Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sarah's Key Discussion Guide

Book:     Sarah's Key
Author:  Tatiana de Rosnay
Edition:  St. Martin's Griffin Edition: October 2008

You can purchase Sarah's Key online at Hugo Bookstores.

Major Characters

Sarah Starsynski (known as Sirka until she stays with Genevieve and Jules): 10 year old French Jewish girl taken in the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup July 16, 1942
Michel: Sarah’s 4 year old brother
Rachel: girl with whom Sarah escapes from Beaune-la-Rolande
Genevieve and Jules Dufaure: French couple who take Sarah in after her escape

2002 to present:
Gaspard Dufaure: grandson of Jules and Genevieve
Julia Jarmond: An American journalist living in Paris in 2002
Zoe: Julia’s 11 year old daughter
Bertrand: Julia’s French husband
Mame Tezac: Bertrand’s grandmother
Edouard: Bertrand’s father, Mame’s son
Joshua: Julia’s American editor, living in Paris
Bamber: Photographer working with Julia
Frank Levy: Head of association organizing commemorations for 60th anniversary of the roundup.


26, rue de Saintonge: Sarah’s family’s apartment. Tezacs move in in July 1942, after the round up.
Velodrome d’Hiver: Where Jewish families were taken after Paris roundup in July 1942 and kept for several days before being sent to camps
Beaune-la-Rolande: The Loiret camp where Sarah and her parents were taken and from where Sarah escaped

Discussion Topics


How much of the historical story were you aware before reading the book? How did having the historical elements integrated into a novel affect your understanding, awareness and reaction to the Velodrome d'Hiver roundup?

Point of view

For the first half of the book the chapters alternate between Sarah’s story, told in the 3rd person, with Julia’s story, told in the first person. Then when Edouard tells his memory of Sarah arriving at his apartment and finding her brother’s body, the book shifts to only Julia’s point of view (page 156).

It is as if Sarah’s story is now in the present because someone in the present is sharing the story. The story can be revealed by characters in the present.  No longer is the story hidden.

How does the author use each point of view to convey the story? What is crucial in Sarah’s point of view? In Julia’s?

The Key

The key is used as a symbol for Sarah’s secret, both in her life and after her death.  The key is both physically the opening of a secret and metaphorically—Sarah hides it in her pocket and keeps the secret, she brings it out to share the secret. When Sarah tells her father about her brother she shows him the key (page 22). When Sarah reveals the key to red haired policeman she tells him that she locked her brother in the closet (page 90)

What keys have been revealed to you? What keys have you kept hidden and later revealed?

Secrets and Communication

Secrets are kept throughout the book. A number of individuals know pieces of Sarah’s story, but keep them hidden. Edouard isn’t even aware that his mother knew about Sarah until Zoe tells him after Mame’s stroke. Other secrets are kept as well—Sarah’s parents had not told Sarah of the true danger they were in before the roundup. Or why. Page 40: “If they had told her, if they had told her everything they knew, wouldn’t that have made today easier?”

In the short term the secrets make it hard for Sarah to understand what is happening. In the longer term the secrets are shown to age and eat away at the secret keepers.

Julia often blurts out information she has learned without thinking through either the ramifications or how to best communicate what she knows.  How do Julia's revelations help and hurt her and those she shares them with?

How can we achieve a balance between sharing the weight of our burdens and minimizing pain to those we love?  Especially in this age of immediate communication, when is better to refrain from exposing a feeling, an act, an event witnessed or at least pause to consider the impact our revelation may have?  When do secrets long held become a burden?

What themes struck you in the book?

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake Discussion Guide

Book:     The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Author:  Aimee Bender
Edition:  Doubleday hardcover, 2010

You can purchase The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake online at Hugo Bookstores.

Major Characters

Rose Edelstein, narrator starting at 9 years old
Joseph, Rose’s older brother by 5 years
George, Joseph’s classmate and Rose’s support
Lane Edelstein, mom, Rose’s mother
Paul Edelstein, dad, Rose’s father
Grandma, Rose’s distant grandmother who lives in Washington State and never visits
Eddie Oakley, dodgeball rival, classmate
Eliza, classmate with a crush on George
Sherrie, classmate who uses Rose’s talent as therapy
Larry, co-op president, with whom mom is having an affair
Carl, dad’s college roommate


Willoughby Ave, Hollywood, CA, home of Edelsteins
Bedford Gardens, where Joseph has his apartment
La Lyonnaise—restaurant where Rose ends up working

Discussion Topics

Tasting Feelings

Can you imagine what feelings might taste like?  Rose reacts so violently to her mother’s sadness, “You’re so sad in there, I said and alone, and hungry, and sad, “ page 75.   On page 242 Rose tastes her own feelings.  How does she react to that tasting?  How does she grow through her cooking?

What must it feel like to have someone else’s feelings be a part of you? Have you ever felt someone else’s sorrow or joy so deeply, that it was a part of you?  How are messages of need communicated among people?  How do you receive others deepest feelings?  How do people ‘shed’ their feelings among others?


Rose, Joseph and Dad each have a unique talent.  Rose, the ability to taste emotions in food; Joseph the ability to morph into objects; the grandfather theh ability to smell people’s feelings;  Dad, possibly a medical ability which he doesn’t explore (page 263).  Each character has more ‘typical’ talents as well—Rose the ability to meet people (page 40) and Joseph, extreme intelligence.  Dad, says his skill is making relationships happen—when referring to the footstool escapade in Berkeley—page 119.

