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March 1 - March 31, 2007

One City, One Story

   Discussion Toolkit

Author Biography

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Bo Caldwell has published short stories in numerous literary magazines. Her essays have appeared frequently in the Washington Post Magazine. She is a former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, and now lives in Northern California with her husband, novelist Ron Hansen, and her two children.

(Source: press release, by permission of Harcourt, Inc.)

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Book Summary

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As THE DISTANT LAND OF MY FATHER opens, Anna, the narrator, is living in a storybook world: exotic, pre-World War II Shanghai, with handsome young parents, wealth, and comfort. Her father, the son of missionaries, is a charming — though secretive — man, whose greatest joy is sharing his beloved city with his only daughter. Yet when Anna and her mother flee Japanese-occupied Shanghai to return to Los Angeles, he stays behind, believing his connections and a little bit of luck will keep him safe.

The story travels to California, where Anna, and her mother, try to rebuild their lives, with the memory of Anna’s father hovering over them — and the constant wait for him to rejoin the family.

Through Anna’s vivid memories and her father’s journals we learn of his fall from charismatic millionaire to tortured prisoner. A breathtaking and richly lyrical story of betrayal and reconciliation that spans several years across continents, THE DISTANT LAND OF MY FATHER unfolds to reveal an enduring family love through tragic circumstances.


(Source: press release, by permission of Harcourt, Inc.)

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Study Guide

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Q> What kinds and what degrees of actual and imagined disloyalty, from the political to the personal, occur in the novel? What kinds and what degrees of actual and imagined betrayal? What does the author appear to be saying about disloyalty and betrayal, and about the possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness?

Q> Anna says of her father, "I had a landmark of my own, a place I always started from to get wherever I was going, a reference point for everything I did." (8) What are the advantages and disadvantages of making one person such a landmark in one's life? What burdens might it place upon that other person, and what dangers might it pose for oneself?

Q> After Joseph's kidnapping, Anna's mother tells her, "Your father is somewhat unpredictable. . . . He has strong ideas and people don't always agree with those ideas, and he does what he wants, whether people like it or not. And sometimes it gets him into trouble." (48) What does get Joseph Schoene into trouble, and how? What are the consequences of his doing what he wants? To what extent is he irresponsible in not thinking through the impact of his actions?

Q> In what ways might the contrast between the street scenes during the Battle of Shanghai and the reception at the Cercle Sportif emphasize the perennial differences between the haves and the have-nots of this world? What other manifestations of this theme occur in the novel? What contemporary or historical parallels might there be with the attitude of the European and American businessmen and the wealthy Chinese in 1937 Shanghai?

Q> What notion and what actuality of home are cherished by each of the Schoenes and the other important characters? How might we explain the differences or attitude and perception among them and the consequences of those differences? How would you define home?

Q> Anna says of her father's refusal to leave Shanghai, "There was too much money to be made, too much opportunity, to just walk away." (133) What are the personal, social, political, and moral consequences of basing one's decisions, values, and actions solely on business and money-making opportunities?

Q> "We were both so good at catering to him, at revolving around him," Anna says of her and her mother's relationship to Joseph. (203) What model of family life does Caldwell present? Is it a model with which you are familiar? Is it a model that seems widespread in the United States today?

Q> After Joseph's "breezy" telegram arrives from Shanghai at the end of September 1945, Anna's grandmother tells her: "Your father is a difficult man. I'm sure he has his good side, and I suspect his heart is sometimes in the right place. But his intentions never become actions . . . It's not a question of love. It's a question of who he is, and what he wants." (216) Do these statements and the observations that follow constitute an accurate assessment of Joseph Schoene and his behavior? Is it, with him, never a question of love? To what extent is it true that "he has no vision . . . and always will be an opportunist"? (216)

Q> What specific capabilities make Genevieve "a master of adaptability" and self-transformation (249) How would you describe Joseph Schoene's skills at adapting? What adaptations and self-transformations does each undertake? What incidents show most dramatically or most convincingly the reasons, circumstances, and consequences-and the limitations-of their adaptive powers? How and why do others undergo transformations? With what results?

