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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Book Discussion: Digging to America

The third Monday of the month in February is President's Day, one of the few holidays the Berwyn Public Library closes for. So our group met yesterday, the second Monday, and had a very lively discussion of Anne Tyler's Digging to America. Our discussion was among the best we have ever had. I think I will add this novel to my collection of books I use in my "Book Disucssion Made Simple" classes.

Digging to America's plot is deceivingly simple. Two families are waiting at the Baltimore airport for the arrival of their adopted children from Korea (Jin-Ho and Sooki, renamed Susan). The families are very different, but forge a strong friendship from this shared experience.

I know I should not be surprised since this is Tyler's 17 novel, but the layers and nuances that accompany her set-up make the book remarkable. For example, the Yazduns (parents to Susan) are of Iranian descent, but they are not all immigrants. The father is American born, his mother came to America as a young bride, and his wife came over as a teenager. Even the 3 grandparents (all Iranian) have different customs and perspectives. These immigrant issues, especially as they pertain to Maryam are explored in detail througout the novel. Our discussion dealt with these issues a great deal. We talked about how families blend their ethnic traditions and create new ones and how immigrants in our own families chose to (or not to) "be American."

The Donaldsons (parents of Jin-Ho) appear to be your typical laid back, hippy, white suburban family, but they also are infused with contradictions and nuances. Bitsy's "binky party" late in the novel brought about much discussion in our group. Determined to rid her second daughter of her pacifier habit, Bitsy insisted on going through with a planned party to set each pacifier aloft on a balloon despite the arrival of a devastating hurricane and their lack of power. Needless to say, it is not a success, but this chapter (told from Jin-Ho's persepctive) led to much discussion.

This novel has a resolved but open ending. Over the years, Bitsy's Dad (Dave) and Maryam develop a relationship which leads to her acceptance and then refusal of his proposal of marriage. Obviously this causes some tension between the two families. The novel ends with a reconcilliation but no resolution as to Dave and Maryam's relationship. We all speculated as to whether or not they ended up together.

There are many directions one can go in order to locate readalikes for Digging to America, first, for those who like Anne Tyler's general themes and writing style should try Alice Hoffman. Her works are comparable but also include a touch of magical realism.

There are also many good fits for those who enjoyed the themes of the immigrant's struggle to assimilate while holding onto his or her past. Two of the best explorations of this theme can be seen in Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Monica Ali's Brick Lane; both also perennial book discussion favorites.

In terms of nonfiction readalikes, those who were intrigued by the detailed descriptions of Iranian culture and the circumstances surrounding the Iranian Revolution should try the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Of course many may also be interested in International adoption. In fact, a regular member of our discussion group brought along a friend who had adopted 2 children from overseas. She shared her experiences and answered many of our questions. I found 10 Steps to Successful International Adoption: A Guided Workbook for Prospective Parents by Brenda Uekert for those who want to explore this topic further.

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