Reading guide for Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

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Irma Voth

A Novel

By Miriam Toews

Irma Voth
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2011,
    272 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2012,
    272 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer Dawson Oakes

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Who is Irma Voth? What is she like when the novel opens? Is she the same person by the book's end? What changes about her - and what does not?

  2. What are your impressions of her family? What is her role among the Voths? What are the dynamics like between Irma, her parents, and her siblings? Do you like her parents? Can you understand their choices?

  3. Irma has been raised in a strict Mennonite community. Is religion important to Irma? Does she believe in the same God her father does? How has it shaped her character?

  4. How would you describe her marriage? Why did she marry Jorge - and why did he marry her? Was it love?

  5. Early in the story, Irma poses a question to herself. "How do I behave in this world without following the directions of my father, my husband, or God?" How would you answer Irma? How might she answer this question herself by the novel's end?

  6. What does the film crew's arrival hold for Irma and her family? How does meeting Diego, Marijke, Wilson affect the young woman?

  7. Diego talks to Irma about rebellion, and asks her a question. "Do you feel that we can rebel against our oppressors without losing our love, our tolerance, and our ability to forgive?" What would your response to Diego be? What are they all rebelling against?

  8. Why does Diego suggest Irma keep a diary of her experiences on the shoot? What does she write about? What wisdom does her writing offer her and how does that wisdom affect her choices?

  9. Marijke introduces Irma to Epicurus's "four-part cure" - Don't fear God. Don't worry about death. What is good is easy to get, and what is terrible is easy to endure." Is this a good philosophy to live by? Does it illuminate Irma's struggle? How do events in her lrma's life address all four tenets? Use examples from the story to illustrate your points.

  10. What draws Irma to Wilson? She asks him to ponder a question. "if you knew this was your last day on earth what kind of story would you write?" By the end, Irma has her own answer. Explain her ultimate response, and how she came to it. What would your answer be?

  11. What adjectives would you use to describe Irma? What about Aggie? Irma calls her baby sister Ximena, "honest." Why? Can a baby be honest? Is Irma honest? What about Aggie and the rest of the people in Irma's life?

  12. When they arrive in Mexico City, Aggie discovers a Diego Rivera mural. How does the mural affect Aggie? What about Irma? How does Rivera's message reflect the girls' experience?

  13. What role does art play in Irma's life? Her father says, "Art is a lie." Why? Wilson tells her that art, "comes from the same desire to live." Later, in Mexico City, Hubertus joyfully tells Irma, "When life is a shit storm your best umbrella is art." Analyze each of these men's viewpoints. What do their opinions tell us about their characters? What does Irma think about art? How would she define it? Is art necessary for life - even if it is a lie? Does it shelter us from life's vicissitudes? How? What would life be like without art?

  14. A jacaranda tree saved Natalie from despair and suicide. What, in your opinion, saved Irma?

  15. Was Irma right to feel guilty about what happened in Canada? Could she have known the outcome of her actions? How did her knowledge of the truth and her role transform her relationship with her father? Does Irma's revelation influence your opinion of her?

  16. At its heart, Irma Voth is the story of young woman discovering herself and finding meaning in her life. It touches on many themes - defiance, freedom, independence, beauty, sacrifice, guilt, family, art, God, forgiveness, love. Choose one or two and trace them through the course of the story, using examples from Irma's life and those around her.

  17. Towards the end of the novel, Irma sees Diego's film. How does she feel watching it? Can she ever forgive herself for all that has passed? Do you think she will ever be reconciled with the family she left behind?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Faber and Faber. 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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