The Middle of Everywhere
About the book:
Over the past decade, Mary Pipher has been a great source of wisdom, helping us to better understand our family members. Now she connects us with the newest members of the American family–refugees. In cities all over the country, refugees arrive daily. Lost Boys from Sudan, survivors from Kosovo, families fleeing Afghanistan and Vietnam: they come with nothing but the desire to experience the American dream. Their endurance in the face of tragedy and their ability to hold on to the virtues of family, love, and joy are a lesson for Americans. Their stories will make you laugh and weep–and give you a deeper understanding of the wider world in which we live.
In exposing us to such vital and vitally instructive stories, The Middle of Everywhere profiles Pipher’s hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, which is today a microcosm of the nation’s refugee situation–indeed, people who have fled some of the world’s most oppressive regimes now reside in Lincoln. As she reveals here, Pipher has worked on behalf of these refugees in schools, social service agencies, and homes as a cultural broker, teacher, therapist, and friend. Her timely, candid, well-researched study employs sensitive firsthand accounts as well as clear-headed, able reportage to move beyond the headlines, revealing the trials and errors, hopes and dreams, and joys and frustrations of refugees from around the world.
The Middle of Everywhere moves beyond the headlines into the homes of refugees from around the world. Working as a cultural broker, teacher, and therapist, Mary Pipher has once again opened our eyes–and our hearts–to those with whom we share the future.
About the author:
Mary Pipher, Ph.D., is the author of three bestselling books, including Reviving Ophelia, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. She speaks all over the country and has received a presidential citation from the American Psychological Association. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
This reading group guide, keyed specifically to the book, will help readers of all backgrounds and abilities explore the phenomenon of refugee settlement in America today.
READING AND UNDERSTANDING THIS BOOK
1. In the Foreword to The Middle of Everywhere, Mary Pipher discusses how September 11 changed the way she thought and felt about this book (since she had finished writing it just before that tragic Tuesday morning). How did September 11 affect this author? And what does she mean by saying that “The Middle of Everywhere is my way to chop wood and carry water”?
2. In the book’s Prelude, Pipher points out an striking image she saw on Ellis Island: “a tree whose branches were countries and whose leaves were words.” Revisit this passage. Which of these words did you recognize? Which were new to you? And what point is Pipher making about the links between language, culture, and experience in America?
3. What do we learn in the opening pages about the setting of this book, the Midwestern city where it takes place? Look again at Pipher’s description of contemporary Lincoln, Nebraska (in Chapter 1). Where does the book’s title come from? How has Lincoln changed in recent times? And why has it thus changed?
4. What is a refugee? How does the United Nations define one? (See Chapter 1.)
5. Near the conclusion of Chapter 2, Pipher writes: “There are two common refugee beliefs about America.” Identify these two beliefs, explain why refugees hold them. Are they true? False? Both? Explain.
6. Linh is a young woman from Vietnam whom we first encounter in Chapter 3. After learning of Linh and her family’s ongoing adjustment to American life, what differences can you articulate between family as a Western construct and family as a part of more traditional cultures?
7. Explain in detail why driving is so often a problem for newcomers and refugees in America. (See Chapter 4 and elsewhere.)
8. How would you summarize Pipher’s experiences at Sycamore Elementary School (see Chapter 5)? Describe the physical and educational environment of the school itself-including Grace, the English as Learned Language teacher whom Pipher befriends-and then describe each of the ten pupils on Pipher’s abridged roster. In each case, reflect on the social ability, cultural background, and academic achievement of the student in question.
9. In Chapter 6, we “sit-in” (alongside Pipher) on a high school ELL class taught by a composite instructor known as Mrs. Kaye. Why does Mrs. Kaye decide not to return to this school next year? How do the students react to her news? And how have they changed, individually and collectively, over the course of their time in Mrs. Kaye’s classroom?
10. “In some ways, young adults are our most vulnerable newcomers,” Pipher states in Chapter 7. Recount the stories of Thiep and of “the three Iraqis” so as to illustrate this key point about vulnerability and refugees.
11. One of the women Pipher converses with at length in Chapter 8 is Nessima. Where is she from? How old is she? What does she do in Lincoln to a earn a paycheck? What does Nessima like about America, and what does she dislike? Describe her personality, her socio-political views, her family, her home life, and her “mixed feelings about Nebraska.”
12. Why do Pipher and her husband decide to act as “an American mom and dad” to the family from Kenya”s Kakuma Refugee Camp? And what does being such a “parent” call for in this scenario? (See Chapter 9.)
13. In Chapter 10, Pipher discusses the twelve “attributes of resilience” that she believes all refugees must possess in order to adjust successfully to life in America. Looking back over this list, which individuals from throughout the book would you assign to each of these attributes as particularly representative or especially symbolic?
14. What does Pipher mean by the term “JPI” (as she writes in Chapter 12)? How does this acronym reflect the ways in which most Americans perceive or imagine refugees today?
ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND EXERCISES
1. The Middle of Everywhere begins with an epigraph from the writings of Willa Cather, a great American fiction writer (who, like Mary Pipher, was from Nebraska). Reread this epigraph and discuss what it means in the context of Pipher’s book as a whole.
2. Consider these remarks from the Foreword: “After September 11, we are all refugees from what was once our America. We have been exiled from a country that felt safe and calm and now we live in a country filled with fear. We can learn from the refugees among us how to deal with our fears and sorrows.” Do you agree with this? Explain why or why not, using specific examples from throughout this book in support of your view.
3. Pipher notes, toward the end of Chapter 1, that refugees “reveal the strengths and flaws of America.” How would you support this remark? What specific examples from the book would you cite first and foremost?
4. Have you ever heard, seen, or read the expression, “Think globally, act locally?” What do you think it means? Finally, how-if at all-does Pipher’s book reflect this notion?
5. Part Two, Chapters 5 through 8, profiles “refugees across the life cycle.” What is a life cycle? Discuss your own place within the life cycle–and about how and why that place would be different if you were forced to a) suddenly leave your home environment and b) create a new home for yourself in a foreign land.
6. Some of Chapter 11 concerns home as a physical, emotional, intellectual, and socio-cultural phenomenon-and also, more broadly, it concerns what Pipher calls “the psychology of place.” Explore how various individuals and families depicted here represent the widely relative ideas of both place and home. Try to compare and contrast what you can remember about the homes of these individuals and families. Also, consider the idea of a hometown. “What [refugees] need is a hometown,” as Pipher tells us. What, in your view, is a hometown? And who finds or acquires one in this book? (You may also want to revisit the book’s Coda when discussing hometowns.)