Historical fiction

Manhattan Beach

Author: 
Egan, Jennifer

The long-awaited, daring, and magnificent novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Manhattan Beach opens in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to the house of Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family.

Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war.

Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that had always belonged to men. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war.

She is the sole provider for her mother, a farm girl who had a brief and glamorous career with the Ziegfeld Follies, and her lovely, severely disabled sister. At a nightclub, she chances to meet Dexter Styles again, and she begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have vanished.

Mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller, Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America and the world. Manhattan Beach is a spectacular novel by one of the greatest writers of our time. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. In the first chapter, on the beach, Anna walks barefoot despite the cold and says, "It only hurts at first. After a while you can’t feel anything." Dexter admires Anna for her strength, which he senses comes from her father. He reflects that "men’s children gave them away" (pages 8–9). How does this meeting between Dexter, Ed, and Anna set the tone for the rest of the novel?

2. Why is the thought of what Lydia "might have looked like, had she not been damaged. A beauty. Possibly more than Agnes," (page 16) so painful to Ed? Why is he unable even to cope with Lydia, much less love her, as Anna and Agnes do?

3. "Each time Anna moved from her father’s world to her mother and Lydia’s, she felt as if she’d shaken free of one life for a deeper one. And when she returned to her father, holding his hand as they ventured out into the city, it was her mother and Lydia she shook off, often forgetting them completely. Back and forth she went, deeper — deeper still — until it seemed there was no place further down she could go. But somehow there always was. She had never reached the bottom" (page 26). What does this passage reveal about Anna? What allows, even compels, her to shift between worlds?

4. Ed, looking back on his decision to work with Dexter, reflects that he needed a change, that "[h]e'd take danger over sorrow any day of the week" (page 34). Is Ed right to do this? Is Ed’s philosophy a noble or a selfish one?

5. What draws Anna to Nell? And Nell to Anna? How are they each not "angels" and how does this bond them?

6. Even at a young age, Dexter wants to know what’s beneath the surface of things. "For him, the existence of an obscure truth recessed behind an obvious one, and emanating through it allegorically, was mesmerizing" (page 91). How does this fascination shape Dexter’s life and his career?

7. How does Anna’s sexual relationship with Leon, during which she thinks things like "I might not be here" and "This might not be me" (page 120), relate to her feeling abandoned by her father? Why does she later invoke her father as "an abstract witness to her virtue" (page 122)?

8. Why does Anna set herself such a difficult task — becoming a diver, "breaking" the lieutenant, facing opposition at every turn? Why does she feel "that she had always wanted [an enemy]" (page 149)?

9. Why does Lydia’s death solidify Agnes’s determination to be done with her husband, after so many years, whether he returns or not (page 179)?

10. Leaving Charlie Voss at the club to spend the night with Dexter, Anna releases herself to the dark: "she had … disappeared through a crack in the night. Not a soul knew where to find her" (page 234). What do you make of her need to be lost, to be a part of the dark and its danger?

11. Ed is simultaneously drawn to and infuriated by the bosun. Discuss why there is a push and pull between these two characters.

12. Why does Dexter insist on diving with Anna to try to find her father’s corpse? What does this effort represent for him? What do you think he comes to understand?

13. Visions of Lydia push Anna to not go through with her abortion. Discuss the connection between Lydia and Anna’s unborn child.

14. When Anna takes the train west, there’s a moment when she "bolted upright. She had thought of her father. At last, she understood: This is how he did it" (page 426). What allows her to understand and perhaps reconcile with her father?

15. Luck plays an important role throughout the novel and has particular significance for Anna, Dexter, and Ed. How does luck shape each of their lives? Good luck and bad luck?

16. Throughout the novel, characters create new identities for themselves and start over. How do these individual stories of reinvention relate to the spirit of optimism, the quest for the new that is so common among Americans at this time?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Author: 
Sullivan, Mark T.

Based on the true story of a forgotten hero, the USA Today and #1 Amazon Charts bestseller Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the triumphant, epic tale of one young man's incredible courage and resilience during one of history's darkest hours.

Pino Lella wants nothing to do with the war or the Nazis. He's a normal Italian teenager--obsessed with music, food, and girls--but his days of innocence are numbered. When his family home in Milan is destroyed by Allied bombs, Pino joins an underground railroad helping Jews escape over the Alps, and falls for Anna, a beautiful widow six years his senior.

In an attempt to protect him, Pino's parents force him to enlist as a German soldier--a move they think will keep him out of combat. But after Pino is injured, he is recruited at the tender age of eighteen to become the personal driver for Adolf Hitler's left hand in Italy, General Hans Leyers, one of the Third Reich's most mysterious and powerful commanders.