Q> "Anything is possible in these times. There is no limit to what is now possible," says the Russian trustee, Nikolai Petrovich, in Ward Road Jail. (280) In addition to his most immediate reference, what are the possible implications of his statement in the world of the jail and the world of the second half of the twentieth century? What personal implications might the statement have for Joseph Schoene? What limits disappear within the time scope of the novel?

Q> What kinds of love occur in The Distant Land of My Father? Between or among whom? From what circumstances do these loves spring, what circumstances nourish some of them, and what circumstances jeopardize or destroy others?

Q> Two of the old Chinese cook Chu Shih's sayings have later resonance in the novel: Hsin chong yu shei, shei chiu p'iaoliang and His hua hua chiehkuo, ai liu liu ch--ngyin. The first-"Whoever is in your heart is beautiful"-is repeated to Anna by her dying mother as the basis for forgiving her father. Joseph quotes the second-"Love and attention make all things grow"-as he works in the South Pasadena garden. How do these two Shanghai adages apply to each main character and the characters' interrelationships? In what ways might they apply to the novel overall? What instances of unusual love, attention, beauty, and growth are there in the novel, and what instances of their opposites?

Q> Anna recalls that, listening to Dr. Pearson's explanation of Joseph's death, "I wanted causes and events, reasons why, a sense of order." (350) To what extent might these three desires motivate all the characters? The author herself? All of us?

Q> What does Joseph Schoene's final residence, its furnishings and appliances, the books it contains, and its "decorations" reveal about his life and his character?

Copyright (c) 2002. Published by Harcourt, Inc.
Written by Hal Hager & Associates, Somerville, New Jersey
Used with permission of Harcourt, Inc.


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Book Club How To

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Ideas for setting up a book discussion group from the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library

Preplanning and organizing the first meeting:

  1. Make clear what is expected of participants:
    Careful reading, active participation in selecting and discussing books, and having fun.

  2. Decide what types of books your group wants to read:
    Only fiction? Prize winners? Classics? Anything and everything? Does the book have to be available in paperback?

  3. Figure out the logistics:
    How long should the meetings be? (We find that the best discussions last between 45 and 90 minutes.) Will you meet at a library? Coffee shop? Private homes? Do reminder messages need to be sent out by email, mail, or phone?

  4. Decide how the book club will be run:
    Will you have a leader? Will the same person be in charge for each meeting, or will you rotate leaders? Some groups bring in an outside “expert” (who may need to be paid). Do you want the leader to give a brief biography of the author and a selection of reviews of the book under discussion?

  5. Choosing the books to discuss:
    Choosing what books to read is one of the hardest, most enjoyable, frustrating, and important activities the group will undertake. Members of the group should be prepared to compromise and to read outside their regular areas of interest. (Some people will drop out if the books chosen are not what they want to read; don’t worry, this is a normal occurrence.) Go with the majority opinion, but remind people that there can be a big difference between “a good read” and “a good book for a discussion.” (See next section.) Choose books well in advance (at least three months). People need to know what’s coming up so they can read ahead. In addition, you don’t want to have to spend time at each meeting deciding what to read next.

What makes a good book for discussion:

People often ask what qualities make a book a good candidate for book discussion. Probably the most important criteria are that the book be well written, have an interesting plot and three-dimensional characters. Good book discussion books present the author’s view of an important truth and sometimes send a message to the reader. A good book discussion book often stays in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished and the discussion is over. These books can be read more than once, and each time the reader learns something new.

During a book discussion, what you’re really talking about is everything that the author hasn’t said – all those white spaces on the printed page. For this reason, books that are plot driven (most mysteries, westerns, romances, and science fiction/fantasy) don’t lend themselves to book discussions. In genre novels and some mainstream fiction (and often in nonfiction) the author spells out everything for the reader, so that there is little to say except, “Gee, I never knew that” or “Isn’t that interesting.” Librarians, booksellers, and friends can often supply you with suggestions of good books to discuss.

(Incidentally, this “everything that the author hasn’t said” idea is why poetry makes such a rich topic for discussion.)

See Recommended Books for Discussion, [in PDF; use Adobe Reader from < >].

