversation around Twelve Years A Slave.  Let your group channel the discussion in ways meaningful to your members.

Northrup’s Account of Slavery as an Institution

For all of the brutality that Northrup was both witness to and victim of, he was surprisingly balanced in where he placed blame for the horrors suffered by slaves.  

Northrup allowed that his first master William Ford was “blinded” to the “inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery.”  He seems to have given his owner a pass for propagating the institution of slavery simply because he was brought up in a society that condoned slavery. 
At the end of Chapter XIV Northrup commented "It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives.  He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave's back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years."  

 As Sarah Churchwell states in her Guardian post, “This is one of the most surprising aspects of Northup's narrative: its clarity about the workings of the ‘peculiar institution’ as a system. Chattel slavery, Northup writes, "brutalised" master and slave alike; this is why slave-owners behaved so monstrously, even against their best financial interests (a dead slave, after all, was lost money). Surrounded by appalling human suffering on a daily basis, slave-owners became inured and desensitised to it, "brutified and reckless of human life"."

How do you or do you not separate the institution of slavery from the slave owners?  In modern times, what institutions provide a similar cover for the players who operate within those institutions?  To what extent are we as individuals pawns on the chessboard of life, unable to change our role let alone the rules of the game, and to what extent are individuals responsible for stopping their actions and reflecting on the morality of social structures that exist?

Voice of the Author

The account is Solomon Northrup's narrative which was written down by his editor, David Wilson.  From the editor’s preface, “the only object of the editor has been to give a faithful history of Solomon Northrup’s life, as he received it from his lips.”  

Northrup was an educated man and we know from his account that he could write.  Why do you suppose then that the editor Wilson says he received the story “from his lips”?  Do you think Northrup wrote any of the account first hand?  To what extent was a white editor necessary to get the account published?  How does having a white editor writing down the narrative change the tone of Northrup’s story?

In Chapter XIV, Northrup wrote, “Let them know the heart of the poor slave—learn his secret thoughts— thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man.”  Do you believe that Northrup’s true thoughts are represented in his narrative or even there did he need to couch his beliefs?

Whose views toward the institution of slavery do you think are being represented— are these the views of a free man sold as a slave or of a white editor representing the institution as an outsider or some combination?  

Regardless of whose views are represented, do you think these views are core beliefs either Northrup or Wilson held or were they softened for publication?  Oh to have a time machine and be able to bring Northrup or Wilson to the present day and talk to them in person to learn what they were truly feeling.  In the absence of a time machine we can speculate about what each may have believed that he did or did not put down in print.

Northrup was held as a slave for twelve years and was unable to keep any notes during that time.  The details of his account are extraordinary.  What times in your life have you been able to hold onto minute details of an event or person?  How do you believe the immense stresses Northrup lived under make the accuracy of his account more or less reliable?

Perspective of Slavery from the Inside

Whether or not the veracity of every detail can be proven, as an educated black man, Northrup was able to offer a unique perspective.  As Christopher Orr states in the Atlantic
“His perspective was thus an extraordinary one, experiencing the institution of slavery at once from within and without: enduring its horrors firsthand, yet also as an educated man who had been accepted, even celebrated, among white society in the North.” 
Northrup is one of the most widely read of the slave narratives that were published throughout the 1850s.  Many accounts were carried in newspapers, among them a story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who fled with her husband and children from Kentucky to Ohio.  Before they could flee to Canada via the Underground Railroad they were captured by U.S. Marshalls.   The mother murdered her baby rather than see it forced into slavery.  This is the story that inspired Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Regardless of any of the positive attributions Northrup made about some of the slave owners, he was steadfast in his belief of the value of freedom. 

