About the book:
This starts a summer of enlightenment for Rainey when she learns about the realities of life through the eyes of innocence. And, though it seems strange at first, Merle’s voice is the one clear note in Rainey’s head as she begins a season without her mother, a season that brings both the young girls to the brink of disaster, again and again. For Rainey, it is a season that is often harrowing, sometimes hilarious, but always hopeful.
About the author:
Q. How does the first chapter, and even more succinctly, the first sentence, serve as the essence of the entire novel? What literary techniques are used to create an instant intimacy between narrator and reader?
Q. If, like Huckleberry Finn, Lorraine “Rainey” Dougherty is essentially a child narrator, why do her observations and insights contain such adult sensibility? How does Freund maintain the integrity of Rainey’s ten-year-old perceptions, reactions, and observations while still allowing her to narrate from adulthood, after she has survived childhood and reflected on its meaning?
Q. What drives Rainey’s mother “crazy”? In the novel’s first sentence, Rainey tells us “we drove our mother crazy” (1) while Emily insists “it was the rat that drove our mother crazy and not us” (3). Seemingly unsatisfied with either explanation, Rainey later speculates that “being locked in” could drive her mother crazy among such other things as “living in the city,” “polio,” and “seeing one of us in an iron lung” (7). What do these explanations suggest about Rainey’s character, her powers of observation, and her reliability as a narrator?
Q. What kind of world does Rainey inhabit? What does it mean for Rainey to be motherless in such a world? To what degree is she aware of the dangers of living in a world “where it seemed liked Harold was on every corner” (10)?
Q. Does the Zooks’s world suggest the existence, the possibility, of a safe place for a child? Compare Rainey’s world with the Zooks’s; what makes these worlds seemingly irreconcilable and inaccessible to Rainey and her peers, especially to Joan?
Q. Just as Rainey and her peers are unable to navigate their way safely through the world as they know it, how, too, are many of the adults in the novel powerless? What is the effect of this for both the children and the adults?
Q. What does the novel suggest about the responsibilities and limitations of adults? Is there anyone who is accountable at the end of the novel? Does Freund’s tone suggest compassion for adults such as Merle who are themselves part abusive, boisterous aggressor and part silenced, powerless victim?
Q. Uncle’s brutality and the terrorizing perversions of Wayne and the Birdseyes are clearly reflected by Harold’s grotesque physical self. By contrast, Rainey’s father, Andy Dougherty, is gentle and loving but is his passivity also destructive? Why does Dougherty defend Eddie Birdseye unequivocally?
Q. Throughout the novel, Freund creates a poignant sense of space. Her descriptions undulate with the poetry of landscape and season from “stalks of grass…doubled over in misery” from the heat (14) to the frozen “land…as grim and tight-lipped as the sheriff” (244). How does the physical world seemingly reflect human events and what is the effect of this?
Q. How does Freund render the novel part comic verve and part searing tragedy? How do we see Rainey in the end? Is she a tragic heroine, or would that role fall to Merle?
Q. The novel is peppered with details suggesting the ethnic make up of Four Corners, employing descriptions of Germanic foods, a liberal use of Irish axioms, and a frightening revelation of prejudice toward America’s indigenous people. However, the novel could not be described as “ethnic.” What is the overall effect of including these details almost cautiously, or casually? How does this broaden the reach of the novel?
Q. Through the course of the novel, as Rainey is confronted with sexuality, does it infiltrate her own way of thinking and reacting? Does Rainey’s vision change from beginning to end?
Q. As succinctly as it opens, the novel ends with the devastating line, “Right then, I knew I would be next” (261). Does this limit our reading of the book or does it enrich it?
Reading Group Guide prepared by Mary B. Weaver