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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Book Discussion Report: The Winter People

On Tuesday I led a book discussion for book discussion leaders at the RAILS HQ in Burr Ridge, including 2 brave souls participating via video conference.

Our book was The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon. From the publisher:
A simmering literary thriller about ghostly secrets, dark choices, and the unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters . . . sometimes too unbreakable. 
West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie. Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara's farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn.  
Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that suddenly proves perilous when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace. Searching for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea's diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother's bedroom.  
As Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara's fate, she discovers that she's not the only person who's desperately looking for someone that they've lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself. 
Before I start the report on the discussion, I have a few comments.

First, this was a training for book discussion leaders so at times throughout the discussion I paused the discussion itself to make general observations about what was happening and what we could learn as leaders from it.

Second, while I tried to capture that ongoing discussion in my notes, some of it was missed. I have tried to include it here. So then this report is both a report on the discussion itself and a few of the leadership training topics and issues that were brought up. I am going to try to represent the training issues in this color so that the people who use these reports to help guide a discussion on the same book with their library can filter them out. I thought about separating the 2 different tracks, but when I did that, the context of the training tips were lost. So sorry in advance for the occasional schizophrenia of this post, but it is all worthwhile information to share.

Third, I tired to build the training portion of this talk off of the webinars I presented for RAILS last month. So as not to repeat myself both in the training yesterday and in today’s report, I ask that you refer to the video archive of my Recharge Your Book Club webinar for further training tips and tricks.

