Check It Out Category: Historical Fiction

Book Discussion Questions: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Cover of Water for ElephantsTitle: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Page Count: 350 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Tone: Nostalgic, Romantic, Bittersweet

Summary:
A novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932. When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

Questions composed by MPPL Staff

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement: 2015 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. What is the appeal of this novel?

2. What part do the animals play in this novel?

3. Describe Rosie and her personality traits. What is Rosie’s role in the novel? Do you think elephants can really think and act the way that she did?

4. How does Jacob’s life in the nursing home compare to the animals at the circus?

5. Why does Jacob prefer Rosemary to the other nursing home staff?

6. Did you like how the author switched back and forth between the nursing home and the circus story? Did this enhance or detract from the story?

7. Who was your favorite character? Why?

8. Who was your least favorite character? Why?

9. Upon reading the prologue, who did you think murdered August? Was the prologue an effective way to begin the story? How did that opening scene, involving chaos, make you feel about the rest of the story?

10. Describe the difference between how Jacob and August felt about Marlena. What was it about August that attracted Marlena to him. What was it about Jacob?

11. What did you learn about circuses from reading this novel? (reality and illusion) Do you like circuses? Has this novel changed the way you look at them?

12. How do the practices of the circus relate to the modern business world?

13. Would you have liked more detail on what became of Jacob, Marlena and their children? It didn’t sound like Jacob was extremely close to his children. Is that the impression you got? If so, were you surprised by that?

14. In the words of one review, Water for Elephants “explores…the pathetic grandeur of the Depression-era circus.” Do you agree? How does the “pathetic grandeur” describe the world that Gruen creates in her novel?

15. Why did Jacob get so upset at the nursing home patient, McGuinty, said he carried water for the elephants?

Other Resources:

Readers’ Guide
Lit Lovers Discussion Questions
A Water for Elephants discussion from Reading Group Guides
Writer’s Digest Interview with Sara Gruen


If you like Water for Elephants, you might like…

Cover of Little HeathensCover of Seabiscuit Cover of The Adventures of Miles and Isabel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
The Adventures of Miles and Isabel by Tom Gilling

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!

Book Discussion Questions: The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff

Cover of The Kommandant's GirlTitle: The Kommandant’s Girl
Author: Pam Jenoff
Page Count: 395 pages
Genre:  Historical Fiction, Romance
Tone: Mesmerizing, Intrigue

Summary:
Nineteen-year-old Emma Bau has been married only three weeks when Nazi tanks thunder into her native Poland. Within days Emma’s husband, Jacob, is forced to disappear underground, leaving her imprisoned within the city’s decrepit, moldering Jewish ghetto. But then, in the dead of night, the resistance smuggles her out. Taken to Krakow to live with Jacob’s Catholic cousin, Krysia, Emma takes on a new identity as Anna Lipowski, a gentile.
Emma’s already precarious situation is complicated by her introduction to Kommandant Richwalder, a high-ranking Nazi official who hires her to work as his assistant. Urged by the resistance to use her position to access details of the Nazi occupation, Emma must compromise her safety—and her marriage vows—in order to help Jacob’s cause. As the atrocities of war intensify, so does Emma’s relationship with the Kommandant, building to a climax that will risk not only her double life, but also the lives of those she loves.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

Question composed by MPPL Staff

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement: 2015 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. A Publisher’s Weekly review called The Kommandant’s Girl “historical romance at its finest”.

Is this a historical romance? Would you categorize it differently? Mira Books, which published the novel, is a division of Harlequin. Did it ever seem like a Harlequin romance novel?

If it is a historical romance, then romance between whom? Emma and Jacob? Or Emma and the Kommandant?

2. Did you believe the romance between Emma and Jacob?

3. Emma and Jacob were married only a few weeks before they were separated. How do you think the story might have been different if they had been married for six months? One year? Five?

4. Was Jacob right to leave the way he did? Do you think he knew what Emma was doing?

5. Did you believe the romance between Emma and the Kommandant? Did the age difference bother you? As Emma wonders, if they had met in a different world, a different time, do you think they could have been happy together? Were they “star-crossed lovers”?

6. Did you find yourself more invested in Jacob or in the Kommandant?

7. Did you find Emma a sympathetic character? heroic? Was she a believable 19-year-old?

8. What was the most difficult challenge faced by Emma? How did her choices affect others?

9. Did her attraction to the Kommandant make her situation easier? What if she had not had feelings for him?

10. Emma struggled not just with betraying her husband, but betraying her faith. Do you think her struggle was portrayed realistically? Would you say she was unfaithful? Given the circumstances, were her actions “right”? In other words, do the ends justify the means?

