As Diane points out, some
groups have had rather negative reactions to the Smiley novellas. What seems to happen
most often in these cases is that some readers so dislike Ordinary Love that they refuse
to read Good Will. In the groups that responded more positively to the novellas, however,
the discussion has frequently focused more on Good Will than Ordinary Love, I suspect
partly because there's more "plot" there and it's clearer what is happening.
I've talked with two or three of
the scholars whose groups had difficulty with Ordinary Love, and we're wondering whether
those leading the Family Photographs series in the future might have better luck with the
novellas if they suggested readers reverse the order in which they read the two stories.
It's maybe worth trying.
A question came up right
at the start: how are the Pulitzer Prize books chosen? I called the Pulitzer Prize office
and asked for the names of all the nominees for 1969, but no one ever sent me anything. I
did extensive searching on the Web, interlibrary loaned various books on the prize, copied
pages on the prize from the World Almanac, etc. to no avail. I think the public just isn't
meant to know the contenders.
Afton is a funny, funky place. Part
classic Wyoming hard-scrabble town, part retiree enclave, part conservative farming
community, it always strikes me as an unlikely spot for literary interest. But we have
quite decent attendance at book discussion meetings in Afton, and the participants are, if
anything, more eager to devour unfamiliar and difficult texts than in most small towns. We
had a lot of fun with the Pulitzer series this year, and folks seemed to be looking
forward excitedly to next years series, whatever it turns out to be.
We had a lot of fun with the
Pulitzer series this year. My approach was to spend about thirty minutes at the outset of
the first meeting talking about what the Pulitzer Prize is, and laying the groundwork for
repeated discussions of canonicity as the series progressed. I laid out the basic
questions: What is the worldwide history of literary prizes in general? How and why do
they get started? Are they "real," or simply commercial public-relations
devices? How do books get picked, and who picks them? Do current events affect selections?
How do trends in publishing, academics and politics affect selections? Looking at a list
of winners (such as Pulitzer Prize novels), in what ways is it a depiction of our culture,
our history? In what ways is it not? Is a literary canon of any sort a self-portrait, an
idealized image, or an attempt at prophecy?
I went on like this for a while
and then noticed everyone's eyes were getting a little glassy. They were vaguely
interested in what I was talking about, but what they really wanted to do was discuss our
first book (which was The Optimist's Daughter). I abandoned the theoretical
business (returning to it in later instances only in much truncated fashion), and we went
on to enjoy some good book discussions. In other words, my advice to myself or others
doing this series would be as follows: Don't try to make this into an academic exercise,
even though this series, more than most, tempts a leader to lean that direction. To me,
this series is as much about the above questions as it is about the books themselves. But
that belief needs to be finessed better than I handled it. On the other hand, I
prepared a mini-lecture for the discussion of The Grapes of Wrath covering such
things as Depression-era politics, the history of the labor movement, migrant policy and
practice in the contemporary West, and the historical evidence for and against Steinbeck's
particular depiction. The group seemed to love all that stuff. Then again, they floundered
and lost patience when I described some of the radical literary interpretations which have
been applied to Grapes over the years.
My general assessment: I'm
looking forward to leading this series again elsewhere, because it's downright fun. People
enjoy wrestling these books (with the exception of The Optimist's Daughter, which everyone
hated, at least in Afton).
* I'll tone down the theory at
the beginning of the series and slip in parcels of it periodically.
* I may make up a set of
overlying questions to consider (like those above) and hand them out at the beginning for
people to be thinking about all season long, if they wish to do so.
* As a way of getting at the
deeper issues of prize-giving and list-making, I'll probably ask a fundamental and
predictable question of every book, something like, "If you were making up a list of,
say, fifty great American novels, would you include this book? Why or why not?"
* I'll probably make up a prize
and we'll vote at the end for the "best of the prize-winning books" we've read.
In other words, I'll look for
ways to make this series more playful, since it seems from the get-go a trifle heavy and
I was prepared for people to have
more difficulty with House Made of Dawn than they did. That was actually one of our best
The program organizer arranged
for us all to go over to her house to watch the film of The Color Purple before we
discussed the book. It made for an extremely long evening, of course. But it was a great
exercise, especially because the movie emphasizes certain aspects of the novel, and it's
good to compare interpretations. A lot of the books we read in various series have had
fine films made of them - I recommend doing a film/book evening once a season (at most) if
you can fit it into the schedule.
I think the Pulitzer series provides a great opportunity -
perhaps the best among the WCH book discussion programs - for discussion of truly
"American literature," whatever that means. The ambiguity I allude to is, I
think, the point. We always have good discussions of these books when we talk about them,
pro or con, as emblems of American culture. The fact that they were at some point selected
by an august body to represent "American life" opens the door to criticism of
the many ways we might define that culture. That, to me, is a crucial piece of what we're
When we try to make these books behave like literary artifacts, the discussions dry up
(at least in the discussion setting). But they flourish when we talk about them as mirrors
of their readers. Thus, if I were asked for an opinion, I'd recommend discussion
leaders steer this series toward big, broad, general themes, not inward toward the
specifics of the novels themselves. Also, I recommend using this series to talk
specifically about the experiential difference between reading fiction and non-fiction,
and why we often gain more from reading cultural fiction than journalistic reports.
The Jackson group enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize series, by and large. Most of
the selections were well-received by a majority of the participants. A few
surprises emerged. For instance, when I've led this series in the past, many
readers disliked "The Optimist's Daughter," and found it difficult to discuss.
The Jackson group, however, liked that novel the best of the bunch.
I heard no complaints about the construction of the series, or about the book
selections in general. The indications were that folks appreciated the wide
range of novels presented because they allowed us to develop discussion about
the different sorts of forces driving selection of prize winners.
We spent a lot of time on that subject, by the way. I suggested two principal
modes for examining the Pulitzer phenomena. First, we could try to trace the
shared qualities inherent in the various novels as a way of divining the
"American-ness" of the literature stream. Second, we could take a look at the
country -- characteristics and events -- surrounding each of the selected novels
to try to determine if there seemed to be external, cultural forces at work in
the Pulitzer environment. Needless to say, we arrived at no particular
conclusions taking either of these tacks, but the exercise seemed invaluable.
Because the Pulitzer Prize, by its existence and prominence, creates a de
facto American literature sub-canon, I wanted our discussions to dwell for
occasionally on the subject of canonicity, and they did repeatedly. We talked
about the mechanisms and forces by which some books rise to the top of cultural
recognition and become prominent books in America's so-called national
literature. We talked about the cynical business aspects of the publishing
industry and how executives may be increasingly shaping the future of American
literature by force. We debated the value of national-scope awards (the
Pulitzer, Pen-Faulkner and National Book Awards in the U.S., the Booker Prize in
England, the Prix Goncourt in France and so forth) and the effects, short and
long-term, of such prizes on national literatures and the perceptions of
national literatures outside the respective countries. We talked about reading
lists and how they shape individual ideas of what makes good literature, such as
the notable counter-arguments that flared up last year to the Modern Library
board's listing of the "Best 100 Books of the Century." We talked about our own
personal lists of best books.
Overall there was a committed group of participants who
and arrived with interesting and insightful comments. One of my challenges was
to assure the group that not liking a book is okay and even when they did not
like a book they should still come to the discussion. I found it interesting
that they were hesitant to dislike a book; they seemed to feel that disliking a
book would make me feel badly or be an inappropriate comment on the choices of
I’m not going to send this to the discussion board because
I covered pretty much the same topics as I did when we did this book in Story in
August. (Besides, I can’t find my notes from this time!)
The group loved the book, for the most part, and discussed
it enthusiastically. They did wonder if all the books were going to be “this
We talked about the rest of this series – themes we’d be
answering and what the criteria for selecting these particular books was. They
wanted to know about the Pulitzer prize criteria too.
I left them with some points in comparison to this novel to
consider when they read the next one. (The Way West)
I don't usually begin with a
"lecture" but this time I did share some information about Stienbeck, as well as
the social and environmental upheaval of the time. I had brought in a book of
Dorothea Lange photographs, American Exodus, which we looked at. The book was
published the same year as Grapes of Wrath and depicts scenes that might have
been right out of the novel. I also shared who Carol and Tom were and why the
book was dedicated to them.
Our discussion began by
comparing the novel to The Way West, the last book we read. That quickly led us
into The Grapes of Wrath itself. I had prepared a list of questions to guide
the discussion but instead of following it, I just let the discussion flow out
of readers' comments and questions. Turned out that we covered most of the
questions on my list eventually. We discussed the main characters, the strength
of the women, the fact that the men were made helpless because they were denied
work and the ability to support their families. One woman had grown up in
Oklahoma in the 1930's and shared some of her family's experiences in the Dust
Bowl days. The religious symbolism interested everyone and once I pointed out a
couple of possible symbolic interpretations, the group thought of many more. One
that I thought was particularly insightful was that Ma Joad trying to feed the
hungry children as well as well as her own family was a metaphor for the
Californians, overwhelmed by the needy migrant workers. Although everyone's
sympathy couldn't help but be with the Joads and the migrants' plight, we also
could see why the Californians reacted to them so violently. Someone compared
their reaction to that of local communities when The Rainbow People decided to
make have their summer encampment nearby.
They were interested in the
religious overtones in the novel and someone who had recently read East of Eden
pointed out that novel's reliance on Biblical allusions as well. I read the
passage from "Song of Solomon" about the Rose of Sharon (thanks Peter Anderson
for mentioning that in your report) and of course we speculated on Jim Casey as
a Christ symbol, Tom as disciple, the exodus to the promised land, etc.
The novel's relevance today
was another topic that interested the group. They noted the similarities with
migrant workers today. The theme of big agribusiness vs. the small
farmer/rancher also struck a chord of recognition and invited comparison to A
Thousand Acres. They felt that big business vs. the little guy is also a current
I shared with them some of the
critic's objections to the novel, the furor after it was published, and the
campaign to suppress it. To the question of what Stienbeck was trying to do
with the novel, I read his comment in a letter that:
"I've done my damnest to rip a
reader's nerves to rags, I don't want him satisfied… I tried to write this book
the way lives are being lived not the way books are written…Throughout I've
tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it
will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness. There are five layers in
this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won't find more than he
has in himself."
Stienbeck's goes on to explain
the "layers." The quotes can be found in Robert DeMott's introduction to the
Penguin 1992 edition of the book.
The reason we didn't discuss
why the novel won a Pulitzer, was, I think, that it was so obvious. This was a
satisfying discussion to conclude a satisfying series and primed everyone to
talk about what series they want to read next year.
Marcia Hensley, Jan. 2004
I prepared for this session as for an
all-out lecture. I wanted to run through the history of the subject matter and the
controversy surrounding the book in some detail. I probably over-prepared. The group
discussed the book deeply and wasn't all that interested in my history and criticism.
Some of the points the members found most
--socialism in the U.S. and how it has flared and
receded over the decades.
--the reality of the migrant worker situation, both at the time of the novel and now, with
emphasis on migrant worker conditions in our immediate region.
--John Steinbeck's biography--why he got interested in the Okies.
--the history of old Route 66.
The novel has a long tradition of critical
inquiry into its Christian imagery and symbolism, everything from the Noah's ark aspect of
the Joad's truck to the Pieta-like image of Rose of Sharon feeding the starving man in the
barn at the end. When I pointed this out, I got a lot of blank stares. Some people were
startled and perplexed that they didn't recognize it in the book when they read it. The
Christian stuff isn't terribly perspicuous, but it's definitely there. I understand more
than two hundred obvious and not-so-obvious references to the Bible have been found in the
text. What Steinbeck was trying to do remains a matter of debate, of course. The problem
is trying to have a discussion of it in Afton, Wyoming, where a lot of people believe if
you're going to talk about the Bible, you should talk about the Bible, and not disguise it
in a communist novel.
An interesting evening, all way around.
John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath begs
attention first as a cultural artifact and second as a literary text. Our group spent
about 30 minutes discussing context. Warren French's A Companion to the Grapes of Wrath
has a useful chapter, "What Did John Steinbeck Know about the 'Okies'?" that
describes Steinbeck's 1937 travel and residence with migrants. Also, it presents the text
of his 1938 brochure about migrants, Their Blood is Strong. As I read random passages from
its section on the people, it was clear to readers that the interim editorial chapters in
the novel originated in this earlier document. I circulated photos (Working Days: The
Journals of the Grapes of Wrath) of Thomas Collins (To TOM who lived it") at
Weedpatch Camp, as well as photos of draft pages of the novel and of Educational Bulletin
No. 1 distributed to California migrant workers for self-protection. Such information and
background provided necessary context for discussing the Joads's degrees of power and
powerlessness in the face of law, religion, and salvation.
Young Tom Joad's violence raises the question of
whether or not his actions are justified. The group agreed that the murder of Herb
Turnbull and the later clubbing of a deputy were acts of self-preservation. They were
justified given the social circumstances in which Tom was operating.
Tragically, however, Tom's strong sense of
self-preservation most likely will prevent him from becoming the next Jim Casy. Although
he tells Ma (Chapter 28) that "I'll be ever'where," predicting a future as a
hero of a Woody Guthrie ballad, he lacks the vision and self-restraint to become a hero
for the greater good. Readers felt little hope that he would wander back to the family or
that he would lead migrants to the revolution hinted at in the novel. Tom's frustration
with the law characterizes the inability of later displaced peoples to find justice
through the law. We discussed, for example, the Black American who turned to a local
sheriff for protection only to learn eventually that the sheriff was an elder in the KKK.
Or, today, women are still denied protection from abusive spouses because the preservation
of power that often leads to abuse is the same power practiced by a male law enforcement
Our discussion of religion began with the
unpredictable ending and worked back through the novel., Long after their dreams of Eden
have surrendered to hunger and fatigue, and with almost allegorical simplicity, Ma moves
the family from the flood stricken camp to higher ground. Readers did not find it too
incredible that Rose of Sharon would give of herself to the hungry man when, throughout
the novel, she is self-interested. She becomes the purely symbolic character of her
namesake who, because of biological capability, can "save" the people in ways
that Jim Casy never could have. It's helpful to share with readers quotes from Song of
Solomon 2, which begins, "I am the Rose of Sharon, and lily of the valleys" and
promises, "The winter is past, the rain is over and gone" and that their vines
will soon put forth "the tender grape." The Joads have become a chosen people
whose fate at the end of the novel is irrelevant given that they have learned the ultimate
about human survival; their fate then depends on the larger society learning the same
lesson of community, giving, and hope.
