Historical fiction

Unsheltered

Author: 
Kingsolver, Barbara

A timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family.

Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart.

The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs.

Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men.

At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

Brilliantly executed and compulsively readable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts.

In this mesmerizing story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred—whether family or friends—and in the strength of the human spirit. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. What do the living spaces in their various conditions throughout the novel suggest about the people living in them? Figuratively speaking, which foundations turn out to be solid, or precarious?

2. Mary Treat tells Thatcher that to be unsheltered is to live in daylight. What does she mean? What kinds of shelter do these characters crave, in their different centuries? How might sheltered lives—or the craving for them—become a hindrance?

3. Which of the many challenges confronting Willa are hers alone to bear, and why? What do you see as the foundation of her successful relationship with Iano? How has marriage changed, or not changed, since the time of Rose and Thatcher?

4. Why do you think happy marriages so rarely appear in fiction?

5. In what ways, if any, do you find Nick’s bigotry and anger comprehensible? What accounts for Tig’s patience with him, despite their differences? How do the family’s conflicts relate to the polarization of present times? What’s suggested by Willa’s and Nick’s argument taking place on the Walt Whitman Bridge?

6. How are Mary Treat’s eccentricities related to her strengths? In what ways is her friendship especially valuable to Thatcher? What is the role of the scientist in times of social upheaval?

7. What are some of the"old mythologies" discussed by Mary and Thatcher, to which people cling for comfort even when they’re no longer true? Are any of these still popular in the modern era?

8. Mary tells Thatcher she is "astonished at how little most people can manage to see." Specifically, which realities in her century, and ours, do people find it difficult to see? What are the costs? Is it possible to view ourselves objectively in our own time?

9. When Thatcher sees the world "divided in two camps, the investigators and the sweeteners," what is he observing? Which of the novel’s characters are the former, and which are the latter? Where would you place yourself?

10. Consider the creative names and botanical character identities throughout the novel. What do they reveal? How have the various characters’ education or backgrounds shaped their perspectives? Why do you think a select few of them are able to think outside of what Tig calls "the cardboard box," or Mary, "the pumpkin shell?"

11. What family dynamics might have made Tig and Zeke so different and combative, while Jorge and his siblings are close and supportive?

12. How do the characters in two centuries variously understand and connect with the natural world? When Willa’s phone causes "thousands of birds [to burst] from their tree skyward like a house going up in smoke," what does this potent image suggest? What about the ants that seem to inhabit the neighborhood outside the boundaries of time?

13. When Willa complains that "the rules don’t apply anymore," what does she mean? How are Zeke and Tig preparing differently for a future in which they will have less than their parents? Did the novel move you to any new insights about generational difference?

14. How does the powerful experience of loss affect this novel’s characters, at personal and societal levels? Is the nature of grief constant across human experience? How might "the loss of what they know" influence people’s political behavior?

15. The novel’s epigraph quotes a Wallace Stevens poem,"The Well Dressed Man with a Beard." How does the epigraph relate to the novel, and how might Christopher Hawk (a well-dressed man with a beard) serve as its pivot point? Why do you think the author chose to set the story in two different centuries? And why these two in particular?

16. In shifting between chapters, what changes did you notice in the characters’ language, or the narrative tone? In what ways did you find the two separate narratives connected?

17. What is the "precise balance of terror and mollycoddling" that Charles Landis manages? How, when, and why do you think people respond to this leadership style?

18. The shooting of Uri Carruth by Charles Landis, and subsequent not-guilty verdict, are actual historical events. Is the anecdote relevant to the  present? What is the role of journalism in a healthy society? Who is responsible for its integrity?

19. As they shift from parent-child to a more adult relationship, what does Willa learn from her daughter? How might "the secret of happiness" be "low expectations?" How does this relate to the lost-and-found quote about happiness from Willa Cather’s My Àntonia?

20. Thatcher settles finally on seeing Mary Treat as "a giant redwood: oldest and youngest of all living things, the tree that stood past one eon into the next." Do you agree?
(Questions issued by HarperCollins.)

The World That We Knew

Author: 
Hoffman, Alice

In 1941, during humanity's darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive. In Berlin, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter Lea away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it's his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once the golem Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked. As Lea and Ava travel across France, Ettie goes into hiding, waiting to become the fighter she's destined to be.

Discussion Guide: 

1. This novel is both historical fiction and magical realism. How does Alice Hoffman achieve her unique writing style? What details does she use from each genre? What do each add to the emotional content of the story?

2. After reading the novel, re-examine the title. Consider who "we" refers to in relation to the story and to your own life.

