Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The novel starts in the immediate aftermath of World War II. How
does the period compare with the times following more modern
warsVietnam, Gulf War, Desert Storm, etc.?
In what ways is Bobby the typical pre-teenage son?
Does he differ in any important details? Does his active imagination
hamper him, confuse him, or fuel his ambitions?
In what ways is Neighbor Dorothy a good neighbor? What makes her
such an effective seller of her sponsors products or services?
Does Neighbor Dorothy speak through the silences surrounding some
farmers wivesthe silent or the working-all-day husband, for example.
Or the limited view the nation had of housewives at that time? Or
perhaps the distance between towns and cities and countryside? Was this
the loneliness that can come with working alone in a house almost all
How does Dorothy succeed in making small events into larger onesan
anniversary, the birth of a kitten, some honor bestowed in school or
church, one of the ordinary recognitions?
Is the humor in the novel satireor not?
How does Hamm break out of the tractor salesman category?
How does he use his salesmanlike skills to win the young woman who
becomes his wife?
Hamm eventually takes on a mistress and advisor. How does Vita not
fit into the usual Other Woman mold? We see their relationship growbut
what of that between his wife and his mistress?
With all the evidence of dysfunctional families these days, why do
some marriages in the novel work out so well?
Why do you think the author begins the novel with Tot, the voice of
one of the minor characters?
The Oatman family of gospel singers: Do they reveal a hidden
aspect of American culture (hidden, that is, unless you grew up with
such entertainments and forms of worship)? What other pockets of
American life are almost invisible to white, middle-class, urban
Hamms politics seem to be a bit all over the place. Hes not a true
conservative or liberal; hes not a true demagogue or, on the other
hand, a true blue Boy Scout, or without endless ambition. At what point
does he leave off being a populist do-gooder and let ambition take over?
Is the process gradual or sudden?
Because of the authors attitude toward her characters and
presumably the world, some might call this a feel-good novel. In what
ways does she allow some of the harsher realities to creep in?
Is small-town life any better per se than city life?
Is the Midwestern small town indistinguishable from the Southern
small town in Fried Green Tomatoes, for example?
The decade of the 50s occurs in the middle of the novel. It was the
time of the Eisenhower presidency, the end of the war in Korea, etc. For
years, much of the intelligentsia portrayed those years as dull ones,
uneventful, complacent, unremarkable. Later, there was a revision in
opinion. They were special years of peace (despite the Cold War),
stability, growth, etc. What is your opinion?
Aunt Elner, Norma, Macky . . . Can you think of counterparts in real
life? Do you know a character or two who exhibit some of their
Do you agree that Aunt Elner would have made a good governor? Or
that Poor Tot would make a splendid Secretary of Health and Human
If youre a woman, dont you wish you could find a nightgown just
like the one Macky so admired on Norma? What did it do for her?
How would you like a two-week vacation, all expenses paid, in
Elmwood Springs, The Most Middle Town in America. How would you spend
Transformations occur with fair frequency in the lives of these
characters. Can you name some? Do you know of similar transformations in
your own life experience?
You cant go home again, wrote Thomas Wolfe, famously. Bobby tries
it with mixed results. But can you ever get away from home, no
matter how far you travel?
Macky eases into retirement only to find that everything rubs him
the wrong way. But one gift, one wonder of modern technology, changes
all that. What was it? And has that invention done the same for you?
How would you write the next chapter, beyond the ending of the
novel, to see the surviving characters through the next phase of their
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ballantine Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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