All participants were receptive to the
book, despite its angry political stance. They didn't feel preached to, but accepted
Steinbeck's analysis, abhorring with him the injustices these people suffered at the hands
of a mechanistically capitalist economy. I invited readers to probe the utopian
alternative presented by the unlikely perfection of the government camp. Further
analysis led us to speculate that it was Steinbeck's mythic descriptions of the land and
the times (in the chapters alternating with the personal story of the Joads) that made the
book seem large enough to "earn" its political message.
One participant offered a particularly keen
observation of the role of women in this migration: that the woman's "place" is
the hearth, while the man's is the land around it. The hearth proved to be portable while
the land was not, thus the ascendancy of Ma Joad. We also looked to Steinbeck's
influences--especially Briffault's The Mothers, in which, according to a source I read,
earlier matriarchies did not actually put women in charge, but constituted "a
radically different relationship between people based on cooperation rather than power. .
. .All familial feeling, all group-sympathy, the essential foundation, therefore, of a
social organization, is the direct product of prolonged maternal care, and does not exist
apart from it." Patriarchy and the notion of independence are related to private
ownership. When this falls apart, leadership reverts to females. The Joads could no
longer rely on frontier individualism, they had to learn to work together.
Dennis Coelho (Cheyenne, Burns, Pine Buffs
groups) sent me a couple comments in response to the ones posted yesterday. He says I can
share them with everyone, so I'm posting them to the list (J):
Is this typical of the sort of analysis being
done in other groups? Boy, do I feel out of touch! I remember nothing mythic about labor
camps out in California when I was a kid, nor was there anything mythic about how the
government tried to maintain some sort of cleanliness and humanity in those places. I
remember the kids that came to our school from some of the camps and how my mother made
sure that they stopped by our house on the way to school so she could feed them something.
What struck me about reading "Grapes" was the brutal reality of it. The students
in my little high school in southern Idaho had no trouble seeing their neighbors in
Woody Guthrie reduced the book to a many-versed
song version that distilled the essence of the story.
"Tom Joad got out of the old McCallister
It was there that he got his parole.
After serving five years on a man-killing charge,
Tom Joad come a-walkin' down the road,
Tom Joad came a-walkin' down the road.
The truck pulled away in a cloud of dust,
And Tommy turned his face towards home.
He met Preacher Casey and they had a little drink,
And learned that his family they was gone,
He learned that his family they was gone."
One of the very best things Guthrie ever did.
He said he did it because most of the folks the
book was about would never be able to read it so he put it altogether in a five minute
Steinbeck's book was my personal favorite
of the series. (I think many people--but not all---preferred The Way West). We discussed
the way Ma passes her strength on to Rose of Sharon, to keep the family going. A
woman's role goes on. The (older) men's role died off: farming before the industrial era.
We also discussed the value of anger, which is what saves the characters. Apparently,
Steinbeck saw the ending as optimistic, though many readers here did not. He meant a sense
of empowerment, of survival. Barbara showed the ending of the black & white
video owned by CWC Library. I added a bit of interesting information: IITYWYBAD was
mentioned in the book as a sign above taverns, and I researched its meaning: "If I
Tell You, Will You Buy me A Drink"!
The Pinedale group responded positively to this novel, even
though, as might be expected, many had read it years before, in some cases several times.
An interesting line of discussion compared "The Grapes of Wrath" to "The
Way West," which we had discussed at the previous session. The difference between
westward journeys depicted in the two novels made for good discussion fodder regarding
motives for going west.
We discussed the history of migrant farm labor - both what it used to be and how it
remains. Responding to questions from participants, I outlined the political economy of
the times (after W.W.I), the physical environment of extended drought coupled with
disastrous farming theories and practices in vogue then, and the social atmosphere of the
era, specifically the rise of organized labor. Some pieces of Steinbeck's story
(concerning California's handling of the situation) aren't true - I covered these. I also
touched on the history of the book itself.
A lot of the discussion centered on the trip taken by the Joad family, especially the
territories through which they travel, familiar to many participants. A few of our group
members recalled the Depression and life on farms at that time. I think a good discussion
of this book draws as much as possible on personal stories, and I try to draw it out as
much as possible.
We talked a little about the so-called "intercalary" chapters, the short
pieces of bridging narrative between plot chapters. Reactions to those were mixed, with
most readers finding them odd.
Finally, I brought out the free-floating religious symbolism which permeates this novel
and we talked for a while about why Steinbeck might have incorporated it into the
Peter Anderson (Pinedale group)
Our small group was even smaller this time. According to the librarian, two of the ladies brought
the book back early claiming, as one said, Ive been through this depression
once, I dont need to go through it again! For
those of us there though, the discussion was quite good.
A few of us had read the book many years ago, and we talked about how our
responses to a book change depending on who we are and where we are in our lives when we
read it. They were interested in the biographical
details about Steinbeck, especially how he got involved with Okies and we of course discussed the social and
historical background of the novel. Some group members shared their own memories of the
period and related them to parts of the novel. I
asked each person to talk about a theme they saw in the novel and by the time we got
around even this small group, they had
addressed the most significant themes in the book i.e., agrarianism over capitalism, the psychic hold land gets on a person, the economic and moral decline, the religion the novel espouses as
opposed to traditional religion, the power of group action, the humanity, and so on. We talked about the ending of the novel and how it was
affirmative even though things dont look good for the Joads. One person pointed out that the only one that might make
it was Al and perhaps because he, of all of them, was a man who related to machines. All agreed that they were glad to have read or reread
Norleen Healy (Clearmont group)
participants thought the book was very readable and even engaging, but as always some
found it relentless, even tiring. Its sorrowful, downward spiral seemed terribly
despairing to a few readers.
A couple readers took issue with the (to them) seemingly black and white
depiction of rich landowners (bad) and poor workers (good), but other participants seemed
able to read a lot of layers into each of the many cultural classifications in the novel.
In general, there was a lot of empathy for (a) the characters and (b) the novel as a work
depicting a specific time and place. I think the general impression was that it was sort
of dated, although two or three readers read a timeless quality into the book, and were
eager to share that with the group.
I found the following interesting: In times past (meaning last year), discussion
groups seemed eager to tackle the issue of communism versus capitalism, and the wavering
future of communist ideas given the state of world politics. But this group didnt
seem to find that subject especially attractive, and I wonder if current events have
somehow rendered our previous intellectual stage-sets somewhat obsolete. In other words, I
wonder if theres a different, urgent feeling about whats at stake for a
humanities discussion because of the sudden, recent change in priorities? Just aimlessly
Below are some comments I gave the group prior to the first session of the
Pulitzer series which other discussion leaders may find interesting (or perhaps amusing).
Here are three general inquiries to consider over the course of the Pulitzer
- What are the implications when we make a list of
great books or best books or most important books? How
silly is it to try? What do we gain, and lose, by doing so?
- How do the times -- events, moods, feelings,
rhetoric -- affect our perceptions of art, and vice versa?
- How do literary perceptions of self, represented
differently in each of these very different novels, change over time, and vary between
Here are several questions relating to first novel of the series:
- How does The Grapes of Wrath mediate
the relationship between haves and have-nots in this country, both in the context of its
era (1940) and our own?
- How does Steinbecks writing style,
especially his famous intercalary chapters -- the short, rangy, poetic
discourses dropped in here and there -- work in the telling of this tale?
- Is Steinbeck the reporter and political polemicist
too present in this work, not present enough, or just right, in your view? Is the
narrative voice the same as the author, in this case? Would you say the author is too much
a character in his own novel?
- Can you track your own emotional responses as you
make your way through this book? What aspects of the work affect you most?
- This novel carries many religious references. What
do you make of those? As a retelling of the essential American journey, what
does the work seem to be arguing? As a personal, philosophical work, where does this novel
seem to seek or find meaning, value and hope?
Peter Anderson (Pinedale group)
The Rock Springs group discussion on Steinbeck was great. We
covered a lot of territory, focused a good deal on Steinbeck's central ideas of how the
individual's interests are subordinate to the group's, how the idea "family"
includes all who are in need, how women are more built for this communal consciousness
than the men. We zeroed in on the three main characters and brought to mind for quick
comments nearly all the others in the book. We talked about what makes a "home,"
and how that differs for men and women.
We threw some good anchors back to "The Way West." We compared the movie
(unfavorably) to the book. We enjoyed the authentic setting and characterizations, reading
some of our favorite passages. We made some good connections to our life and
times--pointing out how I-centeredness seems to have gained the upper hand, how the recent
terrorist attacks have caused the resurgence of the "we," how this resurgence
might or might not endure...
As far as helpful sources, I found the 50th anniversary retrospective of "The
Grapes of Wrath" published in the Volume 59 of Contemporary Literary Criticism series
to be a terrific source. It not only had a fine introductory essay, but also offered a
compilation of reviews and studies of the book over the past five decades.
This book always seems to lend itself to good, free flowing
discussion. We even had two people last night (our last meeting) who had never
attended a book discussion and came just because we were doing Grapes of
Wrath. I began by going around the table and asking for initial responses
to any aspect of the book; this invoked so much discussion that it took up a big
chunk of our time. However, in the discussion we got around to most of the major
themes in the novel. People related the book to their own family stories and
personal experiences. Most seemed to feel that the sense of community that is
the redeeming force in the novel has continued to erode in the decades since the
book was written and that the “machine” has only become more complicated and
more alienating. This attitude seemed to be reinforced by our looking back at
the other novels in this series in terms of their chronological setting. They
took umbrage when I wondered if that is a complaint that every generation has,
like “What’s the matter with kids today?”
They talked about the movie (which I’ve never seen) and how
it differs, especially in term of subtleties, from the book. They tell me it
demands a much more heroic view of Tom than does the novel. And why wouldn’t
it? Aren’t we looking at Henry Fonda?
The group loved this book, and we had a rich discussion of it.
We had a lot of fun talking about the Grapes possible connections to the
Bible. Casey's initials are J.C. (like Jesus Christ). Is he a Christ-like
figure? Can Tom be viewed as his disciple? We compared the Joads'
journey to the Biblical Exodus. In what ways
might the migrating "Okies" be seen as chosen people?
We also compared Casey's religion to the religions of Ma, Gramma Joad,
Tom, the fervent believer at the camp.
We talked about the conflict between the agrarian way of life and the
It was great to read The Way West and Grapes of Wrath
back-to-back. The books both about westward journeys;
the travelers all expect Eden at the end. Steinbeck
and Guthrie both demonstrate how the trip makes men of
their heroes (Tom Joad and Lije Evans). We compared the theme of
evolution in the novels, what we felt was a shared
view between Steinb. and Guth. that people must adapt
This was the final book of our series and it was nice to end on a "masterpiece" as one participant put it. Several of the participants had not read this book though they had seen the film or read other works from the author. The group was very excited about Steinbeck's development of his characters and places. One member expressed a sense of being overwhelmed by the tragedies contained in the work because the characters were just so "real." We discussed Steinbeck's social and economic commentaries on the United States in the 1930s and how these relate to America today. The group was especially interested in the evolution of gender relations especially the character of Ma Joad. We also explored the various relationships that the author developed such as siblings, child-parent, individual-society, etc. In addition, the tensions between corporate and public interests (e.g., the cottons farms vs the government camp) also generated a lot of discussion. We concluded by discussing how many Americans have personal or secondhand knowledge of the experiences that Steinbeck explores in the book, but that younger Americans may lack the context from which to appreciate the book and its impact. This led to a number of personal anecdotes about the period as well as stories from those who had traveled that part of the country. All in all, this was a great book to close the series with, and the members clearly appreciated a "worthy" Pulitzer winning book (several of the other books in the series some of the participants had difficulty seeing why they qualified as "winners").
Erich Frankland, Casper
House Made of Dawn
Our discussion about House Made of Dawn circled
through many issues, just as the novel’s tale circled through many perspectives
of the external and internal landscapes. Our discussion started with maps of
New Mexico and the Jemez Pueblo, west of Santa Fe and metropolitan Los Angeles.
We talked about the importance of place in this novel that shows us the New
Mexico open mesas in contrast with the constrained spaces in Los Angeles. We
also talked about the information from the 1992, PBS Home Video “Momaday: Voice
of the West.” We focused on points Momaday made in the film about his novel’s
description of human dilemma and his struggle of having “one foot in (the)
Kiowa” world and “one foot is (the) white” world. We focused on Momaday’s quote
in the film: “I want my writing to disturb people.”
Some participants talked about their personal experiences
in relation to issues found in the novel. One participant told us that she
taught on a reservation for one year, and she is “still perplexed.” We also
talked about the Kiowa culture, a horse culture. Additionally, we talked about
participants’ experiences with the 1950s, relocation programs to urban settings
to assimilate Native Americans into “American” culture. Participants also
recommended current films with similar issues: Rabbit Proof Fence
and Whale Rider.
Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain was referenced
as well as his poetry and art forms. His writing style was our next focus with
many participants declaring that House Made of Dawn is a masterpiece in
revealing Native American issues, using story language, and providing visual
images. The symbolism of dark and light permeated our discussion as well as the
novels use of colors, eagles, and horses to convey meaning. We concluded that
the message at the end of the novel is one of hope. Abel is starting to run
Some participants still needed to “figure out” Abel and his
killing of the albino, which opened up more discussion. Other participants read
additional information and explanations from their Perennial Classics
publication of the novel. Then we read out loud excerpts about the trial from
the novel. We further discussed the various characters, symbolism, and our
We agreed with one participant’s conclusion that House
Made of Dawn has “hundreds of issues” and that this novel is universal. We
ended our lively discussion with the notes I had written in the back of my
novel: this novel has much that needs to be explained but cannot be reasoned,
My fears of this title evaporated
with the dawn in the Eppson Center for Senior's discussion. I had alerted the
group to the non-linear narrative, etc., and no one seemed put off by it. In
fact many readers really enjoyed the structure, and especially loved the
language. We started off "untangling" the plot and describing the events in an
order that made sense to the dominant white culture. We talked about why Momaday
made the rhetorical choices he did, and how they reinforced the narrative, and
what our perceptions are of how the majority culture manages minority cultures,
both physically and metaphysically. I shared information about Indian relocation
policies that were coming of age in the timeframe of the story. We encountered
an irony: We felt sorrow that Abel's culture had been ripped apart and that's
what caused his troubles; however, many in the group believed newcomers to this
country should assimilate and learn English quickly, placing their own cultures
at risk. It is problematic that what we identified as horrific treatment of
native Americans by whites was in some ways not much different than what we were
recommending new immigrants endure, an irony worth investigating in future
Julianne Couch 02-03
I'm leading discussions for the first time this year both
in Newcastle and in Laramie. I agree with David that it's best to avoid the role of
teacher but also with Judy that some books do require at the very least, preparatory
remarks. My Newcastle group, for instance, would have had a much more positive reaction to
House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday, if I had prepared them for the sometimes
confusing, changing and intimate points of view. And since we all tend to forget what was
said at a previous meeting, it might be handy to have at least some notes, if not some
questions, when we sit down to read the more difficult novels. Questions are probably the
best choice, since they put the scholar in the role we all prefer -- that of facilitator
rather than pontificator. I for one will consider using this method in the future, but I
will use it selectively, in relation to the more difficult books.