11. Another review (Booklist) claimed that the author “succeeded in humanizing the unfathomable as well as the heroic”. Would you agree that the Kommandant, for example, was humanized? Did you find him sympathetic? Why or why not? If so, were you uncomfortable (as Emma was) with your sympathy?

12. Was the Kommandant really going to shoot Emma?

13. What was your opinion of Malgorzata and her role in the story?

14. How does Lukasz change the story? What if it had just been Emma and Krysia involved in the deception? What does Krysia add?

15. How was the underground portrayed? Did you feel you understood the danger? What did you think of Alek? Was his death a surprise?

16. How did you feel about Marta? Did your feelings change at any point?

17. Was Jenoff’s choice to have Emma tell the story from her point of view a good one? Was it well-utilized?

18. This is a first novel for Jenoff. Is that apparent? How so? Do you like the author’s style?

19. What was the greatest strength of the book? Its most serious flaw?

20. The book was originally titled A Fine Crack of Light. What do you think that meant? Which title do you prefer?

21. Even among those who like the book, the ending is often singled out as somewhat flawed. Did it end the way you expected? Was it satisfying?

22. How might you respond to other concerns/ criticisms:

-too many coincidences, especially in closing chapters
-language (e.g., Emma’s habitual answering of “okay”)
-not as deep or as evocative as could have been (tells, doesn’t show)
-too-familiar story; market full of WWII fiction titles
-too serious a topic to treat lightly

23. Many authors have an idea and then research the time and place. Jenoff walked the streets, was immersed in stories, and then felt compelled to write. Can you tell? Did that serve the story well?

24. Did the book’s setting enhance the story? What about the individual settings, such as the ghetto?

25. What themes would you say are throughout the story? The publisher suggests “timeless themes of hope, struggle, defiance”; would you agree with these? Are there others you would add? How well were the themes addressed and/or communicated?

26. What was the purpose of the book? Was it to learn about history? Did you?

27. What’s next for Emma? Did she and Jacob have a happy life? Does she change her mind about telling Jacob about the baby? Should she?

28. What life do you predict Lukasz will lead?

Other Resources

Mount Prospect Public Library Discussion Resources
Lit Lovers Reading Guide
Personal Q&A with Pam Jenoff
Interview with Jenoff about the book
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website

If you liked The Kommandant’s Girl, try…

Cover of The Lost WifeThe Lost Wife
by Alyson Richman

Cover of AnyaAnya
by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

Cover of The Diplomat's WifeThe Diplomat’s Wife
by Pam Jenoff (sequel to The Kommandant’s Girl)

Book Discussion Questions: Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord

Cover of Spring MoonTitle: Spring Moon
Author: Bette Bao Lord
Page Count: 464 pages
Genre:  Historical Fiction, Family Saga
Tone: Lyrical, Poignant, Moving

Summary from publisher:
Behind the garden walls of the House of Chang, Spring Moon is born into an exclusive world of luxury and privilege. Her servant, Plum Blossom, attends to her every need and inadvertently alters the course of her life forever. Her uncle, Bold Talent, who has returned to China from the United States with radical new ideas, educates her against the wishes of the family, and intervenes at the moment when Spring Moon most needs his help. But the tempests of change sweep Spring Moon into a new world — one of hardship, turmoil, and heartbreak; one that threatens to destroy her husband, her family, and her darkest secret love.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

Questions composed by MPPL Staff

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement: 2015 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. What was Bette Bao Lord’s purpose in writing this novel?

2. One review (New York Times 12/1/81) felt that Lord covered too much history in her novel and that it overwhelmed her characters. Do you agree or disagree?

3. What was Lord’s reason for providing the stories in italics at the beginning of each chapter? Did it add or detract from the story?

4. What was Spring Moon’s role in this story? Was Spring Moon the main character of the novel?

5. How would you describe the relationship between Spring Moon and Lustrous Jade? How did that relationship change throughout the years?

6. On page 350, why did Spring Moon demand that Lustrous Jade kneel before her? Why was it so difficult for Lustrous Jade to kneel before her mother, yet she easily kneeled before shopkeepers and others to get them to join her cause?

7. Did you feel that August Winds and Lustrous Jade belonged together as man and wife?

8. How did the role of the family change or not change in China?  Consider the theme of devotion to family versus devotion to one’s principles. What characters were more devoted to family? What characters were devoted to their principles? Was it possible for them to be devoted to both?

9. What were the differences in the love Spring Moon had for her first husband, Glad Promise, and the love she had for her lover Bold Talent?

