Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Every summer the
extended Setons family gathers at the family homestead in New Hampshire, where
Nan Seton, age seventy, presides over what her children and grandchildren
jokingly call "The Seton New England Boot Camp." The hectic schedule of golf
and tennis and swimming at the club, nature hikes before dinner, and badminton
on the lawn in the waning hours of daylight is disrupted one Memorial Day
weekend when Nans son-in-law, Spencer, corrals the family into planting a
garden. An avid animal-rights activist, Spencer envisions tables laden with
fresh fruits and vegetables and a new appreciation on the part of his skeptical
extended family of the virtues of vegetarianism. But a horrible accident in the
garden exposes deeper divides within the family and forces them all to reexamine
their loyalties to one another.
Chris Bohjalian, the author of Midwives,The Law of Similars, and Trans-Sister
Radio, possesses a remarkable ability to create moving human dramas that
simultaneously illuminate the complicated reality behind contemporary
controversies. The San Francisco Chroniclewrote, "[Bohjalians] hallmark: Ordinary people in heartbreaking circumstances
behaving with grace and dignity." The Setons are just such a family and as Before
You Know Kindness unfolds, Bohjalian once again gives us a novel that
engages both our hearts and our minds.
If your reading group would like to schedule a half-an-hour with Chris Bohjalian
via speakerphone or e-mail, please visit his website (www.chrisbohjalian.com
) and click on the Reading Groups tab.
Before You Know Kindness opens with a blunt, clinical description
of Spencers injuries. Is the preface a purely objective report or does it
begin to develop some of the general themes of the novel? What does it convey
about the Setons and their way of life?
Spencers speech pp. 1619 and Nans descriptions of his behavior
pp. 2729 offer varying insights into his personality. Does the tone of the
writing influence your impressions of him? What specific details bring out the
differences between Spencers self-perceptions and the way others might view
How does Bohjalian portray FERAL and the people who work there? Do you
think this is an accurate portrait of the animal-rights movement? What reasons
might Bohjalian have for modifying their attitudes and activities?
Sara thinks, "The problem with Nanand with John and Catherine, and
yes, Spencer when they were all togetherwas that they could never just . . .
be." [p. 38] In what ways is this attributable to Nan and Richard Setons
marriage and the atmosphere in which John and Catherine grew up? Why does
Spencer, whose background is so different, demonstrate the same quality?
How persuasive are Johns explanations of why he took up hunting? What
does the argument that hunting "is the most merciful way humans had to manage
the herd" [p. 73] imply about the relationship between humans and the natural
world? Does Johns anguish after the accident alter his view of hunting in
general? Do you think that it should?
In talking to Willow about Catherine and Spencer, Charlotte says, "Sometimes I get pissed at both of them. I dont think Mom would be the way
she is if Dad wasnt this public wacko." [p. 116] Are Charlottes
complaints typical of a teenager or does Spencers profession put an unusual
burden on her? Is her criticism of her mothers flirting well-founded?
Bohjalian suggests several times that Charlotte may have subconsciously
wanted to injure her father. She herself says, "There were lots of reasons for
pointing Uncle Johns weapon at what was moving at the edge of the garden. . .
. " [p. 133] and acknowledges that others might think, "She was just
doing it to get your attention. . . . "[p. 135] Is this speculation
supported by the way Bohjalian describes the accident? By Charlottes
subsequent behavior and her conversations with Willow?
The accident and Spencers permanent disability provide FERAL with an
irresistible opportunity to make their case against hunting. Is their decision
to bring a lawsuit totally reprehensible? Do the depictions of Dominique, Paige,
and Keenan undermine the validity of their case?
Self-interest plays a part not only in FERALs reaction to the tragedy.
Are you sympathetic to Johns concerns that the lawsuit will effect his
professional reputation, as well as his fear that "for as long as he lived he
would be an imbecile in the eyes of his daughter" [p. 142]? How did you feel
as Catherine vacillates in the second half of the novel between wanting to help
her husband and wanting to leave him?
"Nan was a particular mystery to [Sara]. Exactly what was it that she
didnt want to think about?"[p. 176] Were you puzzled by Nan as well? By the
end of the novel, did you feel you had a better understanding of her?
What would have happened if Charlotte and Willow had not confessed to
drinking and smoking pot on the night of the shooting? Were you relieved that
Spencer decided not to pursue the lawsuit?
Although the plot revolves around Spencer, at various point in the novel
each character moves to center stage to comment on the events and their
repercussions. Which members of the family most appealed to you and why? How
successful is Bohjalian at capturing their individual points of view and
personalities? Did your opinions of them change as the novel progressed?
Does Bohjalian present both sides of the controversy in an evenhanded
way? Which characters appear to embody his own point of view? What is the
ultimate message of Before You Know Kindness?
Do you think that the issues Bohjalian examines in Before You Know
Kindness are more important (or more relevant) than the topics he explored
in (for example)Midwives or The Law of Similars or Trans-Sister
Why did Bohjalian use a passage from The Secret Garden as one of
the epigraphs? In what ways is the childrens classic relevant to Before
You Know Kindness?
Why did Bohjalian take his title from the poem, "Kindness," by
Naomi Shihab Nye, a portion of which serves as the other epigraph?
Page numbers refer to the USA hardcover edition and may vary in other editions.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
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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