When he met slaves at the United States Hotel in New York he described them as “well dressed and well provided for, leading apparently an easy life, with but few of its ordinary troubles to perplex them.” And then went on to say, “Almost uniformly I found they cherished a secret desire for liberty.” 
Beginning of chapter V Northrup wrote, “Let not those who have never been placed in like circumstances, judge me harshly until they have been chained and beaten.”
Near the end of Chapter IX he wrote, “I could only gaze wistfully towards the North, and think of the thousands of miles that stretched between me and the soil of freedom, over which a black freeman may not pass.”
Where did you find Northrup’s perspective as a free man who was enslaved offer a unique contrast or perspective?  Where does Northrup contrast his perspective as a free man who has been sold into slavery with the lives of the slaves he meets who have never been free?  

Details of Plantation Life

Throughout his narrative Northrup described in fascinating detail plantation life and the countryside in Louisiana.  Everything from the stocks the slaves were held in when accused of stealing melons, to the bayou “trees of enormous growth, whose wide spreading branches almost shut out the light of the sun” to the meager ‘dinner’ the slave was allowed of corn meal and bacon is described in minute detail.

He detailed precisely how cotton was cultivated from back-furrowing to planting the seeds to hoeing to picking.  Similarly he described cultivating sugar cane and the process by which sugar was made.

He described the fish trap he constructed with a movable bottom so clearly that I could visualize the contraption and see how it would be a very effective device. 

Along with lengthy accounts of plantation life, short snippets like the following create brilliant visuals: 
“They sucked themselves beneath the skin.  It was impossible to brush or beat them off.  It seemed, indeed, as if they would devour us — carry us away piecemeal, in their small tormenting mouths.” Chapter XI. 
At Christmas supper, “The ivory teeth, contrasting with their black complexions, exhibit two long, white streaks the whole extent of the table.” Chapter XV.
Which descriptions were most memorable to you?  What about his descriptions captured the life on the plantation?  

Lack of Expletives

Throughout his narrative, Northrup uses no expletives.  The following are just two of the many times expletives are contracted.
At Goodin’s slave pen, Goodin says, “New York! H—l! What have you been doing up there?” 
Tibeats, “G-d d-n you! I thought you knowed something!”
Yet on the other hand, the horrific treatment of the slaves is described in detail, culminating in Patsey's being staked down and whipped. 

Do you find Northrup’s lack of expletives surprising against the horrific treatments of slavery he described?  How were the readers of the slave narrative likely to be able to read the inhumane treatment of human beings, but be offended by expletives?

After The Story

Little is known about Northrup after the story ends— where he ended up, how he managed living after being victimized, how and when he died.  There is some speculation that he helped with the Underground Railroad and other speculation that maybe he became destitute.  

Mark Robichaux in the Speakeasy blog in the Wall Street Journal, wonders aloud about Nothrup’s life after he reclaimed his freedom:
“There are a few convincing theories on Northup’s final years.  One is that Northup “died destitute, far from family and friends, perhaps under tragic circumstances,” the historians write. There is evidence he could have even “given up, resorted to drink, or sunk below the surface.”
What would be your preference for how Northrup’s life unfolded following his reunification with his family?  What do you think is likely to have happened?  

Popularity of the Book

Twelve Years a Slave was very popular when it was first published, but fell into relative obscurity until the 2013 movie based up on the memoir was produced.  Unlike The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which has sold millions of copies worldwide, Twelve Years a Slave was virtually unknown before the 2013 movie was created.

Each memoir depicts horrific atrocities committed against human beings, yet the protagonists, the writing style, the subject matter, the time period are all quite different between the two books. Which elements of the book do you think kept Twelve Years a Slave from remaining popular?  

Why do you think Twelve Years a Slave fell into obscurity and The Diary of a Young Girl has become a staple of middle and high school English and History classes?  

You can purchase Twelve Years a Slave online at Hugo Bookstores.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Discussion Guide for Flight Behavior

Book:       Flight Behavior
Author:    Barbara Kingsolver
Edition:    Hardcover HarperCollins First Edition, 2012

I enjoy leading book groups. When I lead, I write up a discussion guide to use. Warning: spoilers within! Read after you have finished the book.