Now, with the opportunity to spy for the Allies inside the German High Command, Pino endures the horrors of the war and the Nazi occupation by fighting in secret, his courage bolstered by his love for Anna and for the life he dreams they will one day share.

Fans of All the Light We Cannot See, The Nightingale, and Unbroken will enjoy this riveting saga of history, suspense, and love.

(From the publisher)

Discussion Guide: 

1. BENEATH A SCARLET SKY is a work of historical fiction. As you were reading did you feel that the story was authentic? Given that the truth about what actually happened to each character is included at the end, talk about how Mark Sullivan crafted an interesting story while also sticking to the facts.

2. Throughout the book, Sullivan describes horrific scenes filled with violence, bombings and ruthless executions. How well do you think he captures the fear in the air? Does he strike the right balance between page-turner and paying homage to the brutal truth?

3. At the beginning of BENEATH A SCARLET SKY, bombs are dropped on Milan, destroying sections of the city. At this point, Mr. Beltramini’s grocery is saved. In talking to Pino Lella, Beltramini says, “If a bomb’s coming at you, it’s coming at you. You can’t just go around worrying about it. Just go on doing what you love, and go on enjoying your life.” What are your thoughts about his advice? Given what’s going on in the world today, do you live in fear of terrorism or war? How do you balance “enjoying your life” in spite of your fear?

4. If you or members of your book discussion group lived through World War II, here or abroad, how do your recollections match the emotions that you are reading here?

5. Father Re enlists Pino’s help to usher Italian Jews through the mountains to Switzerland and to safety. Catholics and Jews clearly have different belief systems. In today’s world, what do you think it would take for a Christian to help, say, a Muslim in a similar manner in a place of war? Do you think it’s possible for such an underground network to exist today?

6. Mrs. Napolitano is a pregnant Italian Jew who successfully escapes over the mountain pass in the dead of winter, in one of the most dramatic passages in the book. She almost dies along the way. If you were in her shoes, do you think you’d be brave enough to attempt the trek? What does it mean to be brave in the face of death?

7. There is a moment when Colonel Rauff, the head of the Gestapo in Milan, helps Father Re’s boys corral oxen into a pen. He enjoys himself and almost seems…human. What do you think the author intended by choosing to portray such an evil man in this light? Was it effective?

8. Just a few months shy of Pino’s 18th birthday, his father calls him back to Milan and demands that he enlist instead of waiting to be drafted. The catch? Enlisting with the Germans is safer. He is given a choice and chooses to enlist. Knowing you’d have to work for the enemy, what would you have done if you were in Pino’s shoes?

9. Almost by chance, Pino becomes the driver for one of the highest-ranking German officers in Italy. It’s a chance for Pino to become a spy, once again risking his life. If you were Pino, would you take advantage of the opportunity, knowing it could put your family in significant danger?

10. Pino’s best friend from childhood finds out that he’s a Nazi and accuses him of being a traitor. Pino can’t, of course, tell him the truth because it would put the mission in danger. What would it take for you to make a similar sacrifice? Is there a cause for a “greater good” that you’d risk anything for?

11. Anna catches Pino in the act of rifling through the Major General Hans Leyers’ things. When he tells her the truth, she softens and they kiss. What was your initial reaction during that scene? Did you trust Anna? Why or why not? How did your gut feeling change as the novel progressed? Do you think she deserved her fate?

12. After Pino and Major General Leyers are nearly killed by a British fighter plane, Leyers opens up to Pino and shares a bit about his life. Did this scene change the way you thought about him? Are people 100% evil, or is it possible to find humanity or goodness in everyone?

13. Major General Leyers gives Pino advice: “Doing favors… they help wondrously over the course of a lifetime. When you have done men favors, when you look out for others so they can prosper, they owe you. With each favor, you become stronger, more supported. It is a law of nature.” How does this statement inform Leyers’ character? Do you agree with this statement? Is doing and receiving favors about “owing,” or is it about something else?

14. Major General Leyers saves four sick children from Platform 21…and from death. Why do you think he does this? Out of the goodness of his heart, or is it one of his favors?

15. When the Germans surrender, the Italians turn on each other and many butcher each other to death, either for doing nothing or for being friendly with the Germans. Are their actions justified? Or is this violence just as condemnable?

16. Toward the end, Pino is given the chance to execute Major General Leyers. He doesn’t take it. Why do you think that is? What would you have done?