Reading critically:

The very best books are those that insinuate themselves into your experience: They reveal an important truth or provide a profound sense of kinship between reader and writer. Searching for, identifying, and discussing these truths deepen the reader’s appreciation of the book.

Asking questions, reading carefully, imagining yourself in the story, analyzing style and structure, and searching for personal meaning in a work of literature all enhance the work’s value and the discussion potential for your group.

  1. Make notes and mark pages as you go:
    Reading for a book discussion – whether you are the leader or simply a participant – differs somewhat from reading purely for pleasure. As you read a book in preparation for a discussion, ask questions of yourself and mark down pages you might want to refer back to. Make notes like, “Is this significant?” or “Why does the author include this?” Making notes as you go slows down your reading but saves you the time of searching out important passages later.

  2. Ask tough questions of yourself and the book:
    Obviously, asking questions of yourself as you read means you don’t know the answer yet, and sometimes you never will discover the answers. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions because often the author is presenting difficult issues for that very purpose. Look for questions that may lead to in-depth conversations with your group and make the book more meaningful.

  3. Pay attention to the author’s message:
    As with any skill, critical reading improves with practice. Remember that a good author uses every word in a text deliberately. Try to be aware of what the author is revealing about herself and what she wants you to learn about life from her perspective.

  4. Analyze themes:
    Try to analyze the important themes of a book and to consider what premise the author started with. Imagine an author mulling over the beginnings of the story, asking himself, “what if … ” questions.

  5. Get to know the characters:
    When you meet the characters in the book, place yourself at the scene. Think of them as you do the people around you. Judge them. Think about their faults and their motives. What would it be like to interact with them? Are the tone and style of their dialogue authentic? Read portions aloud to get to know the voices of the characters.

  6. Notice the structure of the book:
    Sometimes an author uses the structure of the book to illustrate an important concept or to create a mood. Notice how the author structured the book. Are chapters prefaced by quotes? If so, how do they apply to the content of the chapters? How many narrators tell the story? Who are they? How does the sequence of events unfold to create the mood of the story? Is it written in flashbacks? Does the order the author chose make sense to you?

  7. Make comparisons to other books and authors:
    Compare the book to others by the same author or to books by other authors that have a similar theme or style. Often, themes run through an author’s works that are more fully realized by comparison. Comparing one author’s work with another’s can help you solidify your opinions, as well as define for you qualities you may otherwise miss.

Leading the discussion:

Research the author using resources such as Current Biography, Contemporary Authors, and Something About the Author. Find book reviews in Book Review Digest and Book Review Index. The Dictionary of Literary Biography gives biographical and critical material. These resources are probably available at your local library. The World Wide Web is another good source for reviews of the book, biographical information about the author, and questions for discussion.

  1. Come prepared with 10 to 15 open-ended questions. Questions that can be answered yes or no tend to cut off discussion quickly.

  2. Alternatively, ask each member of the group to come with one question. Readers will focus on different aspects of the book, and everyone will gain new insights as a result.

  3. Questions should be used to guide the discussion and keep it on track, but be ready to let the discussion flow naturally. You’ll often find that the questions you’ve prepared will come up naturally as part of the discussion.

  4. Remind participants that there are not necessarily any right answers to the questions posed.

  5. Don’t be afraid to criticize a book, but try to get the group to go beyond the “I just didn’t like it” statement. What was it about the book that made it unappealing? The style? The pacing? The characters? Has the author written other books that you liked better? Did it remind you of another book that you liked or disliked? Remember that many of the best book discussions center on books that many group members disliked.

  6. Try to keep a balance in the discussion between personal revelations and reactions and a response to the book itself. Of course, every reader responds to a book in ways that are intimately tied to his or her background, upbringing, experiences, and view of the world. A book about a senseless murder will naturally strike some sort of chord in a reader whose mother was killed. That’s interesting, but what’s more interesting is how the author chose to present the murder, or the author’s attitude toward the murderer and victim. It’s often too easy to let a group drown in reminiscences. If that’s what the whole group wants to do, that’s fine, but keep in mind that it’s not a book discussion.