Other Resources
A description of Monarch Butterflies provides a rich, visual and well organized description of Monarchs geared to the lay person.

The following two videos have beautiful filming of the Monarch’s lifecycle as well as the butterflies in migration and photography of the butterflies on trees—something akin to what Dellarobia witnessed.

Major Characters
Dellarobia Turnbow, Protagonist, 27 or so mother and farm wife living in Feathertown, Tennessee
Cub Turnbow, Dellarobia’s husband and farmer
Preston, Dellarobia’s 8 year old son with a scientific interest
Cordelia, Dellarobia’s toddler daughter
Hester Turnbow, Dellarobia’s mother-in-law sheep farmer who lives next door
Bear Turnbow, Dellarobia’s father-in-law sheep farmer, married to Hester
Pastor Bobbie Ogle, Minister of local church
Ovid Bryon, Professor at Devary University in New Mexico, Entomologist studying Monarch Butterflies
Pete, Mako, Bonnie, Students working with Ovid Bryon
Tina Ultner, News Nine reporter
Dovey, Dellarobia’s high school friend and partner in friendship and second hand shopping

Discussion Topics
Flight Behavior centers on the environment and how climate change has impacted the earth and continues to cause devastation and often unpredictable changes.  Yet at the same time, the novel presents the clash between protecting the environment and carving out a livelihood for individuals.  While this particular stand of trees is saved in the end, and not logged, not all financial pits are so seamlessly filled outside the novel.  Individuals around the globe struggle with making ends meet while sacrificing the environment, while millions of others make choices to sacrifice the environment without a second thought or need to support themselves or their families. 

In particular, Cub and Dellarobia refer to Hester’s tour group proceeds as her ‘butterfly money”.  And the balloon loan payment weighs heavy over all of them.  The logging is a sure-fire way out of their current financial predicament.

Where have you seen this struggle take place?  How can basic human needs be balanced with the long-term needs of our environment?  What incentives can be created for individuals and organizations to alter course and improve the environment rather than continue on a destructive path? What do you see as the most valuable levers in effecting positive change?

At first, Dellarobia sees the butterflies’ appearance as a bonus for her and Feathertown, page 147, “Is that so bad? They’re beautiful. We don’t get a lot of bonuses around her, let me tell you.”  What brings her to understand the larger implications?  Who is she successful in convincing of the larger negative implications?

It is exceedingly difficult for humans to see and grasp and feel connected to events that are outside the scope of our everyday lives. How often have you hear this same sentiment expressed with respect to environmental changes in your life? 

Monarch Lifecycle
The microcosm of the monarch butterfly is explored in detail both through Dellarobia’s research as well as Ovid’s scientific explanations to Dellarobia and to Preston.  What did you learn about this amazing creature?  What was most surprising to you?  Have you ever seen a monarch migration?

Biblical References
Throughout the novel Kingsolver sprinkles biblical references from Dellarobia returning down the mountain after her first encounter with the butterflies like Moses after the burning bush, with a direct reference to a burning bush on page 16.   On page 22, Dellarobia is compared directly to Moses, “But like Moses she’d come home rattled and impatient with the pettiness of people’s everyday affairs.”

In addition, the church itself becomes a character in the novel taking on multiple roles from shining the spotlight on Dellarobia, to providing a framework for a host of minor characters as well as being Bobby Ogle’s place of power.  Dovey’s provides a counter to the standard religious community with her frequent church sign texts and lack of religious affiliation. 
What religious comparisons did you see in the book?  What role did you see Dovey playing with respect to the strength of the church in the community?

Dellarobia and Cub’s marriage is compared and contrasted with Hester and Bear’s throughout the story, but perhaps nowhere more directly than when Hester opens up to Dellarobia near the end of the novel.  How have the choices each made affected their marriages and their lives?  What makes Dellarobia happy in her marriage?  What weighs down on her?  What is the catalyst that leads her in a new direction?