17. The ending is quite a shocker. Did you see it coming? Why or why not?

18. In certain sections, particularly in conversations between characters, Sullivan writes in a modern style. What effect, if any, does this have on the story or your perception of events? Does he capture the mood of the 1940s?

19. Sullivan provides information about what actually happened to the characters in the novel. After completing the book and finding out their destinies, did you feel each character got what they deserved?

20. In the preface, author Mark Sullivan admits to being suicidal the night he came up with the idea for BENEATH A SCARLET SKY. Did that information have any impact on how you perceived the book?

The Alice Network

Author: 
Quinn, Kate

In an enthralling new historical novel, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1947
In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive.

So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, she breaks free and heads to London. She is determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915
A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she's trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the "Queen of Spies", who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy's nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn't heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth…no matter where it leads. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Female friendship is a constant theme throughout The Alice Network. Charlie St. Clair and Eve Gardiner begin as antagonists, whereas Eve and Louise de Bettignies (Lili) are friends from the start. How does each friendship grow and change over the course of events?

2. The young Eve introduced in 1915 is very different from the older Eve seen through Charlie’s eyes in 1947. How and when did you see the young Eve begin to change into her older self? What was the catalyst of those changes?

3. Lili tells Eve “To tell the truth, much of this special work we do is quite boring.” Did the realities of spywork surprise you, compared to the more glamorous version presented by Hollywood? How do you think you would have fared, working for the historical Alice Network?

4. Rene Bordelon is denigrated by his peers as a war profiteer and an informer. He sees himself as a practical businessman, pointing out that he is not to blame making money off the invaders, or for tragedies like Oradours-sur-Glane which happened on German orders. Did you see him as a villain or an opportunist? Do you think he earned his final fate?

5. Eve loves Captain Cameron and hates Rene Bordelon—but her relationship with Rene is longer, darker, and more emotional. How is her hatred for him complicated by intimacy? How does his realization of Eve’s true identity change him? How do you think they continued to think and feel about each other during their thirty years separation, and how did that effect their eventual climax?

6. Finn Kilgore and Captain Cameron are parallels for each other: both Scotsmen and soldiers with war wounds and prison terms in their pasts, acting as support systems for the women they love who go into danger. How are the two men different as well as alike? How does Finn succeed where Cameron fails?

7. Rose’s disappearance provides the story’s driving search. Did her eventual fate surprise you? Had you ever heard of Oradours-sur-Glane? How did Rose’s fate change the goal of the search?

8. Everyone in The Alice Network suffers some form of emotional damage from war: Charlie’s depression after losing her Marine brother to suicide, Eve’s torture-induced nightmares, Finn’s concentration-camp memories and resulting anger issues, Cameron’s guilt over losing his recruits. How do they each cope with their war wounds? How do they help each other heal? How is PTSD handled in Eve’s day as compared to Charlie’s day—and as compared to now?

9. Charlie dreads the stigma of being a “bad girl” pregnant out of wedlock, and Eve fears shame and dismissal as a horizontale if it is learned she slept with a source for information. Discuss the sexual double-standards each woman faced. How have our sexual standards for women changed since 1915 and 1947?

10. Charlie decides to keep her baby, and Eve decides to have an abortion. Why did each woman make the choice she did?

11. Charlie argues that Rene should be brought to legal justice, and Eve argues for vigilante justice. Who do you think is right? How did it affect the ending? How do you think the outcome will bind Eve and Charlie and Finn in future, since they cannot share their adventure with anyone else?

12. “There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women. The kind that sit safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any conditions . . . even in evil.” The theme of the fleurs du mal carries from Lili to Eve—how does Eve pass it on to Charlie? When do you see Charlie becoming a fleur du mal in her own right? How has knowing Eve changed Charlie’s life, and vice versa? (From the author's website)

Lilac Girls

Author: 
Kelly, Martha Hall

For readers of The Nightingale and Sarah’s Key, inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this powerful debut novel reveals an incredible story of love, redemption, and terrible secrets that were hidden for decades.
 
New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon.

But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.
 
An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.
 
For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.
 
The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.
 
In Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly has crafted a remarkable novel of unsung women and their quest for love, freedom, and second chances. It is a story that will keep readers bonded with the characters, searching for the truth, until the final pages. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. What role did—could—compassion play in the horrific conditions of Nazified Europe? What were the dangers to those who attempted to act compassionately? How might you have chosen if faced with such a dire dilemma: compassion vs. risk?

2. Talk about the different backgrounds of Caroline, Kasia, and Herta, and how their lives are shaped by their upbringing.