Rose’s realization of Joseph’s ability grows over time.  She first notices his ability as a blur, page 47 then expands on page 114 “my brother had taken to disappearing”  and disappears when he babysits, page 122 and again on his high school graduation day, page 145.   Finally he disappears into the chair page 189.   He asks for the grandmother’s folding chairs. Why were those chairs important to Joseph? How do the characters react to one another’s more typical talents?  How is Rose bothered by Joseph’s intelligence?  How is Joseph burdened?  What does Joseph’s ability to morph into objects represent to you?  What does Rose’s ability to taste people’s feelings represent to you?

How does Rose react to finding out that George is helping Joseph with his studies and not the other way around?  What does Mom think of Dad’s talent of making the footstool seem like fate?  Dad says to Rose (page 170) “You have things to offer, he said, gruffly.” That is nearly the extent of their heart to heart talk.

Do you remembering discovering that a sibling or a parent wasn’t the best in some category where you had them on a pedestal?  How did you react?  How have your parents recognized or ignored your abilities?

Each faces his or her more unusual talent in significantly different ways.  Rose confronts hers head on, talking with friends (George takes her to a bakery, page 60-67) and doctors about her taste sensations and eventually uses her talent to help teens.  Joseph keeps his talent private, yet seems to pursue his ability to morph into objects. And Dad avoids his talent—staying outside of hospitals even for the birth of his children and when Joseph is hospitalized.  Dad doesn’t want to explore his talent “No, he said.  I’m sorry, Rose. I saw what it did to my father.  I’m not going in.” page 264.  “Going in” may refer specifically to going into hospitals, but it can also take on a more symbolic meeting—Dad doesn’t want to go into his talent, to explore his skill.  Rose is amazed that her father has a choice—he can avoid facing his talent. But does he truly avoid it?  He isn’t in the hospital for his children’s births or for Joseph in the ER.  What is the downside of ignoring his talent?  How might Joseph and Rose have faced their fates differently if Dad had embraced his talent?

What talents do you have?  How do you embrace or avoid them?  How do you share them with others?  What talents do you see others sharing?  Hiding?  What are the positive aspects of talents and what are negative?

Characters have varying degrees of belief in Rose’s, Joseph’s and Dad’s abilities.  George embraces and believes both that Rose can taste feelings and Joseph can move into objects.  George sees Rose’s talent as a positive, “It’s not a problem, it’s fantastic.” Page 71.  Sherrie uses Rose’s talent and ignores the rest of Rose (page 159-161) .  How do others’ reactions to their talents support or diminish each character?  The school nurse and emergency room doctors don’t believe her and try to fit her into what they know— “she seems to be okay.  Give her time,” page 79. 

How have you supported a friend or a family member as he or she has explored her talents?  How have you dismissed someone’s talents or seen someone’s talents dismissed?  What talents do you see in others that they are unaware of?


Joseph and his mother seem to have a much stronger bond than Rose and her mother.  How does Rose react?   Page 69 “sometimes I wondered if, on Saturdays, she dragged her hands over raw wood to preserve the special time with him.”  And yet Rose actually knows more about how her mother is feeling than her brother.  And she tells herself she needs to pretend she doesn’t, page 81: “and now my job was to pretend that I did not get the message.”  Later Rose has a different view of her brother removing the splinters page 250 – “he was also removing all traces of any tiny leftover parts, and suddenly a ritual which I’d always found incestuous and gross seemed to me more like a desperate act on Joseph’s part to get out, to leave, to extract every little last remnant and bring it into open air.”

Page 280 mom admits that she sometimes feels like she doesn’t know her children.  Rose thinks this is the humblest thing a mother could admit.  How do you think Rose feels about this? 
Have you ever felt like your parent didn’t know you?

What significance do the grandmother’s “gifts” and phone calls have? Page 99 “We still got regular packages of household items from Grandma, slowly mailing her life away in Washington State”  How did you react to the grandmother’s pronouncement on page 91 “But you don’t even know me.  How can you love me?  It should be earned.”   What do you make of that?  On page 100, Mom offers to Rose a few bits of her relationship with her mother. How would you characterize the relationship between the Mom and the Grandmother? 

When have you reached out to help someone and been rebuffed?   Do you see varying degrees of emotional bonds between parents and children?  How does that make you feel?

Mom believes in signs. She believes her finding Dad was a sign.  How does she react on her wedding day when Carl tells the story of the footstool?  Page 89-90.  How do you think her marriage and subsequent affair were shaped by that knowledge?  Would it have been different if she had never found out?  What does the footstool represent to Rose and why does she want to keep it?   Page 91, “I patted the seat.  This one, I said.  The velvet was soft.  I sidestepped the piles and took it for my room.”

What have you wanted to hold onto from your parents’ relationship?  How have your relationships been changed by finding out something did not happen as you thought?

How is Rose’s relationship with George stifled? How is it fulfilled or unfulfilled?  Should they have come together? Why didn’t they?

When does Rose feel close to Joseph?  What draws them together?  What pulls them apart?

Growing Up

On page 279 Rose says she wants to go back to the innocence of being 8. 

When have you wanted to go back?  What information do you wish you didn’t know?

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?

The Rent Collector

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