I understand House Made of Dawn
has been a difficult read for several groups this year. It reminds me of the problems some
groups had with Ceremony in the "Being Indian" series--in fact, I think
the committee discussed that issue when it chose the book. Undoubtedly, those who lead the
Pulitzer Series next year will learn from this year's experiences, Julene. That seemed to
happen with the earlier series.
I ran across a site devoted to Native American authors. I
didn't spend much time there, and I didn't see much in the way of criticism, but it does
have biographical information. and you can get authors listed by tribe. It looked to me
like an impressive number of authors were listed, and it might be useful for folks dealing
with Native American authors. The address is:
I was prepared for people to have a terrible time with this book, and I was pleasantly
incorrect. Everyone finished it (with one exception and she simply ran out of time), and
everyone seemed to understand the general structure of the book.
I did a demonstration of the story line on a chalkboard, showing the circular pattern
of the plot and the concentric circles of meaning and relationships between myth and
tradition and various plot elements. The group seemed to appreciate that, though
admittedly it's a dense book encompassing way more than a person can get into in an hour
and a half. A lick and a promise.
Participants brought up the nature of language, and the focus on the "word"
to which Momaday devotes so much time. The major complaint about the book seemed to be
that readers felt it was too abstract and symbolic; they didn't feel connected to the
characters personally. The whole thing left them feeling fascinated but a little cold.
Intimidated, perhaps, but not fatally frustrated.
[Dianes group started with this novel, which is a difficult one for readers at
any stage of the series, but particularly at the beginning. J.]
"Our discussion of Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn began with readers'
responses to the novel. Responses ranged from a love of the lyrical quality of the novel
to exasperated confusion. Given that everyone had finished the novel despite its
complexity, we were able to piece together moments of clarity to create an overall sense
of "who," "what," "when," and "where."
Most significantly, this clarifying raised a discussion of the circular movement of the
novel, structure which one critic said is better read for patterns than plot. This review
then enabled us to move on to "why," emphasizing issues of identity quest,
religion in a secular world, and Indian involvement in American wars.
Abel's identity quest shaped our discussion of his character. His relationships with
Angela and Milly raised the question of whether or not he was capable of knowing and
caring for anyone, even himself. According to Marion Willard Hylton, the ancient Indian
belief that secrets are divulged during sexual intercourse may have influenced Abel's and
Angela's apparent exchange of identities as suggested in the lone couplet: "Angela
put her white hands to his body/Abel put his hands to her white body." He came home
from the war alienated from but attempting to reclaim his place in the natural world.
Angela arrived ill at ease in nature and at odds with her physical self. After their brief
affair, Angela grows to welcome thunder and pregnancy and find a place in nature; Abel
almost dies in L. A. trying to assimilate into urban dominant culture. In connection, we
explored his relationships to Francisco, Ben, and the "white man" to consider
how his identity quest was not exclusively the result of alienation from white culture.
Abel's conflict with the "white man" during a village festival showed internal
conflict within the tribal world, suggesting that his alienation was not exclusively a
symptom of Indian/white conflict.
Our discussion of religion in the secular world focused on Part II, the Priest of the
Sun's sermon on the Word. Exploring his voice shifts, we concluded that although Tosomah
appears to be an outsider to white culture, contrasting Indian fluid notions of the Word
with static gospel accounts, he is a trickster figure whose mask enables him to survive.
His alienation is not debilitating as is Abel's.
Encouraged by the history buff and the anthropologist in the group, I provided
information from Laura Coltelli's 1990 interview with Momaday in which he discusses Indian
alienation from self and world resulting from their involvement in American wars,
specifically W.W.II. We considered whether the novel was a social statement about Indian
rights and culture or an artistic statement about human integrity to outlast evil. The
group had various responses, which made for an interesting exchange of perspectives."
This book puzzled many of the
participants, though it was probably my second favorite. (I'd read it back when it was new
and enjoyed it, and so I was all set to enjoy it again.) It has so many layers and so much
that can betaken poetically. We certainly discussed Abel's alienation and inability to
communicate, and his road to redemption. We discussed oral tradition and dawn runners. We
considered whether Abel really cared about his traditions until his grandfather died.
Everyone gave of themselves to him, but he didn't grow.
I guess the Benevides home was modeled on
Momaday's own home in his late teens. I tried to explain why I thought the book was so
well received when it came out (1969)--it was the antiwar, Viet Nam period, and here was a
character back from World War II, all messed up. (Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, as late
as 1977, hit the same chord). Maybe reading it for the first time in the 90s doesn't have
the same urgent appeal? But I don't like it any less. . . .
This was the smallest turnout we've had -- the weather was
terrible but also I was told that a couple of people just didn't like the book so didn't
finish it and chose not to come. I'm sorry about that because I do find that this
book begins to be of more interest and value to a group through the shared discussion.
Just because it's less immediately accessible than other novels doesn't mean it isn't a
good one to include in the series. It helped me to look at the comments from booktalk
ahead of time on this one; I was more prepared for the reticence and some of the problems
the group might encounter reading the book. And I admit I felt a need to do more research
than usual on this one.
We began by sorting out all the narratives voices and fitting them in to the story.
Then we talked about what we see each representing, particularly the Indian characters.
This got us into lots of other aspects of the novel. It's interesting and significant to
hear how varying people's response to Abel is. It surprises me how totally unsympathetic
some are to him, but then that leads to good discussion of other issues --particularly
different forms of alienation. Passages people pointed to as notable were generally those
about the natural world, especially through Franciso's voice. We compared Francisco's bear
hunt with Abel's eagle hunt and what each signifies in terms of the characters and the
The more we discussed, the more we began to see that we "got" more than we
realized from the book. We ended our discussion realizing that we could have gone on for a
lot longer than the hour and a half we spent -- always a good sign!
I toted along diagrams I had made years before of the plot
structure of "House Made of Dawn" which show its circular design and the
quadrants into which teachers often divide it - development up to the murder, the shift to
"Big Bluff" Tosamah, his physical destruction and rebirth, Benally's nurturance
and his return to Jemez. Taking the story piece by piece, I think, opens it up like and
oyster for a lot of readers.
We talked a bit about shifting points of view, and the use of that particular mechanism
in fiction - how and why. I raised the question of why this book may have emerged in
1969 in the gaze of the Pulitzer Committee. I think the book represented a painful
individual experience of cultural destruction and rebirth, a theme which reflected in a
variety of ways the discourse of America at that point. (Others argue that the award was a
politically safe nod by the mainstream to Indian writers.)
[When Katie sent this commentary to me, she said she was
being "philosophical and suggestive" in it and invited me to edit it to include
only the important points. I think it's worth passing on in its entirety, however, since
it reflects on several important questions about the kinds of books we want to include in
series. How do we weigh the value of what appears to be a really good discussion of a
difficult book against the fact that four, rather than ten or fifteen people participated
in it and benefited from it? Please comment, if you have thoughts on this issue or
experiences that illuminate it. J.]
Four people attended this discussion; two had finished the
book and two had not. Several people had returned their books to the library before the
evening discussion, explaining that they quite simply gave up. I feel partly
responsible for this because I did not make it clear in the first meeting that even if you
do not like the book, nor finish the book, you should still come to the discussion. One
does not have to like a book to participate in a book discussion.
In preparing for this particular discussion I did an
enormous amount of work because the book challenged me, as well as challenged me as to
just how I should I approach a discussion of the book. It is one of those books you have
to do an enormous amount of research in order to understand the book. Do not get me wrong
- the more I read about the book the more I loved and was intrigued by the book;
hence the problem - modernism and cultural references - so to speak; to understand the
book and its context you have to read ABOUT the book. You cannot just read
this book and understand it. Additionally it helps to have a background in Native American
literature and expressions of culture.
I believe House
Made of Dawn is a very important book in the series but suggest if I may, that
handouts be given before a group reads the book; perhaps a synopsis of chapters and key
points of symbolism. In fact we considered this the night of the discussion. During the
evening discussion, as I explained the symbolism, structure and characters within
House Made of Dawn the quartet who showed up kept saying
- oh that make sense; wow now it makes sense. The four participants also, in their
guilt as to not finishing the book, or in not understanding the book commented that
perhaps they should have done research on the book. I firmly assured them that they should
not have to do so; that is why they have a discussion leader. Those comments made me think
about some of the comments posted on line, in the discussion series, as to the role of
discussion leader as TEACHER or discussion facilitator. With this book you cannot help but
go into the teacher mode in order to bring necessary information about cultural context
and modernism in order to understand the book. But then it is too late to do that when
people throw up their hands and do not read the book or come to the discussion.
As we moved through symbolism and characters the book
indeed came alive and made sense to the group. We also moved into an interesting
discussion, considering todays current events, as to how we understand other
cultures and belief systems. We discussed the ways in which cultures and belief systems
are open and closed and how we can understand and access cultural and historical symbols
that are so very different and from our own. Additionally we discussed what our
responsibilities are, as individuals, in understanding conflicting cultures and views that
are presented in envisioning a global community as opposed to a local, cultural community.
Where and how do we fit?
We had a very good discussion. One person did a lot of research on
the symbolism of the book (esp. the eagle and the snake)and had a lot to
offer. Among other things, we discussed how all the characters--not just
Abel--were inhabiting in-between worlds, how they were all either
struggling to find their place, or had compromised
their possibilities in accepting the
place they occupied. My best source--one that explores this idea at
length--was Bernard Salinger's "'House Made of
Dawn': A Positively Ambivalent Bildungsroman" from
Modern Fiction Studies, Spring 1999. As usual, I also
got a good deal from reading other WCH scholars' comments in
People either really liked this book, or they hated it. Many didn't
finish it (which is unusual for this group of people). People thought the
stream of consciousness narrative very confusing, and some complained
that there wasn't a single character with which they
could identify. They felt the cultural differences
were too great--I think perhaps the characters just
aren't fleshed out as well as most of us wanted them to be.
We began by going over the order of events. Then we talked about the role
of women in the novel, the difference between Native American and
mainstream American treatment of language, the role of nature, and the
significance of the Albino. We talked about Abel's search for identity.
Why is he so lost? How does he find his way? Where do Native Americans
who have left their communities go for guidance? Where does Abel turn?
Etc. Etc. Etc. Others commented on the role of family (or lack of it).
Finally, we talked about what makes a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel--does
the prize say most about the quality of the novel or about the times?
Would the novels we've read win prizes today? Many of us had read The
Color Purple years ago, and we remembered being really
moved by it. When we read it in this series, most of
us found it less impressive (though we still enjoyed
reading and talking about it). The group felt A House Made
of Dawn would have been groundbreaking for its time, but that it wouldn't
win a prize today.
This lead to an interesting discussion about what makes novels last, about
the difference between a Pulitzer and a Classic. Someone pointed out that
novels can be both, but not all Pulitzers will become Classics!
Casper: Some members expressed the difficulty they had reading the text and that often they were lost. They found it hard to discern who was talking. However, despite their difficulties, the discussion was thought provoking. I began with background information about the author and some literary criticism regarding the text. We focused more on themes and writing style and did not attempt to create a linear story line. Our discussion mimicked how the text was written which I found to be quite interesting. We discussed Abel's identity quest, religion in a secular world, in-between worlds, and Native American involvement in American wars to name a few. We closed the session with a discussion about this text as a "classic" Pulitzer Prize winner.
Three of the more resonant themes that came from our
discussion of Walker’s book were the many faces of oppression and prejudice; the
triple trial—both in the context of the book and in our society today-- of being
black, a woman, and gay; and the power sources people tap into—especially
community and creativity--in order to survive. This latter point invited some
good comparisons over to other books in the series. One gentleman who was
raised in South Carolina had some pretty sobering—and sometimes chilling—tales
to tell of the “caste system” he knew, and how it was enforced. I wish I had
brought the movie—it would have been great to watch and discuss some selected
portions of it—but I was on the road from Denver and it wasn’t possible. My
best new source was the 25th anniversary retrospective on the book in
the CLC Reference series—about a hundred pages of small print, with many
full-length essays exploring various themes in depth.
Our discussion about The Color Purple started with
the participants talking about the issues of the distinctive language style of
the letters, the transformation of the characters, lesbianism, incest, black and
white racism, and the relationships of Black women and men. One of the
participants added to the discussion by reading excerpts from Telling Incest:
Narratives of Dangerous Remembering from Stein to Sapphire by Janice Doane
and Devon Hodges. Another referenced novel was Kiss Daddy Good Night. We
also discussed the responses of white reviewers of The Color Purple, who
believed the novel’s depictions of African men and white men were too harsh.
One participant concluded that the novel is a “literary affirmative action.”
Another participant compared this novel with our previous
novels, A Thousand Acres and House Made of Dawn, and she concluded
that an underlying theme in all three novels is one of oppression. The
characters in all of these novels are fighting oppression. Participants offered
their own responses and conclusions. They concluded that women authors are more
likely than men to deal with issues of oppression.