3. Both Caroline and Kasia make foolish mistakes. Does that affect your ability to elicit sympathy for the two characters?

4. "Man's inhumanity to man" is one of the main concerns of LiLac Girls. Talk about the "slippery slope" on which Herta finds herself. How did she end up in the untenable situation in which she finds herself? How culpable is she?

5. Were parts of this book too difficult to read? Is there a need to continue writing about these experiments?

(Questions by LitLovers.)

A Gentleman in Moscow

Author: 
Towles, Amor

With his breakout debut novel, Rules of Civility, Amor Towles established himself as a master of absorbing, sophisticated fiction, bringing late 1930s Manhattan to life with splendid atmosphere and a flawless command of style. Readers and critics were enchanted.

A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in another elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov.

When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin.

Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.(From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Start with the Count. How would you describe him? Do you find him an appealing, even memorable character?

2. In what way does his gilded cage, his "prison" for decades, transform Count Rostov? How do you see him changing during the course of the novel? What incidents have the most profound effect on him? Consider the incident with the beehive and the honey.

3. The Metropol serves literally and symbolically as a window on the world. What picture does Amor Towles paint of the Soviet Union—the brutality, its Kafka-esque bureaucracy, and the fear it inspires among its citizens? What are the pressures, for instance, faced by those who both live in and visit the Metropol? Does Towles's dark portrait overwhelm the story's narrative?

4. Talk about Nina, who even Towles considers the Eloise of the Metropol. Nina helps the Count unlock the hotel (again, literally and symbolically), revealing a much richer place than the it first seemed. What do we, along with the Count, discover?

5. What might Casablanca be the Count's favorite film? What does it suggest about his situation?

6. Talk about the other characters, aside from Nina, who play an important part in this novel the handyman, the actress, his friend Mishka, and even Osip Glebnikov. Consider the incident with the honey.

7. The Count was imprisoned for writing the poem, "where is it now?", which questioned the purpose of the new Soviet Union. Care to make any comparisons now with Russia under Putin, 70-some years later?

(Questions by LitLovers.)

The Underground Railroad

Author: 
Whitehead, Colson

Winner, 2017 Pulitzer Prize-Fiction
Nominated, 2016 National Book Awards

A magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits.

When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape.

Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven.

But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.

The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.(From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. How does the depiction of slavery in The Underground Railroad compare to other depictions in literature and film?

2. The scenes on Randall’s plantation are horrific—how did the writing affect you as a reader?

3. In North Carolina, institutions like doctor’s offices and museums that were supposed to help "black uplift" were corrupt and unethical. How do Cora’s challenges in North Carolina mirror what America is still struggling with today?

4. Cora constructs elaborate daydreams about her life as a free woman and dedicates herself to reading and expanding her education. What role do you think stories play for Cora and other travelers using the underground railroad?

5. "The treasure, of course, was the underground railroad…. Some might call freedom the dearest currency of all." How does this quote shape the story for you?

6. How does Ethel’s backstory, her relationship with slavery, and Cora’s use of her home affect you?

7. What are your impressions of John Valentine’s vision for the farm?

8. When speaking of Valentine’s Farm, Cora explains "Even if the adults were free of the shackles that held them fast, bondage had stolen too much time. Only the children could take full advantage of their dreaming. If the white men let them." What makes this so impactful both in the novel and today?

9. What do you think about Terrance Randall’s fate?

10. How do you feel about Cora’s mother’s decision to run away? How does your opinion of Cora’s mother change once you’ve learned about her fate?

11. Whitehead creates emotional instability for the reader: if things are going well, you get comfortable before a sudden tragedy. What does this sense of fear do to you as you’re reading?

12. Who do you connect with most in the novel and why?

13. How does the state-by-state structure impact your reading process? Does it remind you of any other works of literature?

14. The book emphasizes how slaves were treated as property and reduced to objects. Do you feel that you now have a better understanding of what slavery was like?

15. Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

16. Does The Underground Railroad change the way you look at the history of America, especially in the time of slavery and abolitionism?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

Water for Elephants

Author: 
Gruen, Sara

An atmospheric, gritty, and compelling novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932, by the bestselling author of Riding Lessons.

When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town.

A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.

Beautifully written, Water for Elephants is illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in a world in which even love is a luxury that few can afford. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. To what extent do the chapters concerning the elderly Jacob enhance the chapters recounting the young Jacob’s experiences with the Benzini Brothers circus? In what ways do the chapters about the young Jacob contribute to a deeper understanding of the elderly Jacob’s life?

