By February 1, 2009 0 Comments Read More →

Irresistible Questions

“What does it mean to be an American?”

“What does it mean to be a member of a family?”

These are two questions suggested by the themes explored in Anne Tyler’s most recent novel, Digging to America, which was the basis for a discussion I led last week.  They are questions that I raised to the group because I anticipated they would especially enjoy responding to them on the day after Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.  And did they ever!  The mood was right for talking about the roles of Americans and family members — two topics that everybody has something to say about.  The book was chosen for discussion at this meeting long before Mr. Obama was elected, but it turned out to be wonderfully appropriate.

Questions like these, however, can lead participants away from the book and off into accounts of their own personal experiences, so it’s a challenge to make the connection between what each group member wants to share and the story we all read in preparation for the discussion.  Tyler’s tale of two very different families who both adopt Korean girls and then decide to “keep in touch” as their new daughters grow up resonates with readers because of the author’s ability to draw extremely believable characters whose attitudes and ideas don’t always mesh in a comfortable way.  Sounds like what happens in most families, right?  That’s what the group pounced on — they knew people like these characters, right in their own families.  One participant who had adopted two children of her own could speak from experience about the mothers in the book, and she said Tyler got the emotions exactly right — she felt like she was reliving her own early days of parenting.

I’m sure other book group leaders have moments in their discussions when what’s happening in the world enters into the talk around the table.  And I’m happy when the members of my group reference something personal that makes their experience of reading the book seem authentic.  I think these insights from readers enrich the discussion and make it more rewarding for everybody in the room.

“What does it mean to be an American?”  “What does it mean to be a member of a family?”  Ah, yes, these are questions well worth asking, and ones guaranteed to get people talking — they are frankly, irresistible.  But they aren’t the only issues explored in Digging to America — the book offers plenty of other themes to talk about.  The person we identified as the “main character” is an Iranian woman who becomes an American but has uneasy responses to the other Americans around her, one of whom she becomes attracted to but then rebuffs (in a very discussable scene), although the story doesn’t end there.  It’s also interesting that the man in question is the father of a woman she finds alternately difficult and lovable, and doesn’t that describe how many of us respond to close family members?

I hope I have intrigued you enough to read Digging to America and perhaps consider it for one of your own discussions.  As the critics have stated, it’s one of Tyler’s strongest books and certainly her most ambitious. And best of all, this is just the right time in our country to read and talk about a book like this.



About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

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