3. How do you feel about Ava’s relationship with the heron? Has an animal ever affected your spiritual life? Are emotions bound to human experience?

4. In one of the darkest periods of human history, why do the characters still yearn to live even as the world is falling apart? What makes life precious? Is it love, family, memory, hope?

5. In fairy tales, beasts are often humane, and humans are often cruel. In The World That We Knew the same is true. Discuss this theme in the novel and in your favorite fairy tales.

6. Julien and Victor Lévi are brothers with very different paths. How does each handle their wartime experience? What do they share despite their differences, and what aspects of their past influences them most?

7. Marianne initially leaves her father’s farm “to find something that belonged to her and her alone” (99), which leads her to Paris. Despite ending up where she began, do you think she has achieved this goal? Why or why not? Did her love story surprise you? What do you think the future holds for her?

8. We learn halfway through the book that Hanni instructed her daughter to destroy Ava once Lea is brought to safety. Why do you think Lea defies her mother? Do you think she made the right decision? What may have changed her mind?

9. The book begins with Hanni making a great sacrifice to save her daughter and ends with Ava doing the same. What do these women share? Is it possible to love someone else’s children as if they were your own?

10. Ava is a golem, a mysterious creature of Jewish legend, controlled by her maker and created to do another’s bidding, but something changes. She longs for free will. Do you think she finds it?

11. Ettie yearns to be a scholar and a rabbi, but because she’s female these goals are unavailable to her. How does she create her own fate, and what leads her to rebel against the constraints of gender and history? Does war create opportunities for women to act outside of conventional roles?

12. Lea’s mother’s voice is heard throughout the novel in the italicized sections. The loss of a mother and the loss of a child is central to the story. How are the long-lasting effects of loss woven through the novel?

13. Can Ava posses a soul due to her ability to love? How does love change a world of hate, and how does it affect the characters in the novel?
(Questions by the publishers.)

Mrs. Everything

Author: 
Weiner, Jennifer

A smart, thoughtful, and timely exploration of two sisters’ lives from the 1950s to the present as they struggle to find their places—and be true to themselves—in a rapidly evolving world. Mrs. Everything is an ambitious, richly textured journey through history—and herstory—as these two sisters navigate a changing America over the course of their lives.

Do we change or does the world change us?

Jo and Bethie Kaufman were born into a world full of promise.

Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a perfect "Dick and Jane" house, where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair; Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life.

But the truth ends up looking different from what the girls imagined. Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies.

As their lives unfold against the background of free love and Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib, Bethie becomes an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything (except settling down).

Meanwhile, Jo becomes a proper young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world instead of a participant. Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of, nor has a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Is it too late for the women to finally stake a claim on happily ever after?

In her most ambitious novel yet, Jennifer Weiner tells a story of two sisters who, with their different dreams and different paths, offer answers to the question: How should a woman be in the world?
 (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Jo and Bethie are very different people. But in what ways do you find them similar? Do their similarities outweigh their differences? How do their similarities cause problems in their relationship?

2. Forgiveness, of others and of the characters’ own selves, is an important theme in the novel. Discuss how the characters work through their conflicts and how they do or do not resolve the issues.

3. Compare and contrast how Jo and Bethie are influenced by their mother. Is there a defining element of their relationship with their mother? How does it weave its way into the sisters’ lives?

4. Mrs. Everything spans half of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first. What period details make you feel immersed in each decade? Were there any details that you remembered from your own past? Were there details about life in earlier decades that surprised you? What effect did this have on your reading experience?

5. In Mrs. Everything, Jennifer Weiner has created many memorable secondary characters, from Mrs. Kaufman to Lila to Jo’s and Bethie’s partners and beyond. Did you have a favorite? What qualities made them come alive for you?

6. Were you ever frustrated by the choices Jo and Bethie made? Did you empathize with their choices, despite feeling frustrated?

7. Literature is full of sisters with complex relationships. Do Jo and Bethie remind you of other favorite sister duos? What is it about the sister relationship that captivates us as readers?

8. What draws Jo and Shelley together? After they’ve reunited, what keeps them together?

9. What do Bethie and Harold learn from each other throughout their relationship?

10. Because Mrs. Everything takes places over several decades, it touches on many political and social movements. Did you learn anything about American history while reading? Was there a cause or issue that particularly interested you?

11. When Lila visits Bethie for the summer, they have a heart-to-heart about the pressure Lila feels from her mother to be special and achieve great things. Bethie tells Lila that it comes from the lack of options the sisters had growing up in a different era:

Some girls did grow up and became doctors and lawyers and school principals.… A few girls did grow up and do things, and got those jobs, but for the rest of us, we were told that the most important thing was to be married, and be a mother.… She just doesn’t want that to be the only choice you have (page 392).