2. How does the novel’s epigraph, the quote from Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg, apply to the novel? What are the roles and importance of faithfulness and loyalty in Water for Elephants? In what ways does Gruen contrast the antagonisms and cruelties of circus life with the equally impressive loyalties and instances of caring?

3. Who did you, upon reading the prologue, think murdered August? What effect did that opening scene of chaos and murder have on your reception of the story that follows?

4. In connection with Jacob’s formal dinner with August and Marlena in their stateroom, Jacob remarks, “August is gracious, charming, and mischievous” (page 93). To what extent is this an adequate characterization of August? How would you expand upon Jacob’s observation? How would you characterize August? Which situations in the novel reveal his true character?

5. August says of Marlena, “Not everyone can work with liberty horses. It’s a God-given talent, a sixth sense, if you will” (page 94). Both August and Jacob recognize Marlena’s skills, her “sixth sense,” in working with the horses. In what ways does that sixth sense attract each man? How do August and Jacob differ in terms of the importance each places on Marlena’s abilities?

6. After Jacob puts Silver Star down, August talks with him about the reality of the circus. “The whole thing’s illusion, Jacob,” he says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect” (page 104). How does Gruen contrast the worlds of reality and illusion in the novel? Is there anything wrong with pandering to people’s need for illusion? Why do we crave the illusions that the circus represents?

7. Reflecting on the fact that his platitudes and stories don’t hold his children’s interest, the elderly Jacob notes, “My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik—that’s all ancient history now. But what else do I have to offer?” (page 110). How might we learn to appreciate the stories and life lessons of our elders and encourage people younger than ourselves to appreciate our own?

8. Looking at himself in the mirror, the old Jacob tries “to see beyond the sagging flesh.” But he claims, “It’s no good.... I can’t find myself anymore. When did I stop being me?” (page 111). How would you answer that question for Jacob or any individual, or for yourself?

9. In what ways and to what degree do Uncle Al’s maneuvers and practices regarding the defunct Fox Brothers circus reflect traditional American business practices? How would you compare his behavior with that of major businessmen and financiers of today? What alternative actions would you prefer?

10. As he lies on his bedroll, after his night with Barbara and Nell, Jacob cannot empty his mind of troubling visions, and he reflects that “the more distressing the memory, the more persistent its presence” (page 143). How might the elderly Jacob’s memories corroborate or contradict this observation? What have been your experiences and observations in this regard?

11. In his Carnival of the Animals, Ogden Nash wrote, “Elephants are useful friends.” In what ways is Rosie a “useful” friend? What is Rosie’s role in the events that follow her acquisition by Uncle Al?

12. After Jacob successfully coaches August in Polish commands for Rosie, he observes, “It’s only when I catch Rosie actually purring under August’s loving ministrations that my conviction starts to crumble. And what I’m left looking at in its place is a terrible thing” (page 229). What is Jacob left “looking at,” how does it pertain to August’s personality and Jacob’s relationship with August, and what makes it a “terrible thing”?

13. How did you react to the redlighting of Walter and Camel, and eight others, off the trestle? How might we see Uncle Al’s cutthroat behavior as “an indictment of a lifetime spent feigning emotions to make a buck” (in the words of one reviewer)?

14. After the collapse of the Benzini Brothers circus and Uncle Al’s having“done a runner” (page 314), Jacob realizes, “Not only am I unemployed and homeless, but I also have a pregnant woman, bereaved dog, elephant, and eleven horses to take care of” (page 317). What expectations did you entertain for Jacob and Marlena’s—and their menagerie’s—future after they leave the Benzini Brothers circus? How do the elderly Jacob’s memories of Marlena and their life together confirm or alter those expectations?

15. At the end of the novel, Jacob exclaims, “So what if I’m ninety-three?...why the hell shouldn’t I run away with the circus?” (page 331). What would you project to be the elderly Jacob’s experiences after he runs away with the circus the second time? How does his decision reflect what we have learned about his early years?

16. Sara Gruen has said that the “backbone” of her novel “parallels the biblical story of Jacob,” in the book of Genesis. On the first night after his leaving Cornell, for example, Jacob—as did his biblical namesake—lies “back on the bank, resting my head on a flat stone” (page 23). In what other ways does Water for Elephants parallel the story of the biblical Jacob? How do the names of many of the characters reflect
names of characters in the biblical account?

17. In the words of one reviewer, Water for Elephants “explores...the pathetic grandeur of the Depression-era circus.” In what ways and to what extent do the words “pathetic grandeur” describe the world that Gruen creates in her novel?
(Questions by Hal Hager, of Hal Hager & Associates, Somerville, New Jersey.)

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