Participants felt that the father, who was revealed later
in the novel as not being the father was an awkward part of the story. On the
other hand, when Celie learned this fact, her recovery was possible. Celie is
able to talk about her sexual abuse. Also, finding her children was a part that
The characters, especially, Sophia, were reviewed and
analyzed. Participants felt that the novel was a commentary on a variety of
family relationships, such as Sophia, Harpo, and Squeak as well as Shug, Albert,
and Celie. The characters brought out the “good” in each other. We laughed
about Celie’s business (Folkpants Unlimited) of making pants rather than
quilts. Then we were saddened as we realized that Celie, even at the end, still
sees herself as ugly even though she is supposed to be similar to her sister,
who was described as beautiful. Her self-image is still tied to the sexual
abuse she suffered. Our final conclusion was that the ending of the novel was
happy and showed survival. All of the women were transformed. “There is always
hope” was one participant’s conclusion.
Sharon Taylor, February 2004
We had a good turn-out, though all women, for this novel.
They were enthusiastic about the novel in general, claimed to find it a “relief”
after the hard work House Made of Dawn and The Optimist’s
Daughter required. They were pleased especially with the happy ending and a
little indignant when I asked if it might be a bit contrived. They needed very
little guidance in getting to key themes in the novel. They talked about the
strong women in the novel and how each one had a distinctive kind of courage and
determination in spite of the forces against them. All of them either had
coping mechanisms from the start or developed them through experience, but none
ended up submissive. This group didn’t see this as a necessarily “feminist”
novel; they thought it had more universal application. One major theme we
discussed was how restrictive to individual growth any kind of acceptance of
stereotyping can be, whether it be gender roles, societal roles, view of God,
etc. Several had passages they wanted to point out as being especially
significant. We talked about MY favorite passage (the one about how “it ain’t
easy doin without god”) and how that’s such a pervasive theme in modern
literature. We talked about use of language and voice. This group is receptive
to style and appreciated what Walker does. Considering the novel itself and the
period it was written, they had no problem understanding how/why it received the
I did give them some background on Alice Walker, her
comments on the writing of the novel (which explains her reference to herself in
the epilogue as a “medium”), and her subsequent novels and essays.
I’ve dealt with this novel a lot over the past 20 years or
so, so it’s interesting to me to hear fresh responses to it. I respect this
group of good readers, so they resurrected some appreciation of the novel in
Norleen Healy, Dec. 2003
Since our previous discussion was in November, I opened
with a brief overview of the three previous books (The Way West,
The Grapes of Wrath, and The Optimist’s
Daughter), noting the significant ideas on which we tended to focus in each
discussion and the common topics we might derive from each of those
discussions. “Strong women” was one of those topics, and group members offered
their views of the characters they would place in that category (Celie,
Shug, Sofia, in particular), as well as their
responses to the novel in general. The human will to survive and the various
strategies the narrator and other characters used in order to survive, the
nature of friendship and of love, what constitutes marriage and a family, and
the role of the community in individuals’ lives were other topics we discussed.
Members commented on the significance of the color purple,
with several suggesting that people such as the character
Celie are often the “invisible” people in the world, with much to offer
but who are often ignored as in “...I think it pisses God off if you walk by
the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” This led to
reflections on the concepts of God, of religious institutions, of spirituality
and of human creativity as illustrated by the characters in the novel. Readers
also spoke about the novel’s structure and style, with a few finding the novel’s
“letter” style and the characters’ dialects to be negative factors. (We did
agree that the novel’s style (the letters and the dialect) greatly influences
the reader’s perspective of both character development and of the action.)
I shared various literary critics’ comments and
perspectives, as well as a few of Walker’s own comments on her childhood, her
depression and her writing as a survival strategy, interweaving that information
with discussants’ comments.
Resources other scholars may find useful:
Helgar, Charles J. “Named and
Namelessness: Alice Walker’s Patterns of Surnames in The Color Purple.” ANQ
Winter 2000, Vol. 13 Issue 1, p. 38.
Smith, Pamela A. “Green Lap, Brown Embrace, Blue Body: The
Ecospirituality of Alice Walker.” Cross Currents,
Winter 97/98, Vol. 48 Issue 4, p. 471.
Selzer, Linda. “Race and
Domesticity in The Color Purple.” African
American Review, Spring95, Vol. 29, Issue 1, P. 67.
Hall, James C. “Towards a Map of
Reading: The Presence of Absence in The Color Purple.” African American
Review, Spring92, Vol. 26, p.89.
Sanoff, A.P. “The Craft of
Survival: U.S. News and World Report, 6/3/91, Vol. 110 Issue 21, p. 51.
(This article has some good comments from Walker herself.)
Ebba Stedillie, Jan. 2003
Lewis, Brian C. “Black English: Its History and Its Role in
the Education of Our Children.” Rpt. in Multicultural Education in Middle and
Secondary Classrooms: Meeting the Challenge of Diversity and Change by Joan
A. Rasool and A. Cheryl Curtis. Wadsworth 2000, pp.
202-209. (Part of this article deals with the history and development of Black
English, with information that can help scholars to respond to readers’
questions about the characters’ dialect. It also puts forth an argument as to
the legitimacy of both the grammar and the vocabulary of Black English, as well
as the very real barrier it creates between those who use this non-standard
dialect and the majority society, which might also contribute to a discussion
about community and “outsiders” and “insiders” as depicted in the novel and as
found in the ‘real’ world.)
People either love or hate this book. It
heaps up many topics, political, environmental, religious, sexual, psychological, etc. To
take away someone's sense of self is beyond criminal! We talked about how Celie was an
"old" child and seems to get younger as the novel progresses. About male and
female roles, Black English, the difference in sisters, fighting the system, Africa as
Biblical allegory, matriarchal cultures, etc. Someone mentioned that Celie's referring to
her husband as Mr.--- was a sign that she was so disconnected from him, she was just his
possession. We had a discussion about the color purple: it can mean a bruise (violence
transcends race); it can mean royalty; it can refer to the flowers she notices as
important. We saw parts of a video interviewing Alice Walker.
This was the first meeting for this series, so I spent the usual
time setting it up. I explained the book selection process, some of the criteria used in
choosing the books for this particular series, and gave some history of the Pulitzer
I decided to hold off on the biographical info about Alice Walker until the end of the
discussion because I like to read part of her essay "Writing the Color Purple"
from her book In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. Some of the major points we discussed
--the "voice" of the narrator as opposed to that of Alice Walker (I was
hoping to forestall the comments about how offended someone might be about the
descriptions of the rape. I was, as it turned out, unsuccessful in forestalling that,
--how Celie is initially limited in the words she has to describe,
--the theme of the emergence of self in the novel -- what forces restrict the development
of the self and what forces liberate this development,
--how sex role stereotypes restrict both the men and the women in the novel and how
shedding those enriched the characters' lives,
--the parallel and intersecting function of the African narrative,
--how cultures define God and the effects of this.
We also talked about how Walker has been accused herself of stereotyping and looked at
her characters to argue or defend that accusation. Someone suggested that the story was a
product of the setting and that people aren't that isolated anymore what with TV so
prevalent etc. Good discussion on this. Sometimes I think I'm a little tired of this book,
but it does provoke good discussion of some significant issues in the Humanities.
Norleen Healy (Clearmont)
Participants mostly liked this book, and among its attributes the
aspect they appreciated most was its warm depiction of sisterhood among women. The group
felt that concept cuts across time and culture, and that Walker did an admirable job of
capturing it. I hoped to relate this book more deeply to the series theme of Pulitzer
Prize books and their characteristics. I elected to pursue the way literary styles become
part of the culture, specifically, in this case, the way Oprah Winfrey, who starred in the
film adaptation of "The Color Purple," knows Alice Walker and her works well and
has championed a number of similar writers and books since, has helped shape a modern
mini-canon of American literature. Only marginally successful there.
We had a great discussion of The Color Purple
due in part because the individuals in the group had such varied responses to it. Some
people loved it; others found it very mediocre.
I found a very critical discussion of the
novel by Trudier Harris in Vol. 46 of Contemporary
Literary Criticism, and we began with a discussion of his points. He talks about the
"clash between Celie's conception and her writing abilities." Could/would a
woman with her background write? No census! He also suggests the letters from Africa
didn't contribute much to the novel. Participants disagreed, feeling that Nettie's letters
add to the complexity of the race issue in the book. There is much sexism among the
African blacks and some racism, too.
Many of us were struck by a falseness in the
novel's ending--the way everything turns out so happily for everyone. Even the
wife-swapping causes no harm and improves the lives of all.
Carol Bell (Cody group)
Although we had a fairly small group
this session (the week before Christmas it’s always hard to muster much
attendance), we had a lively discussion. This was true even though several of
the readers hadn’t finished the book. Most participants, as is usually the case,
found it perplexing and strange.
I usually try to bring out several
purely literary points with regard to this book, since it is one of the more
technically intriguing of the novels we read in the Pulitzer series, and is
therefore a good book for discussing how interested in technical matters the
Pulitzer committee has or hasn’t been over the decades.
We focused on point of view for a while,
and the group brought out the multitude of angles from which this story is told
(I like to begin this discussion by pointing out how the author shows the
opening run in panoramic mode and the closing run in fine, close-up detail, like
film shots). We talked about stream-of-consiousness as a writing style and what
it is intended to achieve (and also how well-grounded Momaday is in literary
history). We talked about reliability of the various narrators. We talked about
folk-tales and sermons and the many other ways of transmitting information
presented by the book.
Here are five categories of discussion
topics that I usually try to invoke regarding “House Made of Dawn:”
1) Language. What do each of the speakers in this novel (including the
omniscient narrator) say about language, about its use and abuse, about the
origins of self within the power structures of language?
2) Religion. How does this novel
commingle various forms of spirituality, such as Christianity, Indian spiritual
beliefs, peyote ceremonies and so forth?
3) Narrative. Why is the point of view
used in the telling of this story so deliberately complicated and even
4) Memory. Why is so much of this story
composed of recollection? What does it seem to be telling us about the nature of
individual and cultural memories, and what it means to lose those memories?
5) Violence. This book is filled with
surreal violence, and asks the reader questions about the perception of
violence, the nature of violence, the differences between fictional and
real-life violence and so on.
5) Alienation and estrangement. The
novel is in many ways about a number of people undergoing the experience of
becoming estranged from everything they formerly believed in, and what that
experience does to individuals. Considering cultural changes afoot in 1968 (the
year the book appeared), how might this theme have influenced the Pulitzer
committee in its selection of this book?
Participants dug into the novel’s
flowering of spirituality, which is usually the most fruitful line of discussion
with this book. We also spent some time talking about Oprah’s book club (this
book, partly because of Oprah Winfrey’s involvement in the movie version, being
an early representative of the genre which has come to be thought of as typical
of her selections), and what the effect of that cultural phenomenon has had on
American reading habits and tastes.
Here are some questions I use to get
into this book:
1) What is a so-called “woman’s novel?” Is there such a thing as female
fiction? Is there an identifiable tradition of women’s writing in our overall
literary output? Can you tell, without knowing, if you’re reading fiction
written by a woman or a man (or any other generic division)? Do you have
differing expectations, and if so why?
2) What is a “slave narrative?” This
novel has often been described as a modern rendition of the tradition of slave
narrative typified by Frederick Douglass and Harriett Jacobs. In what ways does
or doesn’t this novel reiterate the slave narrative qualities of plea-and-demand
for political and social change?
3) What does it mean to live in a
“shared community?” To what degree is the community that you live in shared by
all its inhabitants?
4) Why is “The Color Purple” written in
epistolary form? What is the history of the epistolary novel, and what strengths
(or weaknesses) as a fictional form does it present the story-teller. In this
case, does it seem to work? What changes take place in Celie over the course of
this story? Did any changes take place in you as you read about her?
5) What’s the difference between
religion and spirituality?
6) What elements are necessary for an individual’s life to begin to take
on depth, color, vibrancy, power, “purple-ness”? What causes those elements to
be missing from some, or many, lives? To what degree is a colorless life the
fault of the individual and to what degree is such a lack caused by culture and
The group liked the book a lot. Many of them had read it before and all but
one had seen the movie. Through the discussion we got around to the usual
- Walker's conception of sex role stereotyping -- how it restrictsboth
female and male and impedes development
- Parallel and intersecting developments of Celie and Mr.____.
- Celie's change -- what brings it about? what is it? what empowers
- Celie's voice vs. that of Alice Walker and the form of the novel
- The Eleanor Jane and Miss Sophie episode - what is that telling us?
- Concepts of God
- Feminism - is this novel slanted that way? Are there stereotypes?
- The function of the African narrative
I asked them if they found any weaknesses in the novel, but they were pretty
reluctant to pursue that. I pushed it a bit because I sure think there
are some things that can be looked at here, but they
still resisted. They were relieved that the ending was
so "happy" and everything tied up so well -- they said
after reading some of the other books in this series, a "happy"
ending came as a big relief!
We did get into an interesting discussion about the incest -- they compared
Albert to Larry in A Thousand Acres and talked generally about this
social ill. I asked them if
they found the book relevant to their world. They did, and
we explored the ways. We also talked about what the culture was in the
early 1980's which would have contributed to the Pulitzer Prize award for
I began the evening sharing Iverem's "An Interview with Alice Walker." Then we examined why this novel won the Pulitzer. Most participants categorized this novel as a classic rather than just a prizewinner. They felt the novel spoke to all people regardless of race. We also discussed the portrayal of black men and the dynamic nature of all of the characters. None of the characters escape change. For some, Celie's letters to God showed how spirituality and religion are related but not necessarily synonymous. One member astutely pointed out that the houses in Africa were round as was Shug's bed and the home she designed. The connections to missionary work and African traditions were themes we briefly explored at the close of the session.
Tammy Frankland, Casper
This was a lively discussion. The participants all enjoyed the book. We began by talking about the Judge -- what made him an "optimist." From there, the discussion flowed to the Judge's response to Becky's illness, then on to Fay, and finally to Laurel.
Many of the insights that the participants had were similar to those of other groups, so I won't repeat them here. But a couple of comments were especially intriguing. We discussed why the Judge had married Fay. In the ensuing conversation about her, the one of the men in the group said, "I've known Fays in my life," and the other man nodded in agreement, going on to describe her shallow appeal as "a wink and a wiggle." One person compared her with Scarlett O'Hara, empty-headed but hardened by experience. The group finally agreed that Fay was most like a Pomeranian -- high maintenance, vain, and yippy.
About the Judge's death: he simply gave up life under the incessant pressure from Fay, having realized that he had made a grave mistake in that marriage.