    Though Lila does have more opportunities available to her than her mother and aunt did, she (and her generation) faces new challenges. Did you relate to Lila’s concerns?

12. How does faith—both religious and in a more general sense—inform Jo and Bethie? What does faith mean to the sisters?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

Daisy Jones & the Six

Author: 
Reid, Taylor Jenkins

Everyone knows Daisy Jones and The Six, but nobody knows the reason behind their split at the absolute height of their popularity … until now.

Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go.

The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock ’n’ roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.

Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.

Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.

The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.

Discussion Guide: 

1. This book is written in an oral history format. Why do you think the author chose to structure the book this way? How does this approach affect your reading experience?

2. At one point Daisy says, "I was just supposed to be the inspiration for some man’s great idea.… I had absolutely no interest in being somebody else’s muse." How does her experience of being used by others contribute to the decisions she makes when she joins The Six?

3. Why do you think Billy has such a strong need to control the group, both early on when they are simply the Dunne Brothers and later when they become Daisy Jones & The Six?

4. There are two sets of brothers in The Six: Eddie and Pete Loving, and Billy and Graham Dunne. How do these sibling relationships affect the band?

5. Daisy, Camila, Simone, and Karen are each very different embodiments of female strength and creativity. Who are you most drawn to and why?

6. Billy and Daisy become polarizing figures for the band. Who in the book gravitates more toward Billy’s leadership, and who is more inclined to follow Daisy’s way of doing things? How do these alliances change over time, and how does this dynamic upset the group’s balance?

7. Why do you think Billy and Daisy clash so strongly? What misunderstandings between them are revealed through the "author’s" investigation?

8. What do you think of Camila’s decision to stand by Billy, despite the ways that he has hurt her through his trouble with addiction and wavering faithfulness? How would you describe their relationship? How does it differ from Billy and Daisy’s relationship?

9. Camila says about Daisy and Billy, "The two of you think you’re lost souls, but you’re what everybody is looking for." What does she mean by this?

10. As you read the lyrics to Aurora, are there any songs or passages that lead you to believe Daisy or Billy was intimating things within their work that they wouldn’t admit to each other or themselves?

11. What do you think of Karen’s decision about her pregnancy and Graham’s reaction to the news? What part do gender roles play in their situation?

12. Were you surprised to discover who the "author" was? How did you react to learning the "author’s" reason for writing this book?

13. What role does the reliability of memory play in the novel? Were there instances in which you believed one person’s account of an event more than another? What does the "author" mean when she states at the beginning, "The truth often lies, unclaimed, in the middle"?

14. What did you think of the songs written by Daisy Jones & The Six? How did you imagine they would sound?

15. If you are old enough to have your own memories of the 1970s, do you feel the author captured that time period well? If you didn’t experience the seventies yourself, what did this fictional depiction of the time evoke for you?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Author: 
Morris, Heather

This beautiful, illuminating tale of hope and courage is based on interviews that were conducted with Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov—an unforgettable love story in the midst of atrocity.

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners. Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism--but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive. One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her--Dust jacket flap.

Discussion Guide: 

1. How did you feel about Lale when he was first introduced, as he arrived in Auschwitz? How did your understanding of him change throughout the novel?

2. What qualities did Lale have that influenced the way he was treated in the camp? Where did those qualities come from?

3. Survival in the camp depended on people doing deeds of questionable morality. Lale became the tattooist, but how did Gita’s choices affect her survival? What about her friend who befriended a Nazi?

4. Inmates in the concentration camp had to make life-or-death decisions every day. Why did some make the "right" decisions and survive while others did not?

5. Discuss some of the small acts of humanity carried out by individuals in The Tattooist of Auschwitz. How did these small acts of kindness have greater implications? Did it make you reconsider what you believe to be brave or heroic? Did this make you think differently about the impact of your own everyday actions?

6. The Tattooist of Auschwitz makes clear that there were also non-Jewish prisoners in the camp. How did the treatment of Jews differ from that of non-Jews? How did differences manifest themselves?

7. Had Gita and Lale met in a more conventional way, would they have developed the same kind of relationship? How did their circumstances change the course of their romance?

8. In what ways were the relationships between Gita and her friends different from the usual friendships between teenage girls? In what ways were they similar?

9. In what ways was Lale a hero? In what ways was he an ordinary man?

10. Lale faced danger even after the camp was liberated. How did his experiences immediately after liberation prepare him for the rest of his life?

11. How does The Tattooist of Auschwitz change your perceptions about the Holocaust in particular, and war in general? What implications does The Tattooist of Auschwitzs this book hold for our own time?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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