10. Do you think the clan suspected the love between Bold Talent and Spring Moon? Were they jealous of Spring Moon’s ability to read?

11. Did Bold Talent love his wife, Golden Virtue?

12. Do you think Bold Talent knew that Enduring Promise was his and Spring Moon’s son? What about Golden Virtue?

13. On page 248, Spring Moon was about to leave Bold Talent to return to her mother-in-law, and Bold Talent talked about what was wrong with the Chinese. He said, “Do you not see what is wrong. In the end, we always yield – to tradition, to foreigners, to family, to authority, to duty. To everything and everybody, living and dead-except our needs, our dreams, our passions! If we do live for ourselves, it is not for long. A moment here, a month there. As long as no one knows. As long as nothing is truly changed. Then, once more we yield. Once more we live as others would have us live.” Do you agree with this assessment?

14. How did you feel when Spring Moon took her son away from Dummy and her husband?

15. What was the relationship between Lustrous Jade and August Winds? How about between Lustrous Jade and Resolute Spirit? How were they similar and how were they different?

16. On page 383, in a letter to Bold Talent talking about parading elders in dunce caps across public squares, Noble Talents asks, “Is this what revolution means?” What did revolution mean to Lustrous Jade?

17. How did you feel when Bold Talent, Lustrous Jade and Resolute Spirit left Bold Talent’s body behind in order to smuggle Lustrous Jade and Resolute Spirit to safety?

18. How did the women of the Chang family change throughout the years?

Other Resources

Lit Lovers’ Discussion Questions
Interview with Bette Bao Lord
Video interview with Bette Bao Lord

If you liked Spring Moon, try…

Cover of Twentieth WifeCover of Snowflower and the Secret Fan Cover of The Bathing Women

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
The Bathing Women by Tie Ning

Movies and TV: The Wind Rises

The Wind RisesWind Rises DVD cover is a flight of fancy worthy to be the swan song of master animator Hayao Miyazaki. All of his hallmarks are on display: sweet yet dramatic storytelling, artful scenes, and an underlying whimsy that bubbles with imagination. It is the history of Jirô, a young man with a genius for designing aircraft, who often takes inspiration from imagined jaunts with an Italian aviation pioneer. A recurring line of poetry, “The wind is rising!  We must try to live!” quivers with thematic resonance not only against the backdrop of war, illness, and natural disaster, but also in the tentative steps toward selfless love. Both ambitious and intimate, this Academy Award nominee is at its brightest when celebrating the small moments that lead to epiphanies.

Book Discussion Questions: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Cover of The Orphan TrainTitle: Orphan Train
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Page Count: 278 pages
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Tone: Thoughtful, Poignant, Sobering

Summary from publisher:
Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…

As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

Questions composed by MPPL Staff

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2015 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. Were the orphan trains a good thing? Why or why not? What, if any, better options were available at the time?

2. What did you notice about the style of writing and how this story was put together?

3. Thinking back on the children that were highlighted in the book, Carmine, Dutchy and Niamh, what were the motivations of the families who took in these orphans? How did these differing motivations affect the children’s lives?

4. What similarities or differences are there between the past as shown in the story and our present foster care system?

5. In what ways are Molly and Vivian similar? How are they different?

6. Do you have things that you don’t use or are stored away but you can’t part with? What are those things and why do you keep them?

7. What would a timeline of Vivian’s life look like? Use a white board to diagram this or just do it verbally. What characterizes each segment of her life?

8. What would a timeline of Molly’s life look like? What characterizes each segment of her life?

9. “You can’t find peace till you find all the pieces.” How is this true in Vivian’s life? How is it true in Molly’s life?

10. Molly’s charms on her necklace are mentioned throughout the story. What is their significance? What did Vivian’s Claddagh cross and Molly’s charms mean to them?

11. How has Molly changed Vivian’s life? How has Vivian changed Molly’s life?

12.  Read the prologue aloud to the group. Having read the book and rereading the prologue what does this tell you about Vivian’s view of the people in her past? What does this show about her character?

13. How did you feel about the way the author ended the story? Is Vivian’s happy ending enough?

14. If you were to write additional chapters to the book what would happen to Vivian, to Molly?

15. The American Experience, a PBS show, has a program on the orphan trains. There was also a movie made in 1979 called The Orphan Train. Do you think this book will come to the big screen? Would you want to see it?

Other Resources

Lit Lovers’ Discussion Questions
Video interview with Christina Baker Kline
History of orphan trains from The Children’s Aid Society
Huffington Post interview with Christina Baker Kline

If you liked The Orphan Train, try...

Cover of The Forgotten SeamstressCover of Austerlitz The Language of Flowers book cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

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