Now we can get to the discussion notes, but please note they do contain SPOILERS:
  • I started the discussion by explaining to the group why-- from our position as book group leaders-- The Winter People was chosen for today.
    • I picked this book very deliberately. First, I wanted something creepy because it was October.  But second, and more importantly, I wanted to pick a title that had genre tendencies while still having enough to discuss.
    • In this case, The Winter People hits at some of the biggest genres and genre blends right now too: literary, historical, thriller, psychological suspense, supernatural-- all rolled into one.
    • And then at the end of the discussion I had a question about picking books for a group that only likes genre reads. I referred back to these opening statements and my webinar where I talk about what makes a good book discussion book. I told the group you can find genre-ish reads that can still be discussable. Educate your group on what makes a good book discussion book and let them know that you are trying to find genre options that fit the bill.
  • Now on to the Becky Book Club traditional start. Votes on Liked, Disliked, and So-so for the book at hand:
    • 8 likes, 1 dislike, and 4 so-so
    • Although later in the discussion, one participant said, oh-no I think discussing this book has moved me from liked to so-so.  I assured her this was fantastic, if counterintuitive.  The changing of an opinion about how a specific reader feels about the book, whether that change is positive or negative, is a sign that you are having a dynamic and worthwhile discussion. It can only happen if you have delved further into the discussable parts of the book and have strayed from simply rehashing what has happened.
    • I started with the one brave disliked to start off the conversation, allowing the minority to speak:
      • As I was reading it, I enjoyed it, but I found the conclusion to be reminiscent of other creepy stories like the classic The Monkey’s Paw. It just felt a bit trite to me at the end.
      • Becky countered this by saying but maybe it is an homage to the types of stories and is playing with the familiarity of them. Just as it plays with the concept of a “strong woman” and gives us “strong women” who we are drawn to, but who make “bad" choices (more on this topic later)
      • She countered with-- I thought the women made bad choices. I was mad at them.
      • Becky pointed out here and multiple other times that when fictional characters make readers feel real emotion, the writer has done a great job, and it is a good sign that this is a good book discussion title.
    • The liked and so-sos threw out a few more initial comments:
      • I liked the setting, the creepy atmosphere, the historical setting, the flipping back and forth in time and between characters...
      • Becky stopped the group and explained how she was writing all of these “liked” areas down to go back to later and ask specific questions about. Gathering these “off the top of the head” comments at the start is a great way to know where you, the leader, should steer the conversation.
      • I liked the part of the story set in the past more than the present.
      • I liked the present more than the past 
      • This is situation a gold-mine for the discussion leader to exploit later. It will lead to a great back and forth.
      • I too was a bit disappointed in the ending. I felt bad for Ruthie. Now she is never getting out of her life in VT. I was sad that she was at peace with that fact too.
      • The first page grabbed me. What is going on here? What is this diary? Who are these people?
      • I loved how this book was anchored by strong women, but they were not your stereotypical strong women of most books. They were nurturing but not in any traditional way. They were caring for a murderous monster.
    • Since the strong women of the book were starting to dominate the opening comments, I steered the conversation by asking everyone to talk about their favorite character. This line of questioning went back and forth for a while:
      • Katherine was brought up first. Someone was drawn to her and her art. We talked about how she was interesting because she lost a child, but her immediate pain was over losing her husband.
      • Sara-- our historical character, the mother of Gertie, and the one responsible for turning her into a Sleeper-- had a few “fans” in the group.
      • Our biggest Sara fan felt she was the strongest of all the women. This person felt her loss of Gertie the most intensely.
      • But, said another, I thought Alice was stronger than Sara. She took on the "Gertie" problem without being related to the monster. I also didn't like Sara as much because once Gertie was born she shut out her husband.
      • Speaking of, what does the book say about marriage since all the husband in this book die.
      • I thought Ruthie was the strongest-- her upbringing helps her to be strong. She never even considered calling the police when Alice went missing because she was raised to be self reliant.
      • Ruthie is naive for 19 about the world, but very self reliant
  • The discussion started to move into the way the story is told:
    • 1908 was key for Sara's story.  It was the beginning of the new century when things would change for women, but yet, still limited roles.
    • The way the multiple storylines and time frames unfold is confusing at first, but it did keep the creepy mysterious vibe strong.
    • If this story was told in a straight forward fashion, it would probably have been less creepy. Definitely less mysterious.
    • The historical parts drove the narrative for me. I knew something bad was going to happen.
    • I loved Ruthie's present story the most! She was my favorite, yet I found myself reading her portions faster because the present felt safe to me. It was my modern world. The cold, old times were scary.
    • I like stories that go back and forth in time as a rule. This one was well done.
    • Diary entires specifically are used to tell the historic part of the story. I liked that it was diary entries because I felt like I was in Sara's head. There was more tension because a diary is more honest. Also I felt how much worse the loss of Gertie was than the horror of the monster she became.
    • I thought the diary was written in a little too detached of a voice.  At times I felt like the author was imposing herself on Sara.
    • At times with all the back and forth and multiple storylines, I felt like this novel was trying to cram too many stories into one book.
    • I liked this about the novel. It was like a tapestry. You think the tapestry is done, but then the artist introduced a new color and you see so much more. It was also compact and complicated just like Katherine's dioramas. 
    • Again like my note above, this book was great for starting multiple discussions where 2 people were on complete opposite sides of an issue. This was great and makes it easy for you, the leader.
  • There is a big theme of obsession here:
    • Martin is obsessed with Sara
    • Sara is obsessed with Gertie
    • Candace is obsessed with Ruthie
    • Alice is so obsessed with Gertie that she risks her children's safety. 
    • Auntie is obsessed with vengeance
    • Katherine has a ton of obsessions.
    • We talked a bit about what it means. One thing we came up with was that all of these people had huge losses in their lives, losses they never properly dealt with. Obsession is a consequence of that.
  • Auntie!
    • We talked about her a bit.
    • Self sufficient in a time when for women, that was taken as a bad thing
    • Sara's dad tried to kill her but she takes it out on kids.
    • She holds the key to the supernatural in this story.
    • I think it was interesting that she is the only character driven by vengeance and she starts the entire story rolling.
    • I wanted more Auntie, less Katherine.
    • I wanted Auntie to break the mold more. She turned into more of a stereotypical witch. I wished she could have been more.
  • The setting! This was brought up at the start, but I finally had time to bring it up again.
    • It was great. Cold, isolated, Vermont, off the grid.
    • It would be much harder to hide a monster child-zombie-vampire creature in NYC, for example.  It was hard enough in Vermont.
    • The setting is a character in this novel. 
    • The Devil's Hand as a place is a physical manifestation of Gertie and Sara's deed of awakening her.
    • The old house felt like a character to me.  It is strong and has nooks and crannies that hold its secrets.
    • I couldn't read this book in a room with a closet!
    • The setting added so much atmosphere. It acted as a shortcut for the author to create that creepy feeling faster. That was a good thing.
  • I took this question one step further and asked how the past of your place effects your present, even if it has nothing to do with you.
    • This led us to talk about places like Selma or Birmingham where even today you live with its history every day.
    • Someone brought up a great local example-- Crestwood, IL
    • This was a productive line of discussion and moved us beyond the text.
  • What is Fawn's role in the story?
    • She is 6. Gertie was 6, Katherine's son was 6 when he died.  666. YIKES!
    • Wait, Candace's son is 6 too.  Phew.
    • Oh, and Sara's brother was 6 when killed.
    • Yikes, now we were worried for Fawn.
    • Fawn is not related to Sara as Ruthie is, but she still seems to have a connection to Gertie. Why?
      • Age
      • animal connection: Gertie is a fox, Fawn is named for an animal.
  • Title time. Who are The Winter People?
    • The obvious answer is "The Sleepers are."
    • Vermonters are too
    • Those who create Sleepers and care for them are because everyone who cares for Gertie is always preparing for "winter." They can never enjoy the present.
  • There are three endings here. We talked a bit about how we felt about each
    • Ruthie is first: 
      • She is coming to terms with her place as Gertie's next caretaker.
      • How dare Alice do this to her!
      • This is so terrible. It plays off the idea that no matter what women will always be forced to be held back to care for children.
      • Ruthie was going to get out, but now stuck with Gertie.
      • She did find purpose for the first time with Gertie though.
    • Katherine is second:
      • She closes the door on her finished diorama. This could be her closure on her loss but....
      • It is hinted that she was successful in awakening the dead Gary.
      • Will they awaken Austin too?
      • Will they have 7 days of bliss and closure together? Many people said YES.
      • Becky shot them all down with her evil mind though. Seriously, I said, no one else in the book has had success bringing back a sleeper and using it for closure, why would Katherine?!?
      • Katherine is turning into Sara. She has been sucked into the Sara trap.
      • Katherine will repeat?
      • Katherine's chance at closure was when she finished the diorama. She should have left that door closed.
    • Sara is third:
      • A diary page from 1939 when Sara is still alive but living in the world of the undead, caring for Gertie.
      • Heartbreaking and sad
      • It reiterates what we saw with Katherine a page before-- the cycle will never be broken.
      • Makes us sadder for Ruthie's fate, and the fate of her children.
    • Despite the progressively sadder endings, we did not feel sad after reading this book.  Interesting.
  • The rest of the discussion was about leadership issues
  • We talked about listening to a book for a discussion.
    • Having someone who listened to it adds another avenue of questioning and discussion for the group.
    • I can't listen if leading because I need to be able to flip back and forth in the print
    • Sometimes I listen when leading because it is easier to schedule my time.  Often I am rushing through the book the day before. If I have the audio, I know exactly how much time I have left in the book and I can schedule enough time to finish it at the right pace.
  • I had a question about questions. I referred her to the webinar. But I also held up my print out of the publisher questions for this book. I had taken the main themes of some of the questions and reworded them. I also had some written in questions. Plus I had a few I crossed out as we went along.
Readalikes: The Winter People is great example of titles I call, Horror for the Squeamish. They are creepy with outright supernatural elements at times and just a hint of it for others.  Click here for an older list I made of some of these books.