Laurel was herself an optimist, having learned from her parents' lives and mistakes. After she grieves for all three deaths, she is ready to move on. She is able to leave her parents' letters and the breadboard behind because she has the memories to sustain her. One woman commented that she would like to have Laurel as a friend.
The group briefly considered a sequel to the book, in which the Chisom family moves into the McKelva home and takes over.
The discussion concluded with a consideration of cultural differences among American regions. Was it a southern characteristic to be so concerned with appearances, asked one woman, who grew up in the Midwest. There followed a round of stories from all the participants on the issue.
Barbara A Bogart
About 15 folks met for a vigorous discussion of Welty’s
book. Our discussions of each of the characters almost always pointed us into
our own lives: to look at how we remake private histories (the way everyone does
at the Judge’s services), how we deal with sickness, debility, and death; how we
each have to work through Laurel’s struggle of coming to terms with one’s
past—its people, places and things; how we treat outsiders (it took a little
work, but we managed to see Fay in a sympathetic light). I was struck by how
one of the elderly women in the group—normally pretty quiet—was quite animated
in her love for this book. “I recognize it; it’s about things that happen to
us,” she said. (In fact, she asked her daughter, who is also in the group, for
a collection of Welty stories for Christmas, and that is exactly what she got!)
Richard Kempa, 4-7-04
Our discussion about The Optimist’s Daughter started
with the participants commenting on the similarities in Eudora Welty’s life with
the themes in this Pulitzer Prize novel. Participants saw similarities in their
own lives of dealing with the death of a parent and responses found after
funerals, a time when issues may be settled. We also contrasted the scene after
the funeral with some participants’ experience at wakes that were more
Our conversation continued about Eudora Welty’s artistic
and literary accomplishments. We looked at her photographs of graveyards,
Country Churchyards and talked about One Writer’s Beginnings.
Participants said that they planned to check out this book. We were impressed
with Eudora Welty’s skill in portraying one week in The Optimist’s Daughter.
The time frame was a “well orchestrated tragedy.” Others disagreed with calling
it a tragedy because there is hope in the end. We also talked about Eudora
Welty’s continual revising of her novels and stories. We recognized this
striving toward perfection in the characteristics of Laurel.
The many relationships within the book offered
opportunities for our discussion. We could see Laurel revising her perceptions
and learning more about her father and mother’s relationship. Some participants
believed that Laurel was too controlled, “not a real person.” Others believed
that she was just being patient. The contrast of characters generated a rich
discussion because participants both appreciated and were frustrated with some
of the reactions from the judge, Laurel, Fay, Fay’s family, the bridesmaids, and
the friends of the parents. Participants wondered why the judge married Fay,
and the main answer was that “he was alive with her.” We could understand her
attraction, in terms of sexually and vitality. Additionally, the judge was
ready to move on with his life, even though that is a hard reality for grown
children to understand or accept sometimes.
Themes that we discussed were silence, death, and sense of
place. First, we talked about the silence of the mother at the end when she was
angry with her husband, who was unable to help her. The father was silent
because he could not help Becky. Laurel is silent, even as she listened to Fay’s
many comments. The death of the mother, father, and Laurel’s husband were
points of discussion because in each death, someone was unable to help. We
could also understand why Fay wanted to enter into the Carnival celebration.
She did not want to participate in death. The other theme of place was found in
the southern setting. We could see, hear, and feel what was happening in every
scene in the novel. For example, the bedroom decorations are described, so we
could picture that room and the house.
Some of the issues we discussed were the issue of control,
sight, symbolism, and class relationships. We thought that the species of birds
matched the people. For example, the bird trapped in the house is Fay, and
other’s believed it was Laurel, who is trapped in her memories. The breadboard
was another source of many comments and conclusions. The class relationships
found in the South in the early 1900s were strongly revealed in this novel. The
two families represented two separate classes. We could understand Fay’s
reactions and experience coming into the home of the established upper class.
Finally, we saw Fay’s moving into the house as a symbol of the changing times
for the South.
We read many excerpts from the novel about who were the
optimists in the book. We could see that the judge was an optimist, even when
he could do nothing to help his first wife during her illness. Laurel was truly
the optimist’s daughter.
Our final conclusion was that this seemingly, simple story
has much to say about relationships. The humor in the story helped soften the
depiction of death and the choice to move on with our lives. We saw changes in
everyone in the novel. Our rich discussion helped us to look again at the
characters’ responses and conclusions.
Sharon Taylor, 3-21-04
I began by talking a bit about Eudora Welty and some of the
characteristics of her writing and how they fit into the whole Southern
We had one participant in the group who is a devoted Welty
fan and had read most of her fiction, so she shared her sense of the reflections
of Welty’s own (intensely personal) life that come through in her writing. When
we started talking specifically about the novel the first character that they
wanted to discuss was Wanda Fay whom they thoroughly thrashed. They were not
impressed with my contention that she represents the “new” South! We spent
most of our time talking about Becky, the father, and Laurel. We, of course,
talked about memory: how selective it can be, how layered, and how elusive. We
definitely saw Laurel as being freed by her looking at her past in a deeper
way. We felt that Becky’s memory of the past trapped her and impinged on her
relationship with the judge and even with Laurel. They all needed to “see” each
other in new, more complex ways and forgive each other for things, even in
memory. Unfortunately it was too late for Becky and the Judge, but not for
Laurel. We talked a bit about the symbolism – the birds, the flowers, the
bridesmaids, the breadboard … I don’t like to be too heavy handed with this,
just let the group feel their way, and they had some good insights.
The book offers opportunity for humor too. We loved the
whole Chisom family scene. Everyone has bizarre funeral stories to relate.
Also the Chisom-like family at the hospital was familiar to us all. When the
usual question of “why the Pulitzer” came up, I reminded them that a criteria is
that the writing represent a segment of American life. They were much more
willing that this book get the award than they were last month when we did the
Scott Momaday book!
Norleen Healy, Jan. 2004
Having read previous scholar comments on the archives, I wasn't
surprised to be asked by the group why this book won the Pulitzer Prize. So,
that's where we started, reviewing prize criteria and past winners. I gave some
background on Welty and her photographic viewpoint. Then we talked about plot,
characters and had some good laughs and head scratching moments over Fay and her
family. We began to unravel how the comedic characters and farcical plot serve
as one layer of the novel. The other layer exists on the thematic level, we
decided, and reveals truths about meanings of life and love. After some time
spent at this level of reading, the group started to see the complexities of the
novel and its value beyond its disguise as light entertainment.
Julianne Couch, Laramie 02-03
[Excerpted comment on suitability of this novel
I do like much of the author's work, but this
book turns on too little (most of the dramatic energy is in a single scene) and the
subtlety of Ms. Welty's style (especially as regards symbols) leads to confusion in places
where some elements don't seem to work as symbols or narratively. We did find room to talk
about human values, about life and death, etc., but not to the depth of the other books in
Although it is not challenging on the surface, it
can generate a rich discussion. There again, it might be a good idea to send members home
with some questions to ponder as they read. Why does Judge McKelva die, for instance? Does
he somehow will himself to fade? What relationship does his death have to that of his
wife? Is being an optimist a good thing in this book? Why are there so many references to
time? Why is Laurel silent throughout so much of the novel? At what point does she begin
expressing herself more, and why? Pursuing these questions, the Newcastle group came up
with some amazing insights, not only into the characters, but into the way Welty seems to
be commenting on the culture of that southern town. The prose is spare, but the mysteries
are substantive and intentional, I believe.
We first considered the book from the standpoint
of the two families involved--the McKelvas and the Chisoms--their values and the ways in
which they solved problems, the first bolstered by imagination and contemplation, the
second confrontational and reactive. We then considered who the optimist was and was not
(Clinton and Philip) and why the Judge's first wife, Becky, felt betrayed by her husband.
Finally, we considered how Laurel resolved the issues of her husband's, her mother's and
her father's deaths, and how memory is adaptable and can be interpreted to give new
meaning to life: the past is impervious; memory is not. The group loved the character
definition and found a number of passages to enjoy because of the wisdom contained or the
This book, I'm sorry to say, was roundly
loathed by the Afton group. They expressed contempt for the characters, a lack of
admiration for the aims of the novel, annoyance with the writing style, and general doubt
about Eudora Welty.
This all came on the heels of my introductory
lecture about the Pulitzer Prize. Since this was the opening book of the series, I wanted
to set the stage by explaining what the Pulitzer is, how it's selected and by whom, what
it means, and a little bit of theory about the making lists, i.e., the formation of a
So, on the heel of that, they laid into The
Optimist's Daughter with a vengeance. Which isn't to say it was a bad discussion--just
negative, and, well, pessimistic.
We did talk at length about motivations, surface
versus deep. We discussed polarized relationships, for instance between rich and poor,
north and south, city and small town, past and present. A brief discussion blossomed
concerning the symbolism of flowers, which are everywhere in this book. We of course
talked about the bird which wouldn't "just fly free of its own accord," and
about the connection between the coffin and the open desk.
We had a pretty good time, even through the
negativity, and I think I convinced them to some degree that there is merit in this book.
Regarding Peter's message about his group's
negative response to The Optimist's Daughter:
The Albany County Library group has questioned
all but Steinbeck's novel as recipients of the Pulitzer. The series is interesting in that
it raises fierce discussion about the criterion regarding a view of American life. The
group seems to think the prize should reward a certain perspective about American life,
that stories we like to hear should be given the prize. I have found this point of
discussion quite interesting. We are finishing the series in two weeks with The
Optimist's Daughter. I feel comfortably forewarned.
This was one of the most vital and vitalizing
discussions I've had with book groups. Everything "clicked." We had many new
people in attendance, everyone present was an enthusiastic student of literature and the
Second Story salon is cozy and conducive to good conversation. We touched upon virtually
all aspects of the book, with most people feeling it was a worthy work but remaining a
little baffled over its having won the Pulitzer. The majority were saddened by the book,
on behalf of its main character, Laurel. Although the author seems to write a
triumph for her in the end, we were not as convinced of this as Welty perhaps wanted us to
be. Many cited the apparent paucity of Laurel's present life in comparison with the past
that she is so enamored of. While she may have a challenging occupation, there is little
mention of it in the book. She seems engaged only by the past.
We concluded that optimism, in the context of
this book, is not necessarily a good thing. Judge McKelva seemed to have applied the
outlook blindly, as a means of denying his first wife's dire condition. And one member of
our group shared the (brilliant, I thought) insight that perhaps the book is called The
Optimist's Daughter because, like her father, Laurel lives in constant denial, married to
a delusive sense of the past. Sara Martin did a fabulous job of co-leading the discussion.
She researched the book and its author thoroughly, and these insights into Welty's own
past were fascinating, especially in revealing parallels between the author's life and
this particular book.
We detoured our way into a discussion of marriage and family with a debate about why
Judge McKelva died and how critical cause of death was to the novel. Some readers felt it
was a significant plot flaw that could have been remedied with a sentence or two, such as,
"Then some unexpected and devastating test results came back and the Judge was doomed
to die of a rare disease." Other felt that the ambiguity surrounding his death was
intentional and critical to the novel's themes of marriage and salvation. I pointed the
group to the doctor's private comment: "The renegade! I believe he's just plain
sneaked out on us" (34). Why might the Judge have "sneaked out"? This
question led us to Fay's character, her marriage to the judge, and the scene in which she
"abuses" the Judge, saying "enough is enough. . . . This is my
birthday!" Some readers felt that Fay and the Judge had a good marriage, and that in
this scene she selflessly attempt to normalize his illness in order to help him heal.
Others saw the marriage as a significant lack of judgment, ironically, on the Judge's
part, and viewed his death as a metaphorically acceptable way to leave the marriage. After
discussing his marriage to Becky, her despair and death, and his reaction to her death,
the group realized the significance of "seeing" to the themes of love and
marriage. The Judge's blindness to Fay's true character, brought out comically through her
destructive family, may in fact have contributed to his need for corrective surgery and
his subsequent death.
The conflict of optimism and despair grounds this tragedy in the differing attitudes
toward death and grieving. We discussed Laurel's decision to burn and abandon her
memories, focusing on the statement, "Memory lived not in initial possession but in
the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that came empty but full again, in
the patterns restored by dreams" (179). A creative individual like Laurel, the
designer who seeks patterns in chaos, holds the promise of finding new love and life,
rather than living her grief in the constant presence of her six bridesmaids. The future
seems less hopeful for Fay, who destroys antiques and art with nail polish and hammers.
For interest's sake, I provided background about the novel's origin as a long short story
and Welty's deletion from the novel manuscript of 20 pages about Laurel and Phil's
romance. Welty states in an interview that she desired this novel to be a tragedy of the
McKelvas, each of whom realizes at different moments that she or he failed to save a loved
Given the broad themes of marriage, family, death, and salvation, readers were able to
place this novel in the Pulitzer Prize category more readily than some of the previous.
Diane LeBlanc (Albany County Library group)
Most of the group liked this book. Barbara
talked about the "interior" story of adjustment to grief and loss, and
acceptance of the meaning of the love(s) in Laurel's life. And the importance of reading
in her life. What do we really know about those close to us? The judge never really sees
Becky: she feels betrayed and never reaches her potential in Jackson. When things don't
work out, he leaves. The optimist sees through rose-colored glasses and is in denial.
Laurel comes to grips with the idea she doesn't want that kind of life. In the end, all we
have is our perception/memories: things weren't really perfect. Revise.
We talked a lot about symbolism. We felt the
breadboard was a symbol and a possession. Barbara talked about water (Phil dies in water
in the war; there are many references to bridges and the confluence of the Ohio &
Mississippi rivers, confluence of memories and the new, floods of feeling, cleansing and
rebirth. . .), birds (fear/chaos/mess, the past, a bird in the house is a sign of death. .
.), and hands (creativity, the breadboard, trimming roses, daily life, fingernail polish
on the desk. . .), etc. We had a long discussion about why Laurel burns her mother's
This was the largest turnout we've had in Clearmont. Twelve
people checked out the novel and eleven came for the discussion. I had given them some
questions to consider as they read the novel as someone in bd-talk suggested, but this
didn't seem to make them "like" the book any more; it did, however, give us a
starting place for discussion. They had already been discussing the book among themselves
and just knew I'd like this one as much as they didn't. They've learned to be amused and
tolerant of my bad taste. It often seems that the books they like the least are the ones I
like the most.