During their trip to the Try It Again Warehouse Dovey and Dellarobia create  marriage stories to go with the items they see such as on page 295 “All those husbands and wives dreaming of a slim, sexy version of the old ball and chain”.  Where did you see references to the positives and negatives of marriage?

Dellarobia draws her own conclusions about Byron’s marriage before meeting his wife.  Did you come to the same conclusions? 

On page 398, “Ovid had turned into someone new, and understood he had become himself, in the presence of his wife.”  How do other partners bring out the best and worst of one another in the novel? 

How do people use the facts they see before them to fit the story they want to believe?  Where does this occur in relationships?  Where else have you seen this occur?

Dellarobia’s parenting style is contrasted sharply with Hester’s.  In the first pages the reader sees Dellarobia return to collect her children from Hester’s where they seem to have been entirely neglected, “All eyes flew up to her as she entered, keen for rescue, the grandmother nowhere in sight.”  Page 30,”A more forgiving grandmother would have let Preston have it [the fleece] for a day of play, since it clearly made him happy.”  How did you view Hester as a grandparent?  What do you think influenced her parenting?  How was Hester as a mother to Cub?

Dellarobia is very focused on her parenting, with Cordie’s and Preston’s needs nearly always forefront in her mind.  Dellarobia’s view of Preston on the school bus is typical of many parents who have waited at a bus stop watching a child ascend or descend the bus steps—waving good-bye or welcoming a child home.

On page 310, Dellarobia sees Preston and the possibilities of his future.  “She felt pierced by his loss.  He would go far… already he had the means and will for the journey.” 

What strengths do you see Dellarobia as a mother?  All parents have their own coping strategies in meeting the constant demands of parenting—what are Dellarobia’s?

Both Dellarobia’s parents died long before the story begins.  Dellarobia remembers them both poignantly, for instance, page 129 “She wished she still had the hand-turned wooden toys of her childhood, things her father made in his shop, a simplicity she’d only recognized as poverty in retrospect, after he died.”  How does not having her parents living affect Dellarobia’s life choices?  How does it affect the storyline?

Dellarobia has to have a very difficult discussion with Preston about his parents’ separating. What was your reaction to how and when she approached this topic?  How did she make the concept relatable to a young child?

Education Gap
The education gap between the kids from Feathertown who are unlikely to continue on to college and the students who arrive with Byron is stark.  What skills and knowledge does Dellarobia bring to the investigation?  In what ways is she more educated than the students?  When is she able to be the teacher?  How does her new found knowledge bolster her self-esteem?

Dellarobia sees the whole town opposed to college, page 305, “the presence of the college [in Cleary] made them prickly, as if the whole town were given over to the mischief of the privileged.” 

Does Dellarobia pin her hopes fairly on a degree?  Do you think that a college degree is within her grasp?  What obstacles will she face in reaching that goal?  How do you see her life panning out?

Where have you encountered these gaps? How realistic is this portrayal of the disparity that exists in the United States and elsewhere today?  Which are the causes and which are the effects among education, poverty, mobility and such?  How can the negative cycles be broken?

Culture Clash
Kingsolver draws a stark contrast between the lives of Dellarobia’s family and the visiting students and professor.  Page 110, “At ten minutes to six Dellarobia felt embarrassed by everything in her kitchen” as she gets ready to entertain Ovid.  She notices Mako’s coat has a wrecked zipper and offers to repair it.  Mako is stunned by the idea of repairing rather than throwing or giving away. 

While Mako and the students seem superior in their knowledge of environmental change, who is having the biggest negative impact on the environment in the story?

Page 153, in reference to the students, “Worldly maybe, and heedless of their good fortune, to be sure. But in some ways they seemed young for their age….” Yet, “she was embarrassed to invite these people into her house that was the long and short of it.”