Other books I have read which this book specifically reminded me of with quick “whys” and links to full reviews are:
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent [both are atmospheric, with a strong sense of place-- a cold place, and both deal with strong women who are forced into bad situations.]
  • The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue [creepy, non-human children, sense of place]
  • The Darkling by R.K. Chesterton [creepy, kids in peril, weird notion of nurturing]
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield [creepy family history, strong sense of place]
  • Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger [ghosts, family history, dark]
  • The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey [cold, child in woods, atmospheric]
These books would all also make for a good book discussion

NoveList had some great suggestions from a different perspective:
  • The Woman in Black by Susan HillIn the best of the gothic tradition, these shivery ghost stories feature creepy locations, dark family secrets, and mysteries that are better left unsolved. Both novels are literary, with an oppressive atmosphere and a slowly building sense of dread. -- Jessica Zellers
    • Becky comment: a good readalike, but not the best choice for a book discussion
  • The Night Strangers by Chris
    Bohjalian: 
    Atmospheric, creepy, and compelling, these intricately plotted novels of psychological suspense focus on families coping with grief and guilt as they investigate the history of their New England homes. Both haunting tales unfold through multiple perspectives, slowly unearthing long-buried secrets. -- Gillian Speace
    • Becky comment: a great author for dynamic book discussions in general
  • A Dark Matter by Peter Straub: Dark deeds committed in the past haunt participants (and their families) in the present-day in these creepy, intricately plotted psychological suspense stories spiced with hints of the supernatural. Both describe events, including occult rites and paranormal phenomena, from multiple perspectives. -- Gillian Speace
    • Becky comment: this is a classic horror novel that is much more violent than The Winter People. Great readalike for those who wanted more chills and scares, but probably not a great general book discussion choice.
There are a few more good ones if you visit NoveList.

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