Interestingly, they did, in the discussion, bring in the elements in the book that are
most central to the characters and theme. We talked about memory and how we define the
past. We could all see how Laurel wanted to idealize her parent's marriage, how her memory
of that and her mother began warmly and then, as she delved more deeply, evolved into
something much more complex. We talked about how dangerous confronting the past can be
(even though, in Laurel's case, redeeming). They could see how Laurel and Fay represented
two extremes and how each could benefit by taking on some of the qualities of the other.
Granted, the some of the people in the group had a little trouble with this at first, but
we ended up agreeing that there was something to be said for Fay's energy and vitality. We
enjoyed the Chisolms. The culture in Jackson, while definitively Southern, was not so
unlike the towns many of us grew up in, even in Wyoming. Who hasn't experienced a
"viewing" or funeral like the one in the novel? This novel lends itself well to
a discussion of the characteristics of Southern literature, and most people are familiar
with some Southern writer. Faulkner and Tennessee Williams (especially) were ones many
could recall and see the parallels -- the idealization of the past, the detached father
Of course, the question at the end of the discussion was "Why this book for the
Pulitzer?", and I turned the question back on them and asked them why they thought
this book was chosen for that award. They said all the things I would have said, so they
appreciate it even if they didn't "like" it!
Norleen Healy (Clearmont group)
Unlike some previous experiences I've had leading discussions of
this book, the Pinedale group really enjoyed it. Considerable discussion surrounded why
Laurel relinquished everything to her father's young wife. This brought out conversation
about the way people feel about heirlooms, belongings and family artifacts. One
participant asked the perennial question, "doesn't anyone feel sympathy for
Fay?" That brought on a good discussion of the variety of motivations people
have--often hidden--for the seemingly odd and even destructive things they do.
The group debated the book's prose style and methods, and its role as an emblem of time
and place. Finally, it was succinctly stated that the real optimist of the story is Laurel
The Rock Springs group had a good discussion of Eudora Welty's "The
Optimist's Daughter." Because of the "transparent" way in which the book
is written, where it is easy to forget that the author and her
"themes" exist, this was largely a
character-based discussion. We looked closely at each
of the main characters in turn, and some minor ones as well, exploring
their behavior and motivations. We noticed, too, some of the light-handed
symbolism that Welty uses (that of birds, for example). Through this,
various themes emerged: the outsider/insider tensions of the small
community, one's relationships to one's parents, one's relationships to
one's past and future, the tension between "old" and "new" societies, the
loneliness of the sick and dying.... Finally, we took pleasure in Welty's
descriptive powers, by reading several passages out loud.
I found some good materials on the book itself in Volume 105 of the
Contemporary Literary Criticism series, and the NYT review by Howard Moss
(referenced on the WCH fact sheet) was very helpful. Some of my very best
materials, however-vivid details, anecdotes, testimonials about this rare
and wonderful writer--came from the countless articles about Welty's life
and work that appeared after her death on July 23, 2001 (easily
obtainable through a search on a periodical database).
Given that Welty has not published any major fiction for decades, and yet
has reportedly never ceased writing, our group was intrigued by the
prospect of new Welty manuscripts that Richard Ford
(her former neighbor, fellow Pulitzer winner and
literary executor) may find suitable for publication in
the years to come.
The Optimist's Daugher provoked extreme responses from the group. Two
readers called it a near perfect novel, and two others felt time spent
reading it a waste.
We grappled with the following questions during our discussion:
1) How is Laurel's life determined by her perception of her parents? Are
all of our lives influenced by perceptions of family? Do our
parents/families make it difficult for us to develop our individuality?
How are we trapped or set free by family connections?
2) Before the funeral, people tell stories about the judge that seem
untrue to Laurel. Why are these stories so disturbing to Laurel? Is it a
universal human tendency to tell stories of mythic proportions about the
dead? What might lead the characters in the novel to tell these stories
about the judge?
3) How does love give meaning to life? Or does it? Compare Fay (isolated,
dispossessed, without memory or past) to Laurel (long history of
belonging, connectedness, love). Again, is our history
a burden or does it give our lives meaning or both?
4) What is the significance of the bird caught in the house? How are
Laurel and the bird alike?
5) The Optimist's Daughter is often seen as Welty's autobiographical
novel. Laurel, a designer of fabric, is an artist. Is Welty trying to
tell us something by the novel about an artist's role in society? If so,
Because a few had such a strong dislike of this novel, we talked a little
about the difference between books we read on our own for fun and books
we read in discussion groups or to which we award
Pulitzer Prizes! Do we expect different things from
prize-winning books or from book discussion books than
we do from the books we read for fun?
I began the discussion by a quick review of the books we had read and the
types of communities in transition we had already explored. Then I asked them
what kind of community was in transition in this book. The group did not like
the book and felt that the characters left them cold. They could not identify
with anyone in the book and felt the story was dry. However the fact the book
left them cold led into an interesting discussion. The group felt Laura leaving
everything behind rang false; they all have family items that they cherish and
could not believe Laura would just walk away from everything. This led the group
to be reflective and led to a discussion about “materialism” and memory. The
group suddenly found themselves justifying their desire to keep things belonging
to their families and ancestors. Then they all laughed realizing that somehow
Laura’s action produced in them feelings of guilt that they wanted “things” and
they felt compelled to justify their desire for family treasures. They were also
appalled that Laura burnt all the letters.
We discussed the two families in the book, how they solved problems, grieved and
were or were not linked to their families. They enjoyed the brief summary I gave
of the symbolism in the novel; in fact came with questions about the birds and
plants and how they were woven into the story.
My experience with this book in the past has been troubling. A couple
of groups have disliked it immensely. But the Jackson group agreed it was one of
They liked its “slice of life” appeal. They liked its gentle
depiction of the social stratification of the South. They liked its atmospheric
settings, all lazy and warm and scented with flowers. One reader commented that
the experience of reading it is “lush and fragrant.”
Readers from the South commented especially on the region as an
insular world, still very much held apart from the assumed rest of the country.
There were fewer of us than usual at the Baggs discussion
of “A Thousand Acres” - this was after all a rescheduled meeting due to a
weather event—but it was a good one. I happen to agree with what several
critics have written of Smiley’s book—that it is a book of “genius,” “awful
power,” “near-miraculous success,” one that will stand the test of time—and so I
was hopeful that others would see the same virtues in it. I was not
disappointed in our conversation.
The good folks of Baggs recognized Larry, Ginny, Rose and
some others as character types familiar in the ranching world, and the
collectivization of the family farm as a reality that has hovered over some of
their own lives or the lives of people they know. We appreciated the
authenticity, and were drawn in by it.
One can groove on this book without knowing much about its
King Lear connection, but I found that sharing a bit of this connection was a
key to understanding the author’s main intent. My most helpful source was Susan
Trehle’s essay, “The Daughter’s Subversion in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres”
(Critique, Spring 2000 Vol. 41:3), which explores how Smiley is not
merely retelling the Lear story, but inverting it, to show how those who have
always been seen as the villains can in fact be the victims; how the “tragedy”
is not that of the domineering man—Lear or Larry—but of all who were silenced by
and subjugated to their will. We talked quite a bit about poisons, too—both in
relations among people and between people and the earth, and we were saddened, I
think, that there was no redemption here, as there was in all the other books in
Finally, In this case I was glad to NOT bring the Hollywood
version of the book, for I thought it really diminished the story itself.
Richard Kempa, 4-7-04
This novel always generates interesting discussion. I
started by telling them just a bit about the elements from King Lear that are so
strongly reflected, though inverted by seeing the story through one of the two
older sisters (the evil ones in Lear). I didn’t go too far with that, but we
did talk about how the telling of the story in retrospect by Ginny certainly
shapes our view. We agreed that she was a reliable narrator where-as Rose or
Caroline would not have been as anxious to tell it “right”. Then we covered the
obvious themes: the importance of “appearances” in the culture, the devastating
effect of secrets and silences, the patriarchal nature of the society, the thin
lines between love and hate, the many aspects of pollution (literally and
figuratively), Several in the group said they felt disconcerted by the fact
that they didn’t find any real “hero” in the book. That led us into a
discussion of modern literature and how images of a hero/ anti-hero are
reflective of a culture. Many in the group are or come from ranching families,
so we talked about how farming and ranching has changed in the last 30 years and
how that affects tradition farming communities.
The group didn’t have trouble seeing how this novel would
receive a Pulitzer.
This was our last session in this series, so we spent some
time reviewing the books and talking about how they tied together. We agreed
that they all reflect some aspects of communities in transition (and “families
in trouble” someone added).
Norleen Healy, 3-22-04
This book generates good discussion, even for the people in
the group who had problems with it. I began with a bit about Jane Smiley
herself and reminded everyone that we had another Smiley book last year
(Ordinary Love and Good Will) toward which we had wildly divergent attitudes.
I explained how the basic plot and major characters were highly similar, but
what Smiley does is change the sympathies by telling the story from Ginny’s
viewpoint and making Larry and Caroline the “villains” whereas in Lear the two
older sisters are REALLY evil and the youngest sister, who takes care of her
father, is the sympathetic one. By the way she inverts the way we see the
characters, Smiley suggests a lot thematically about 1000 Acres.
We looked at how the story is told in retrospect from
Ginny’s point of view – especially interesting when we remembered places where
she (in looking back) realizes that a turning point occurred and wondered what
or if anything could have been done or said to make things go differently
(suggesting the free will vs. fate theme in tragedy). We also talked at length
about the role of secrets in all the characters lives and the reticence which
overlays the whole culture. Why didn’t anyone object to the way Harold talked
to the girls at the Church supper (not even the girls themselves) for example?
Some of the group insisted that that’s how these rural communities are – don’t
get involved in other people’s lives and avoid embarrassing scenes. Look the
other way. Even within family members, reticence is the norm. We had an
interesting discussion about the necessity to “keep up appearances;” the more
things unraveled, the more obsessively the characters adhered to routine and
appearances (e.g. Ginny’s cleaning all the crevices in the stove and counter
with a toothpick when she is just cleaning up after a meal). We talked about
the use and ramifications of use of all the chemicals and marveled that they
seemed to know how dangerous the chemicals were in terms of the way they handled
and stored them, yet they allowed them to permeate their soil and water.
Someone pointed out that their whole environment is polluted, be it physical,
emotional, psychological, ethical, moral and so on.
We agreed that Smiley’s attitude about the role of women in
a patriarchal society is clear and highly thematic in this novel. As long as
they keep “silent” they’re fine; they’re “bitches” and “whores” when they speak
out. Lots of discussion on this point, both in terms of the novel and rural
cultures is general. Our female/male ratio happened to be 15-1, so, in this
case, our male voice suffered somewhat. All in all a great discussion for our
final time for this series.
Norleen Healy, Feb. 2004
Our discussion about A Thousand Acres was rich with
multiple strands of conversation that reflected critical thinking and
involvement with the issues in this novel.
We started our
discussion by looking at a picture of a Sears, Chelsea house similar to Larry’s
house and at a map of Iowa where we could locate and better understand the place
of the novel. We found Mason City and talked about the proximity to Minnesota
and the “cultural” oasis of Minneapolis. We also discussed the author’s
background, experience in Iowa, and other novels.
One participant pointed out the many similarities of the
novel and King Lear in plot, sub-plots, atmosphere, format, and first
letters in character names. The group agreed that this novel is a classic
because it an American tragedy based on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, King
Lear. Smiley has reframed this tragedy to focus on the land and people in a
We talked about the loss of family farms and abandoned
homes. We discussed the issue of betrayal of land, economy, and people in the
novel. Then we focused on the issue of incest with the subsequent silence and
secrecy. Our conversations were strengthened with information and quoted
material from Janice Doane’s Telling Incest: “Smiley’s novel uses
recovered memories of incest to signify a woman’s capacity to reconnect with
deeply silenced ‘truths’ about her personal and cultural subjugation” (71).
Personal experiences of farming communities where the “men
ate first” were referenced in our discussion of the patriarchy portrayed in the
novel. For example, one older woman said she did not know that turkey had white
meat until after her father died.
We enjoyed discussing the
characters with participants centering on the changes and transitions found in
the novel. Some believed that the characters were the never the same. Also,
the monopoly games revealed the characters’ greed. They were not able to resist
in the game or their lives. We had mixed reasons for Ginny’s attempt to kill
Rose. We concluded that without Rose’s insistences, Ginny would have continued
to “not remember” the incest. Each of the daughters’ responses was typical of
incest victims: anger, denial, and acceptance. Also, Ginny’s move to
Minneapolis shows numbness in response to incest. Additionally, we talked about
the limited options for such a farm wife. Some participants believed that the
“rules” have changed since the time of the novel. Others believed that if the
setting of the novel had been twenty years earlier, the outcome would have been
Our final discussions returned to our initial response that
A Thousand Acres is a worthy Pulitzer price choice for a classic novel
because this novel could have been put in any setting, such as a logging
community, and it would still be a classic. When the economy shifts, our “good”
and “bad” qualities surface, just as the poison in the land of the novel. Then
the “blue print” for the culture is revealed. The draining of the land started
out for “good” but in the end, it was “bad.” Just as the characters in this
novel, many of us have also made decisions and actions for positive reasons and
experienced the negative results.
Sharon Taylor, Dec. 2003
members dove into the center of the novel asking the question “Why
did Ginny want to kill Rose?” We explored a variety of topics and themes,
including betrayal and revenge, appearance vs. reality, secrets and truth,
subordination and silence, and self-delusion. Discussion of Ginny’s intent to
poison Rose also stimulated conversation about other kinds
of “poison” and methods used to poison the land and the human spirit as
illustrated in the novel. Those comments, in turn, prompted observations and
speculations regarding illness or sterility as a consequence of human action –
Several noted how the novel might offer a
criticism of a patriarchal or male dominant culture, referring to critics who
suggest the novel reflects the idea that a patriarchal tradition creates an
essentially “dysfunctional” society. Some comparisons to Shakespeare’s
King Lear were made, but members
were more intrigued with the motivations and psychology of
Smiley’s characters, and what that contributes to a “classic view of
America.” We also spoke about the influence of setting or
landscape on the characters. I shared drawings and blueprints of Larry’s house
(The Chelsea) based on Sears’ catalog information found at
will most likely be very familiar to a number of readers—and might stimulate
consideration of the “grid” pattern that is so prevalent throughout the novel.)
