“The writing is dazzling, yes, but Pritchard allows the pathos — and there’s a lot of it — to rise out of her sentences like a scent . . . In the middle of tragedy she makes you laugh out loud.” — New York Times Book Review
“A passionate and absorbing novel . . . Sara Pritchard dares to be serious and irreverent all at once.” — from the foreword by Ursula Hegi, author of Stones from the River
“Beneath the pungent, dazzlingly original voice, beyond the revelations of the heart’s most secret corners, a brilliant mind unravels and remakes our standard conceptions of chronology, at the same time pouring forth metaphors of astounding beauty. This is a most unusual book.” — Andrea Barrett, author of Servants of the Map and Ship Fever
“Telling and vivid . . . engrossing . . . the dialogue is tight and the observations lyrical.” — Publishers Weekly
Winner of the 2002 Bakeless Prize for Fiction
By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Crackpots brilliantly captures the vitality and craziness, the sorrow and resilience, of one woman, the incomparable Ruby Reese.
In this thoughtful and perceptive novel, we follow Ruby from her past to the present and back again, discovering what has made her who she is despite all obstacles. When we first meet Ruby, she’s a spunky kid — a tap-dancing, cowboy-hat-wearing whirlwind — surrounded by a family that everyone in their 1950s Pennsylvania town calls “a bunch of crackpots.” Her mother is a puckish woman who roams the hallways at night playing the violin, and her father is a demolitions expert. Ruby also has a bookish older sister, Albertine, and a talented, self-destructive brother, Mason. As she enters adulthood, Ruby is plagued by complicated romantic entanglements with men who, in their own ways, define the very notion of “crackpots.” There’s Boo, whose wildness and passion are matched only by his violent nature; Oskar the Mumbler, a Swedish efficiency expert who dreams of winning the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes; and Miles, who has an eye for the ladies and a taste for Jack Daniel’s.
Filled with those small but important moments that truly define us, Sara Pritchard’s Crackpots is the debut of an innovative, imaginative, and skilled storyteller.
Sara Pritchard is the winner of the 2002 Bakeless Prize for fiction, selected by Ursula Hegi. She has previously published stories and essays in literary journals and elsewhere under the pseudonym Delta B. Horne. Crackpots is her first novel. She lives in Morgantown, West Virginia.
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of Crackpots for every reader.
1. Sara Pritchard surrounds Ruby Reese with a cast of eccentric characters — the “crackpots” of the novel’s title. In addition to Ruby’s family — the Reeses and the Evanses — there are the ill-fated Phillipses, the quirky neighbors on the Jackson Tract, and a series of husbands and love interests. How would Ruby define eccentricity? Does Ruby herself find anything strange or crazy about these people? How are these characters accepted or rejected by those around them?
2. Pritchard begins the book with an epigraph from August Strindberg’s A Dream Play. How does this quote provide an apt setup for the novel?
3. In many ways, Crackpots explores the blur between memory and imagination; the novel begins with the line “Memory is an odd fellow.” How does this introduction shape the reading of the book and your interpretation of Ruby’s narrative? How much of Ruby’s story, as she tells it, is imagined? How much is actually remembered? Do you trust her as a narrator?
4. Pritchard weaves together several different points of view: the story is told by an outside narrator, as well as by the voices of a child Ruby and an adult Ruby. Is there one point of view that is more reliable than another? How do the child and adult perspectives differ? How does Pritchard make those differences really come alive in the text?
5. The novelist Andrea Barrett noted that Crackpots “remakes our standard conceptions of chronology.” Why do you suppose Sara Pritchard chose to dance between the past and the present rather than to tell the story in a linear chronological order? How does the way Ruby’s story gradually unfolds add to your understanding of Ruby and her motives?
6. Crackpots is a novel very much about family. How would you describe the Reese family dynamic? What are Ruby’s relationships with her siblings like, both in childhood and adulthood? How does her relationship with her father change over time?
7. Music plays an important role in the Reese family — as a means of expression, as a way to console, as a way to mark significant moments. How does each member of the Reese family identify with music? Why does Ruby keep returning to the piano in adulthood? What significance does the instrument have for her?
8. The Reese siblings each develop certain psychological escape mechanisms. Mason falls in with some troublemakers and later turns to alcohol. Albertine retreats into books, reading constantly. Ruby develops a particularly rich imaginary life, some obsessive-compulsive tics, and a tendency to retreat into near paralysis when confronted with difficult situations. With what situations are they trying to cope? How do those coping mechanisms carry into their adult lives? For Ruby in particular, how do these mechanisms insulate her from the outside world?
9. At the end of the section titled “The Blue Hat,” Albertine hints to Ruby that their father may have had an affair. How does this knowledge impact Ruby’s life? How does this change your perception of the Reese family dynamic? How does it affect your understanding of Eva Reese? Of Albert Reese?
10. In explaining Ruby’s reluctance to end a doomed relationship, Pritchard writes, “She cannot relinquish the luxurious feeling of unrequited love” (p. 121). Do you understand Ruby’s attraction to these situations? What is it about each of her romantic interests that appeals to Ruby? Why is she constantly drawn to these flawed characters? What qualities do they have in common? Do you see an evolution as Ruby grows older?
11. What was the nature of the relationship between Ruby and Etienne? Were they romantically involved with each other or was it only something Ruby imagined?
12. Which of Pritchard’s scenes do you find the most vivid, humorous, and/or heartbreaking?
13. In describing the trajectory of Ruby’s adulthood, Pritchard writes, “Sometimes it seems to Ruby that she’s never really made any decision in life, just bobbed with the flow, so to speak” (p. 155). Is there evidence that Ruby has indeed made her own decisions, or is her self-assessment accurate? Is this an unusual approach to life? Do you think most people make deliberate decisions about their lives or just go with the flow?
14. Pritchard writes, “Richard Feynman explained that that one moment, that one image — that of his father as a young man with curly hair pulling a red wagon with a blue ball in it — had shaped his entire life.” Does one particular moment seem to shape Ruby’s life? Is there a certain section of the book that best or most accurately defines Ruby or reveals her true character?
15. Would you describe this novel as lighthearted or dark? How does Pritchard provide balance between these opposing elements in the novel?
The following titles also may be of interest to readers of Crackpots:
Almost by Elizabeth Benedict
Red Ant House by Ann Cummins
The Story of a Million Years by David Huddle
The Hallelujah Side by Rhoda Huffey