Good Books for Book Groups: Jon Krakauer’s Missoula

Missoula by Jon KrakauerThis month, the LIT book club tackled the challenging but worthwhile Missoula, the story of a small college town with a big football program and a very visible rape problem. Reading about multiple rapes is sobering, but Krakauer uses these stories as a framework to discuss why sexual assaults happen with such regularity and how they are handled on social, administrative, and criminal levels. The stories that Krakauer tells aren’t particularly unusual, and Missoula is actually a pretty typical town as far as rape statistics go.

Why It’s Good For Book Groups

First, a caveat. Missoula is not going to be a good fit for every club. Because the subject matter is controversial and loaded, this is probably a book that will work best for an established club that feels comfortable enough to discuss topics that are often extremely contentious and emotional. Having said that, this is one of the best discussions LIT has had in years. We discussed the book for two hours, and probably could have talked for longer. There was discussion of rape and sex, of course, but also culture (college and otherwise), binge drinking, consent, sexual boundaries, harassment, and feminism. Several members (understandably) weren’t willing to read it, but we had an excellent conversation with those who did.

Resources We Used

Besides the book itself, I used a variety of sources to make up questions for discussion. I looked at a number of interviews with Krakauer and used the questions posed to the author, a trick I often use when I can’t find many discussion questions. I found this blog post very useful for a succinct summation of the themes and takeaways of the book. This article in Jezebel is a stomach-turning look at rape culture on campus. I also pulled questions from an Outside article that contained pieces of a town-hall style interview that Krakauer did in Missoula itself after the publication of his book. In it, he discussed how he became interested in the topic and how people responded. Resources like this one from RAINN helped to launch a discussion about men who are raped and the stigma that they face, an issue that Krakauer mentions but doesn’t delve into. I also used the wealth of up-to-date statistics available online via the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department.

Which Questions Were Most Useful?

Here are some of the questions we started with, drawn from the resources above:

  1. If you could give someone—male or female—who is entering college advice, what would it be?
  2. How do you balance the police’s responsibility to believe a rape victim’s story with its responsibility to protect the alleged rapist’s right to be innocent until proven guilty?
  3. How do you feel about the differing standards of proof for rape cases in the criminal and academic justice systems?
  4. What kind of solution do you think is necessary to ensure victims feel comfortable reporting rapes and that more rape cases get to be decided by a jury?
  5. Should we be assuming that all people reporting rape are telling the truth? Should we have been assuming this all along?
  6. Some feminists are exasperated that a man is writing about “shocking” rape statistics as if they are a new thing. Do you agree with this? Would we be paying as much attention if this book was written by a woman? By someone who wasn’t Krakauer?
  7. Many colleges and universities are facing federal investigations over how they investigate campus sexual assaults. Is this surprising?
  8. Discuss Kirsten Pabst. Why would she refuse to prosecute Johnson, and then quit her job in part to defend him?
  9. Outside did a story on this book, and posed the question, “When the limelight fades, will taxpayers be willing to fund the additional personnel and ongoing training needed to create sustainable change in holding rapists accountable?” What do you think? There are many important issues that need tax dollars. How will this rate, realistically?
  10. If sexual assault and rape reporting of women is abysmal, the sexual assault reporting of men is worse many times over. How can we begin to change these statistics?
  11. Talk about rape culture and college culture. How does binge drinking play into these?
  12. Krakauer points out that sexual boundaries and unhealthy expectations of sex and intimacy can lead to some sexual assaults. How can we address this issue?
  13. Krakauer discusses many cases of harassment, but doesn’t spend much time actually addressing the issue. Why? Is this an issue that should be separated from rape and sexual assault, or do the two naturally go together?
  14. Why are we so fixated on weeding out fake rape accusations instead of weeding out rapists?
  15. Why do we view acquaintance rape and stranger rape so differently?
  16. Talk about consent. Do men and women view consent differently? Can consent be withdrawn once it has been given?
  17. Do you feel that this is an unbiased account? Why or why not?

What I Would Do Differently

There are two things I would change if I could do this title again. First, our timing could have been better. We read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, only a few months ago. That book dealt with race, incarceration, and the death penalty in the United States. Both of these are excellent books, but our selections have gotten a bit too heavy, with too much of a focus on social issues. We’re trying to be more mindful of this need for better balance as we make our book list for the upcoming year.

The other thing that I would change is the way that I approach the selection the month before. At the beginning of our discussion each month, we do a short pitch for the book the following month. Typically we talk about why we chose the book and give a short synopsis of it to get our members interested. I did this as usual last month before our discussion of The Martian, but I think this book needed more. This was a hard read for many people, for various reasons. In hindsight, it would have been helpful to our members to do a more thorough explanation of what they’d be reading and why.

What’s Up Next

In April we’ll be reading Whiskey and Charlie by Annabel Smith, the story of twin boys who grow apart as they grow up.



About the Author:

Liz Kirchhoff is an adult services librarian at the Barrington Area Library in the Chicago suburbs. She is a longtime book reviewer and has read for the American Library Association's Notable Books Council. After her first book came out last year, Liz swore she'd never do that again (even though she probably will). Now she happily reviews books written by others.

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