Finally, we discussed this novel and characters in
relation to the other titles in the series, noting the various perspectives of
American culture offered and readers’ favorite selection of the series and
their criteria for that selection. (The Way
West, The Color Purple, and
A Thousand Acres
were the most frequently mentioned titles, although
House Made of Dawn was lauded for
its “poetry”.) Most agreed three criteria influenced which they chose: the
reader’s ability to “connect” with characters, the interest in the story line
and the narrative style.
Ebba Stedillie 02-03
The group seemed to like the book, some very much. Some people looked for heroes and
couldn't find them. We discussed disinheritance in all its permutations, pollution as
environmental fact and as human metaphor. In all three books so far, we found the effects
of the breakdown of a culture and a way of life on human behavior and values, the place of
hope and despair in human existence.
People seemed ambivalent about this book.
It tackled large issues but ended badly for some. People and their landscapes, how
generations of silence can flow from a single choice, security vs. inner peace,
sisterhood, the "optimum distance" from which to see a father. Barbara opened
with the comparison with King Lear, which was interesting. The general feeling of the
group was that the book was not good toward women. Ginny was marginalized throughout most
of the novel. There appeared to be no redemption at the end. One participant wondered,
" Do all Pulitzer Prize books have to be black?"
Jane Smiley is one of my favorite contemporary
writers, but she tends to leave a lot of people cold. I can understand that. Jane Smiley
is herself a little cold, brittle, intellectual, difficult. A streak of annoying
superiority runs through her. But she's a good writer. I had prepared for the
meeting by delving deeply into King Lear. A Thousand Acres is a retelling of Lear, of
course, from a somewhat post-modern feminist point of view. I found that participants
generally felt intimidated by all this. Since it's not crucial to a reading of the book to
know the Lear story and criticism, I'll likely avoid bringing it up in the future, except
in the most superficial manner. I'll be ready to explain it all - how the Lear characters'
motivations are recaptured and twisted in Thousand Acres, how Smiley seeks to trace
psychological motivations embedded in culture rather than in human universalities, how the
20th Century has overlaid literature with feminism and Freudian constructs, etc. - but I
won't demand the group learn these things.
We didn't have much time at the end [last
meeting] to discuss prizes and the Pulitzer in particular. This is something I wish we
could have done more of. Next time, I'll seek to arrange the discussion a little
differently. A discussion bringing everything together at the end would add greatly to
this series. We did talk about theoretical issues a bit here and there as the season
progressed, but I believe participants would appreciate a summation.
I was interested to hear the Clearmont group's reaction to this
novel. Clearmont is a conservative and very agricultural community. Of the 8 people there,
6 were women and long time (even generational )locals, 2 were men, one of whom grew up in
Iowa. The women all liked the book and the men didn't. The women each told of particular
ways they identified with the characters and the setting. The men thought it was
exaggerated and no one "not even Job" had that many bad things happen. The
women, including me, vehemently disagreed! Once we got past that, we had a good, good
discussion with a lot of references by everyone to particular passages in the book.
They asked about the King Lear aspect, so I briefly summarized the Lear story and drew
the most obvious parallels. I don't think this is essential to a discussion of the novel,
but it's interesting if they want to know. We discussed how the book reflects rural
society - the way lines are drawn, the competition, the resistances, what happens to those
who challenge the accepted views of behavior, and the patriarchal nature of the
"rules", the importance of appearances. Everyone agreed that the characters of
the women were shaped by a culture that devalues and silences women.
We talked about family relationships and the roles assumed by various members. Most
felt that every family has a Ginny - someone who wants to "fix" things, who
resists a point-of-view in favor of peace. We traced Ginny's development from silence to
beginning to acquire a voice to finally "speaking out" by claiming her past and
her need to finally "set the record straight" if just for herself. The group was
intrigued by her intent and method for killing Rose!
Another theme we explored is the thin line between love and hate and the fragility of
relationships, especially when "silences" undermine. Last year this group read
and hated Silent Spring yet they were surprisingly sympathetic to the environmental
concerns in the novel. We found it ironic that most of those thousand acres were built on
top of a swamp.
We agreed that there were no positive male figures in the novel (not even Jess) and
acknowledged Jane Smiley's "feminist"agenda", but they did agree that it
was not forced but acceptable in terms of the society she portrayed. Even if he is so
unredeemingly bad, Larry is believable. The women in the group had no trouble accepting
this, and the men did acknowledge that his obsession with land and ownership which carried
over to everything was within the realm of possibility. Some in the group didn't believe
him at the end of the novel - they thought it was an "act". In light of that we
spent time taking a hard look at the final paragraph where Ginny talks about her father.
I was impressed with this group's insights into the novel. I expected more resistance
to it. They even agreed that it was worthy of a Pulitzer for its depiction of that rural
community and alluded to passages where Smiley's writing was notable - like the monopoly
Norleen Healy (Clearmont group)
This group seemed to appreciate "Thousand Acres" a lot,
a welcome change from my experience with other groups, who often find it too oppressive. I
had mentioned at the previous meeting that "Thousand Acres" was an inverted
adaptation of "King Lear," and we spent a lot of time talking about Shakespeare
and the nature of tragedy. I drifted into something of a monologue for a few minutes about
how American audiences no longer deal with tragedy. For instance, instead of comedy and
tragedy we classify movie and television plots as comedies or "dramas."
So-called "drama" is ostensibly a type of comedy, since usually it means a
"serious" plot, but one in which heroic characteristics of the good guys
eventually prevail. That made for some interesting discussion about our culture's
expectations and tolerances in reading and entertainment.
Come to think of it, I also went on for a while about writing schools in America, and
how their impact on our national literary output remains, as of the end of the century,
still ambiguous at best. Sometimes I talk too much.
We reviewed the concept of the Pulitzer Prize - its origin, a bit of its colorful
history, the selection process. We all tried to say a few words in summation about the
Pulitzer in particular, the vagaries of prize-giving and the reverberations (or lack
thereof) in American culture of lauded books.
This is a great book for a discussion series, because even those who don't
like A Thousand Acres love to talk about it! We
began our discussion by talking about family--the ways in which parents
often assume ownership of children. We talked about the difficulties of
recognizing one's own identity when one feels "owned" by parents. Ginny
and Rose face this predicament; so does the optomist's daughter in Welty.
We spent a lot of time comparing the novel to King Lear, which many of us
reread after reading A Thousand Acres. We talked about the way Smiley
presents the "normal" interpretation of King Lear's behavior in Larry
through the neighbors' gossip and through Ginny's self-doubt. The
neighbors see Rose and Ginny as evil, Larry as victim. I can't imagine
discussing this novel without talking about Shakespeare, because it was
written indirect response to Lear. We talked about how we read and
respond to a novel differently when we are aware that
the author meant for us to read her novel with another
piece of work in mind. Someone pointed out that in
Shakespeare, people often escape to the country for
clarity; in Smiley, the city is Ginny's escape and the place
where she starts again. The country is far from idyllic in Smiley!
It's worth noting one particular similarity between The Optimist's
Daughter and A Thousand Acres. After her father's death, Laurel has
trouble imagining Fay as the caretaker/inheritor of the family home and
it's furnishings. During a scene in the kitchen, Laurel decides to let go
of everything and move on. In Smiley's novel,
Ginny has a similar response to sharing Rose's and her
mother's household goods with Caroline. Ginny finally drives away leaving
everything to Caroline. These two passages make
the same point about how we are set free from the past
by letting go of "stuff." Both women are empowered by choosing not to
hang on to the belongings of their dead loved ones, and we sense that
they are taking control of their own lives at this
point. The past no longer has a hold on them.
First we reviewed the communities in transition
we had so far discussed and then flowed into a discussion of how the community
in this book was in transition. We discussed the generational transitions, the
transition of a farming community and the environmental transition. The
discussion was lively; in fact sometimes so much so that addressing a single
theme was impossible. The group spent the most amount of time discussing the
relationship amongst the sisters, their relationship to the father and the
perspectives they each presented. The group also discussed the domestic symbols
in the book - “the couch on the front lawn” and the subtle messages the father
presented in his desire to give the message that the problems at the farm were
the fault of the women, not the men. Finding one’s sense of self and voice in
families as well as within an abusive patriarchy was examined both personally
and in reference to the book. I threw out the question “is this a feminist book
with a forced or acceptable viewpoint in terms of the society and people
portrayed?” No one felt that Smiley had an axe to grind or an agenda to
One woman related that her mother had left an
equally oppressive farm situation to move to town and wondered still today, what
gave her mother the strength to do so in the context of the social constraints
and “silence” under which women were expected to live in farming communities.
This comment led to a discussion about the generations of women presented in the
book. All agreed that none of the women, or men for that matter, ended up in a
space that allowed them to be comfortable with the transitions they were
witnessing and living. We also discussed the “silence” that seemed to be passing
on to the third generation. All agreed that there were no heroes in this book
but all planned on recommending it to friends. When I left the library at 8:45
there were some participants gathered in the lobby still talking about the
A number of readers had encountered this book in the past, and
described their dread at re-reading it because it’s simply hard to take. Great
comments came out concerning Smiley’s depictions of farming, the Midwestern
flatlands, details about food preparation and house cleaning and her adeptness
with, among other things, dialogue.
We talked some, but not too much, about King Lear.
We spent time discussing our notions of order, heritage, routine and
expected, predictable elements of life. The debate centered on how these things
inevitably fall apart, of course.
This was the concluding book of the Pulitzer series, so we spent some
time at the end talking about the Pulitzer Prize, the problematic nature of
awards, the formation of canons and lists of great “American” books, the
teaching of literature and the difficulties inherent in positioning any given
book as being representative of our culture.
This book was well received. Our primary focus revolved around the characters and how Smiley presented them. None of the characters had redeeming qualities. We felt it was an accurate representation of farming communities and spent a great deal of time discussing the dichotomy between appearances and realities. Most members felt this book covered environmental issues quite well and that the poisoned environment affected characters' actions and psychologies. Another member indicated that this book also accurately depicted incest and its affects on the family. Many felt it was worthy of the Pulitzer because of its honest depiction of incest. We compared this book to other texts in the series and briefly discussed Shakespeare's King Lear and its relationship to this text. Since we are moving to a four-book format, I recommend eliminating The Optimist's Daughter.
Tammy Frankland, Natrona County Public Library
people attended what has become our annual Christmas potluck dinner before the
discussion. Everyone liked The Way West very much and agreed heartily with the
person who described it as a "comfortable read." Since reading and discussing
most of the books in this series has made us feel some degree of discomfort,
this book was a chance to just relax and enjoy.
I told the group a
little about Guthrie's life and the high regard for him as a western writer. We
discussed a list of Oregon Trail facts that I had in my files from teaching the
novel many years ago. Statistics for volume of traffic on the trail showed that
in 1845 when Guthrie's fictional wagon train crossed 2,500 people went to Oregon
as compared with 1852 when the greatest number, 10,000 made the trip.
community is located on the Oregon Trail, we were fascinated with Guthrie's
account of the journey through the country we know well and were impressed with
the accuracy of his descriptions. We discussed the novel's linear plot, tied to
a journey, as a typically Euro-American plot pattern and compared it with the
non-linear plot of House Made of Dawn, the last book we discussed. Group members
thought the use of multiple points of view was an effective way for Guthrie to
encompass in one novel the variety of experiences and multi-faceted reactions to
making the trip. They appreciated the fact that women's feelings were included
equally with the men's. We discussed the different ways some characters were
challenged by their experiences on the trail and rose to the challenges
admirably while other's did not show strength of character through adversities.
We speculated on what the characters would become once they reached their
destinations. We talked about the theme of "progress" and its cost that
permeates the book, especially in Dick Summer's thoughts.
I brought up the point
Frederick Jackson Turner makes in his frontier thesis, that the existence of a
huge area of undeveloped land that Americans could always move into has shaped
the American character. We discussed how the frontier shaped the characters in
the novel. I also mentioned that Revisionist western historians now see that
movement in less mythic terms than it was seen at the time the novel won the
Pulitzer Prize. Then we discussed whether Guthrie supported the mythic or the
revisionist view of western settlement in the novel. That led to a deeper level
of discussion of the novel and our views of the West's history.
As we thought about why the
book won the Pulitzer, we agreed that it, more than any of the books we have
read so far in this series, was a celebration and affirmation of the strength of
the human spirit. I suggested that they would find many points to compare and
contrast as they read The Grapes of Wrath for next month's discussion.
Marcia Hensley, Dec. 2003
My first thought about reading A. B.
Guthrie Jr.'s The Way West after Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was, "Whew, we've
been on the road for a long time." However, the juxtaposition proved to be favorable
as comparisons and contrasts enabled us to consider different motives for American
migration and the role women played in Westward expansion.
Our discussion opened with our contrasting
reactions to migration hardships catalogued in each novel. Reactions to the Joad family's
hardships were shaped by the economic forces that displaced them from their homes. We
pitied them, admired their strength, and overlooked their naivete as they found themselves
strangers in a strange land. Reactions to Guthrie's characters, in contrast were
admittedly judgmental. Although all of the families in the wagon train had different
motives, spanning the spectrum from altruism to pure self interest, the choice to leave
"home" seemed to be their own. Readers found themselves less interested in
Guthrie's characters than in Steinbeck's, saying they found Guthrie's developed by
circumstance rather than by inner forces. For example, Lije Evans appears to be a
reactionary leader who can rise to an occasion, but who does not create occasion. Dick
Summers, in contrast, embodies the West in ways larger than life. Neither seems real. In
fact, readers found Summers' end-of-chapter quips befitting of no one less than a
Hollywood hero. After traveling with Ma Joad, readers found life on the trail with Rebecca
Evans and Amanda Mack uneventful, even comfortable. I raised issues of historical
accuracy, specifically that Guthrie seems to have taken great care to present history in
context of his plot. Debates over mules vs. oxen and concern about the vulgarity of
burning buffalo chips appear as part of the daily life on the Oregon Trail. Nevertheless,
readers familiar with pioneer women's history found the women passive and peripheral to
the action when in reality the women performed a significant share of the divided labor. I
noted that Guthrie has been accused of "not being sympathetic toward his women
characters." In response, Guthrie said in an interview with Sue Mathews, "I
think I am sympathetic. . . .When I wrote The Way West, for example, I began to think
about Rebecca Evans, a rather hefty woman, jouncing all over the plains, and I thought
'that must have been hell on her breasts'--and I put that in the book to express in a
physical way the hardships those pioneer women endured." (Women and Western American
Literature). So it seems despite its lack of intricate portrayal of women's food
preparation and family crisis management, given in such detail in The Grapes of Wrath that
readers salivate for the stew Ma cooks in the boxcar camp, The Way West intended to
present women as duty-bound pilgrims doing as nature allowed.