Page 162, referring to the students, “Their days here were like channel-surfing the Hillbilly Network;” 

And in the Try It Again Warehouse, Dellarobia sees a girl with a “fat, sparkly diamond on her necklace and probably a daddy paying her tuition. She didn’t need to be here.”

On page 315, Dellarobia has a conversation with an environmentalist who refers to the citizens of Feathertown, and perhaps all communities unlike his own, as “You people”.  Which is followed up on page 321 with a direct conversation between Dellarobia and Ovid on how people sort themselves out “Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own.  The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive . They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants.”  And later “People shut out the other side. It cuts both ways” page 323. 
Where did you see the strongest contrast?   What do you think of Mr. Atkins sustainability pledge?  (page 326)

Where have you experienced that type of culture clash?  How did someone on the other side of the divide make you feel more comfortable or more apart?  How can children be shown to be aware of people from a different economic strata or different culture?  Do you agree with Dellarobia’s assessment? What rings true? Where do you take issue?

A variety of characters come from away to see the butterflies.  Most stand out in stark contrast to the central characters.  How are outsiders viewed and received in Feathertown?  How does Kingsolver describe them in their dress and mannerisms to indicate the divide between insider and outsider?  Dellarobia wrestles with the lack of welcome offered to Ovid Bryon by the townspeople.  Page 257, “She thought of how Bobby Ogle moved people, persuading them with his demeanor, so loving and forthright. … Ovid had the same air about him… It made no sense that people would embrace the one and spurn the other.”

Where did you find Feathertown residents accepting outsiders and where were they viewed askance?    Consider Dellarobia’s interaction with Dimmit near the butterflies. Which is followed by her conversation with Mr. Atkins. How do the conversations contrast with one another?  How is Dellarobia’s interaction with Dimmit shaped by knowing him and where he came from?

Economic Gap
The economic gap between Dellarobia and the students is stark and clear.  Kingsolver goes into great detail describing first Dellarobia and Cub’s acrid trip to the Feathertown dollar store for Christmas shopping and then Dellarobia and Dovey’s trip to The Try It Again Warehouse for a greater selection of second hand shopping.  Each trip is explored in detail.  Which details formed the strongest impression as you read?  How did Dellarobia and Cub’s argument mirror their trip through the dollar store?

These purchases stand in stark contrast to the scientific equipment Ovid brings to set up to monitor butterflies.  How did that juxtaposition sit with you? 

Hester’s Past Life
Why is Hester’s past life important to the storyline and Dellarobia’s life in particular?  How is Hester a catalyst in Dellarobia’s life?  How does her being Pastor Ogle’s mother and his not knowing influence the story?  Why do you think Kingsolver added this piece to the puzzle?

How often have you not been aware of someone’s life history and when finding it out discovered it isn’t as neat and clean as all appears on the outside?  How has another’s revelation changed the course of your life?  How have you changed the course of others’ lives?

Parallels between butterfly migration and Dellarobia’s Life
In many ways Dellarobia’s life parallels the butterflies’.  She is awakened by their appearance and from that moment on her life takes a new turn.  In some ways it’s as if she’s emerging from her own cocoon and seeing her life from a completely new angle.  Even as she leaves her home in the first chapter, walking up through the sheep pastures, “From here it all looked fixed and strange, even her house, probably due to the angle.” Page 3. 

She finds her way back home as do the butterflies in their miracle migration.  Although Dellarobia knows where her home is, or does she?  How does she break free and is reborn?
Where does Dellarobia’s migration take her both literally and figuratively?

Story Ending
Were you pleased with how Kingsolver ended the novel? What felt true and right to you?  What took a different turn than you anticipated?  How would you have concluded the story?

Other Quotes
Page 165, “Everyone wanted to be inside the fold rather than out; maybe life was that simple.”
Page 353 “You never knew which split second might be the zigzag bolt dividing all that went before from everything that comes next.” 

 What other quotes jumped out at you?

You can purchase Flight Behavior online at Hugo Bookstores