Some suggestions for participants:

A good discussion depends in large part on the skills we develop as participants. Here are some suggestions (based on the New York Public Library’s book discussion program):

  1. SPEAK UP! Group discussion is like a conversation; everyone takes part in it. Each speaker responds to what the person before him said. Nobody prepares speeches; there should be a spontaneous exchange of ideas and opinions. The discussion is your chance to say what you think.

  2. LISTEN thoughtfully to others! Try to understand the other person’s point of view. Don’t accept ideas that don’t have a sound basis. Remember, there are several points of view possible on every question.

  3. BE BRIEF! Share the discussion with others. Speak for only a few minutes at a time. Make your point in as a few words as possible. Be ready to let someone else speak. A good discussion keeps everyone in the conversation.

  4. SHARE YOUR VIEWPOINT AND EXPERIENCE! Don’t expect to be called on to speak; enter into the discussion with your comments of agreement or disagreement. When you find yourself disagreeing with other people’s interpretations or opinions, say so and tell why, in a friendly way. Considering all points of view is important to group discussions.

  5. COME WITH YOUR OWN QUESTIONS IN MIND! As you read the selection, make note of the points on which you’d like to hear the comments of group members.

Sample questions:

What should you be thinking about when you read a book for discussion? What kinds of questions make for interesting discussions? These are important questions because they lead to the heart of what book groups do: read, think about, and discuss literature. You don’t have to have a background in literary criticism to be in a book group. Here is a list of some common questions to think about when reading a book for a reading group.

  1. How do the characters function in this book? Are they thin and uninteresting, or well developed, with many different facets of personality? Are certain characters more “real” than others? Why or why not?

  2. Is the protagonist sympathetic or unsympathetic? Why?

  3. What themes – motherhood, self-discovery, wilderness, etc. – recur throughout the book? How does the author use these themes? Do they work?

  4. Why do certain characters act the way they act? What motivates a character to do something that she would not normally do? Does she have an axe to grind, a political ideology, a religious belief, a psychological disorder? Is there anything that you would call “out of character”? Does the character grow over the course of the story?

  5. What types of symbolism are in this novel? What do these objects really represent? How do characters react to and with these symbolic objects?

  6. Think about the broader social issues that this book is trying to address. For example, what does the author think about anarchy versus capitalism as a means of life? How is a particular culture or subculture portrayed? Favorably? Unfavorably?

  7. How do you feel about these characters? Do their experiences fit or clash with your own experiences? How so? Which character do you identify with? Is it possible to identify with any of these characters?

  8. Where could the story go from here? What is the future of these characters’ lives? What would our lives be like if we lived in this story? Could the civilization portrayed really exist? What if?

  9. What does that character mean when he says “…”? How does the author use certain words and phrases differently than we would normally use them? Does the author make up new words? Why would he do that?

  10. How does the arrangement of the book help or detract from the ideas in the novel? Does the arrangement contribute to themes or symbols? How is the book structured? Flashbacks? From one or multiple points of view? Why do you think the author chose to write the book this way?

  11. Does this book fit into or fight against a literary genre? How does the author use [science fiction, humor, tragedy, romance] to effect in the novel? Does this book typify a regional (southern, western) novel? How?

  12. How does this book relate to other books you have read? Would this book make a good movie? Is there a film adaptation of this book? How does the film compare to the book? What is brought out or played down in the film version?

  13. Is the setting of the book important to the theme? Why? How realistic is the setting?

  14. What did the author attempt to do in the book? Was it successful?

  15. What is the author’s worldview?

  16. Were the plot and subplots believable? Were they interesting? What loose ends, if any, did the author leave?

  17. What is the great strength – or most noticeable weakness – of the book?

For more information, contact:

Washington Center for the Book
at the Seattle Public Library
800 Pike Street
Seattle, WA  98101

This guide for book discussion groups was developed by the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library. The Washington Center for the Book is a member of the Audiences for Literature Network, made possible by the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds – eight leading centers dedicated to building and sustaining audiences for literature.


One City, One Story (2007) would like to thank the Washington Center for the Book for permission to use this guide.


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