These two books in particular fueled good
discussion about the diversity in content and craft in novels awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
A simple, quiet discussion. People were very
generous toward this book. A lot of discussion centered on westward migrations, and since
a number of people in the group had ancestors who came west with the Mormons, the talk
included a lot of family history, which was wonderful.
Here are some excerpts from my notes which made
it into the evening's discussion one way or another:
Landscape. It's so big it's almost incomprehensible.
At the same time, it's shrinking rapidly.
Time. It seems to take forever to complete the
trip, and in fact they still haven't gotten there when the story ends (and their work is
At the same time, the story is about time ending (or at least changing to a new phrase).
*Free Will and Consequences:
This is a story where every action seems to have inevitable consequences. Fairman buys
cheap wagons, and they haunt him. Mack kills an Indian and his guilt and anger over that
accelerate his other actions. Every choice made along the trail has consequences in terms
of increased or lessened hardships. Summers understands this, above all else.
The book seems to be commenting on the tumultuous
state of world and domestic politics and the social circumstances of the late 1940s.
a) How does the reader get to know characters?
1) Directly (through expository description)
2) Indirectly (through either actions or thoughts of characters)
b) Some characters are fully developed. Others are stock characters--two-dimensional,
conceived to accentuate a specific limited aspect of humanity
c) Dynamic characters change over the course of the story. Static characters stay the
d) Some characters illustrate the so-called "concrete universal."
The Way West is a characters story laid over
fairly cliche events. Guthrie writes novels which read like action stories, but he is
principally a "character" author. The real story lies in his people.
Consider the three phases of analysis:
a) the period of time in which the story is set--mid-1840s
b) the period of time in which it was written and published.
c) the time we are reading it
The story contains three levels of historical
interpretation. The first two were incorporated into it at the time of its publication.
The third attaches at the time the story is read.
With the discussion, we saw parts of a
video, which apparently was a parody--few if any of the characters seemed true to the
book. We compared the preacher of Grapes of Wrath (who quit) to that of The Way West) (who
kept trying). The women were surprisingly strong, juxtaposed to the raw, difficult
description of Western life. The book was somewhat judgmental about Indians (dirty, no
clothes. etc.), which bothered some of the group--but not enough to sway the overall
At the first meeting of the season in this series (Pulitzer) I
usually spend some time laying the groundwork for discussing the Pulitzer Prize and what
it means. I share with the group the criteria of the Pulitzer's fiction category, and we
discuss briefly how open-ended it is. I describe the history of the prize, including a
very brief overview of Pulitzer's life and personality (since I think it bears on the
wider discussion of American literature). I list a few of the other books that have won
the prize over the decades in order to show how disparate they are, and to set the stage
for later discussions of how events and cultural forces have influenced selection. I
explain how the Pulitzer committees are selected and how they narrow down the thousands of
annual submissions to a group of finalists.
I usually try to have an overriding "issue" or two to pursue over the course
of a discussion series, and for this one I trace three issues: (1) In what ways can
literature represent a vast, diverse culture like America?; (2) How does an influential
prize (like the Pulitzer) establish a canon?; (3) What is good and/or bad about literary
canons? I laid out these questions briefly for the group and promised to return to them
periodically during the series.
All this we did in the first twenty minutes in Pinedale. Then the group dove into
"The Way West." In general, people seemed to truly enjoy this book. It was
described as a fun book to read, a great depiction of the environment and circumstances, a
beautifully-written work and an epic. I suggested that Guthrie, although spreading
his books over big frameworks of plot action, is primarily a "character writer,"
and this instigated a discussion of all the many strengths and foibles of the characters.
Noteworthy: readers' admiration for Rebecca Evans in particular. A few participants
complained about the novel's treatment of Indians. They felt the Indians were treated
poorly by the characters in the story and by the novelist. Some in the group suggested
that the novel needed to be read in light of when it was written, which brought on a
discussion of how attitudes toward Indians (and others) have changed over time. Astute
readers then suggested that the depiction of Indians may have been the author's way of
talking about how Indians are fictionally depicted. Such a discussion always surfaces
around this book, and I usually just let the group work it all out, which they usually do.
Finally, I tried to talk about how the book may be as much "about" America in
the 1950's as about America in the 1850's, pointing to the book's sense of sorrow at lost
naivete, it's sense of hope and foreboding about the future, its ambiguous sense of
striking out and simultaneously re-rooting.
Peter Anderson (Pinedale group)
I expected this group to be enthusiastic about this book, and
they were. I handed out a map of the whole Oregon Trail because I think it's a bit easier
to see the journey they took rather than by the segmented parts of the trail in various
sections of the book. We talked a bit about the historical background -- why they were
worried about the British getting Oregon in 1840 and how it was all settled with the
compromise in 1848. We also talked about the practical/historical knowledge that Gutherie
clearly had in writing the book -- ref. to journals, diaries, etc. Most everyone had
personal stories to share about their own interest or connections with the Oregon and
Bozeman trails. One participant told us about a "buffalo wallow" on her ranch
land a few miles from where we sat and about the devastating effect of the buffalo herds
on the land. This group was particularly interested in the references to the buffalo in
the book. The group in Clearmont is mostly women and of course they wanted to talk
about the woman's role on the trail. I told them that Gutherie is sometimes accused of
marginalizing his women characters, but they didn't didn't seem to agree with that view.
They thought the reader could clearly see that the women were the real heroes and the ones
who suffered the most, that the men got to "ride around and hunt and admire the view
while the women were doing all the real work". Our one lone male voice pointed out
that in 1840, " all men were sexist!"
We talked about the Turner thesis and how the book reflects it, and about the suggested
incompatibility of nature and civilization. I asked them how they felt about the way the
Indians were represented in the book, thinking that some of them might want to quibble
with the generalizations the book seems to draw about how the were all thieves, dirty,
horribly smelly etc., but they thought it was probably pretty realistic. A couple of them
were familiar with The Big Sky where the Indians are more admirable which led us to the
possibility that Gutherie was illustrating the degrading effect
our"civilization" had on the Native Americans. Of course this view can be
reinforced by looking at the passages in the book where Summers remembers the earlier
period in the area, before the settlers.
Several alluded to passages they particularly liked; many of those turned out to be
those ruminations Summers has about the aging, philosophy, etc. They wished the
ending hadn't "trailed off"(!) as it did. Time got passed us, so we never
did get around to a discussion of this book as Pulitzer Prize which I wanted to do - - how
it reflects issues of 1950 as well as those of 1840, but maybe next time...
We had a wonderfully inspiring conversation about
"The Way West" to launch our Rock Springs book discussion. Twenty folks were
there, and nearly everyone actively contributed.
The bd talk archives gave me helpful information
on themes and threads. I'm grateful for that! One published source that I found
especially good was Fred Erisman's chapter on Guthrie from the reference text "Fifty
Western Writers," in which he laid out half a dozen of the main themes of Guthrie's
western novels. (Western Wyoming College library could send this to anyone on
Here's a comment by Guthrie about his
intent in writing the book that others may appreciate:
"I wanted to write a novel about the Oregon
Trail. I wanted to show what kind of people went, in what circumstances, with what
purposes, with what emotions. I wanted simple men to go along, and grasping men, and
wise and foolish men, and mean and noble men, and simple heroic women and tired wives and
pregnant women and a seduced girl. And I wanted a preacher, a Methodist, I decided,
maybe partly because I was reared in that faith."
--from the book "A.B. Guthrie
Jr." by Thomas Ford (G.K. Hall, 1981).
Sheridan Wyoming September 13th 2001.
I began the discussion by handing out maps of the Oregon
Trail. One is the trail on a map showing areas claimed by the U.S., Mexico and Canada,
another showing the trail on a topographical map and the third map showing the
California-Oregon trail from Fort Laramie to Oregon and California. I then gave a
brief historical over-view of the time frame, the Oregon question and the
treaty that established the boundary with Canada. Finally I gave an overview of the series
and the themes that we will be discussing, and ways in which we can tie the books together
as we move along, so to speak.
The discussion was somewhat difficult because not everyone
had finished the book. We discussed the role of landscape in Western novels and how the
landscape in The Way West was both overwhelming yet shrinking. Many in the group
felt that the landscape was not very descriptive in the book nor did it play a major role;
all agreed that the landscape was bigger than life in other books they have had read. We
discussed why the landscape did not play a grand role in this book. Suggestions were that
perhaps the travelers spent most of their time putting one foot in front of the other and
the landscape was something that was a backdrop to the every day struggle to get to
Oregon, thus there was little time to consider the landscape. I mentioned the recent
publication of Susan Badger Doyles book, a compilation of all the diaries from the
Bozeman Trail, and my sense, from reading those diaries, was that indeed putting one foot
in front of the other is very evident in those diaries. At this point two women who are
new to Wyoming mentioned how they were struck by the power of the wind in the novel,
something they are having difficulty with now that they live in Wyoming.
We talked about the characters - were they stereotypes,
rich, evolving or shallow? Everyone shared their ideas as to whom they liked and who was
not developed. Several woman liked Summers the best; they liked his reflective nature and
his awareness of the changes that were occurring at the time. He was, for the group, a
character who represents the west in transition, whereas Evans was a forward-looking
character. Evans and Rebecca were both favorite characters. This led to a discussion of
the father-son relationship between the Summers and Evans as well as a discussion of the
father-son relationship between Lije and Brownie and Brownies relationship to
Summers (particularly in terms of Mercy). Finally we talked about the role of Rebecca
Evans and her knowledge of the father of Mercys baby, which she kept from Lije. The
group liked the strength of Rebecca as mother, wife and the way she nurtured and protected
other woman, as well as Lije.
We discussed the irony of the rules of the train in terms
of sexual relationships, and how Amandas fear of pregnancy resulted in Mercys
pregnancy. No one was surprised by Mr. Macks actions; after all that is why the
train had such rules.
I read a passage from the book wherein Rebecca discusses
her feeling about home in Missouri, the road and her feelings about being a woman. (p
140). This led to a good discussion about communities on the trail as well as in
transition. We discussed when Rebecca stopped looking back and transitioned into seeing
the place they were at the moment as home, to seeing Oregon as home and then did not look
back. This included a discussion of how people deal with transitions into new places and
The group felt that the characterizations of women and
Indians were pretty true to the time frame. We discussed bringing 21st century
sensibilities into 19th century realities. The group mentioned that the
physical descriptions of women - bountiful breasts and heavy hips - should not be
surprising, after all the book was written by a man!
We discussed that most of the characters were stereotypes
but that did not bother the group. They felt that it was an appropriate way to present a
picture of America on the move and characterize national transitions. A
discussion of how we stereotype and characterize people ensued, within the framework of
the tragic events that have been unfolding this week. One member of our group recently
moved here from New York. She shared with us her terrible feeling of disconnectedness from
New York because she cannot call anyone at home; all she gets is a busy signal.
Fortunately her brother called to let her know her friends and family are all safe. We
then transitioned into a discussion of how the people on the trail must have felt when
they were unable to contact friends and family and how long it took them to get news and
letters from home.
At the end of the discussion I asked the group to re-read
the brochure on the series to familiarize themselves with suggested themes so that we can
have threads throughout the discussion. I also asked, if they felt comfortable, to bring
to the next discussion a favorite passage from the book which either represents the themes
to be discussed or just a passage they thoroughly enjoyed.
Those who did not finish the book asked to keep the book
for a few more days because they were energized by the discussion and now want to finish
A great discussion, although we continue
to have a fairly small group for this series. The library staff does a wonderful
job -- I wonder if it’s the day, the time, the subject or a combination of these
which keep us at about ten or twelve participants?
Here are some potential discussion
1) Is “The Way West” about endings or beginnings? In what ways can any
moment in history (including our own) be seen as simultaneously an ending and a
2) Is there such a thing as progress? Do
we have a choice of whether to engage in progress or not?
3) What does “the will of the nation” mean? Although politicians no
longer talk about it, is the idea of “manifest destiny” still with us?
4) Is the American west in a state of
decline or improvement right now? What measures would you use to make such a
5) What do you think of Guthrie’s female
characters? Is his an accurate depiction of the 1840’s? The 1940’s?
6) Do we always, inevitably, destroy the things we love, as Guthrie was
found of saying, and as his series (including this novel) seems to be saying?
7) Right now (2001), people are moving
into the intermountain west in droves. Why?
8) Right now (2001), would you say our nation is young or old? Why?
9) What makes an individual great? A nation? An historical epoch?
Guthrie's novel The Way West was well-liked by almost everyone in the
group. Those who didn't like it mostly criticized Guthrie for his
portrayal of women. The critics felt that the women in the novel were
unrealistically cooperative and compliant. Their comments provoked an
interesting discussion about the difficulties a writer must face when
trying to portray the women of a previous time to modern day readers.
Though some felt Guthrie's women were unrealistically wimpy, many in the
group felt that women in that day and age probably WERE cooperative and
compliant because they had no choice.
We spent some time talking about the issues that the book raises about
progress vs. the environment, organized religion vs. a sort of loose
spirituality, the dream vs. the reality of the American West. Guthrie
tends to bring up the issues without coming down on one side or the other
of them. Progress seems inevitable and grand, and at the same time
criminal and sad. Organized religion seems a farce, and yet the group
does rely on the rituals provided by the preacher
after the death of one or another member of their
The group felt that in its day, The Way West must have been quite an
eye-opener. We couldn't think of another book of that time in which the
settling of the West was portrayed so unromantically. Guthrie presents
human weakness and failures in relationships as the main threats to the
success of the journey; the dangers of the western landscape are easily
overcome when the group is cohesive and everyone is at his/her best.
We talked briefly about the themes in The Way West that turn up in the
other books in this series--displacement/loss, progress, family ties, the
power of love and land, and freedom.