Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The discussion topics, questions, and suggestions for further reading that
follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Myla Goldberg's Bee
Season, a beautifully crafted portrait of an American family torn
asunder when eleven-year-old Eliza defies everyone's expectations by
blossoming into a championship speller.
families, the Naumanns have settled comfortably into a routine, each
member playing an accepted role in the day-to-day family drama. Saul, a
cantor who devotes himself to the study of Jewish mysticism, is the
family anchor, preparing the meals, running the household, and nurturing
his son Aaron's interest in Judaism. Miriam, a brilliant and compulsive
high-powered lawyer, slips easily into the role of wage-earner, happy to
leave the emotional demands of family life and parenting to her husband.
Smart, socially isolated, and physically awkward, teenager Aaron thrives
under his father's attention, relishing their shared scholarly pursuits
and secure in the knowledge that he will become an eminent rabbi. Amid
this dazzling display of intellectual power and intensity, Eliza, an
unremarkable fourth-grade student, is resigned to remaining in the
shadows. But her surprising triumph in a classroom spelling bee and her
ascent to the national championships launch Eliza into the spotlight,
radically altering the family dynamics.
Saul is soon lavishing time and affection on Eliza, leaving Aaron
desperate to find something to replace the connections--to his father
and his faith--that have sustained him. For Miriam, the sudden emergence
of her daughter's ability to apply the concentration and the desire for
perfection that define her own self-image triggers a flood of
contradictory emotions and sends her life spiraling out of control. And,
as her studies with her father escalate beyond simple word drills to
explorations of the writings of one of history's greatest kabbalists,
Eliza discovers that her talent for spelling opens the door to far more
Myla Goldberg chronicles the details of the Naumanns' suddenly unsettled
world--the subtle interplay between an estranged husband and wife, the
love-hate relationship of two siblings, the shifting loyalties of parent
and child--with a wonderful mixture of humor and compassion. In
disclosing the joys, confusions, and pain of a young girl's
coming-of-age, she uncovers the hidden longings that shape--and
sometimes destroy--the delicate fabric of family life.
Eliza Naumann has "been designated . . . as a student from
whom great things should not be expected" [p. 1]. How does Myla
Goldberg use both humor and poignancy to bring home the impact of this
judgment on a child? Does Eliza accept her "mediocrity"
without question? What evidence is there that she resents (or is
frustrated by) the way the teachers and other students, as well as her
own family, perceive her?
Why does Eliza slip the information about the district spelling
bee under Saul's door, rather than telling him about it in person? Is
her behavior unusual for an eleven-year-old? How do Aaron's and Saul's
reactions to Eliza's winning the district bee and moving on to the
regional finals [p. 43] shed light on Eliza's own feelings about the
significance of her newly discovered talent?
Initially, Saul is portrayed as an involved and caring father.
What hints are there that his interest in his children's lives masks a
need to satisfy his own ego? How does his relationship with Miriam
enhance the image he has created for himself? Is Miriam in some ways a
victim of Saul's determination to take the primary role in the family or
is she equally responsible for the pattern they have established? In
what ways do the dynamics of the Naumanns' marriage reflect the times in
which they live?
Before the depth of Miriam's problem is revealed, how do you
respond to her as a character? Do her ostensible involvement with work
and her treatment of her children make her a "bad" mother?
What incidents, if any, demonstrate that at some level she wants to
express her love for Eliza and Aaron?
Are the interactions between Aaron and Eliza typical of sibling
relationships, or are they closer than most brothers and sisters? If so,
what contributes to their closeness? At what point does the pattern they
have established begin to change?
"Saul Naumann spends the first portion of his life as Sal
Newman, son of Henry and Lisa Newman, decorator of Christmas trees and
Easter eggs" [p. 10]. When he embraces Judaism as a teenager under
his mother's guidance, Saul becomes estranged from his father. What
effect does Saul's childhood have on how he approaches parenting and the
goals he sets for Aaron? As the only child of a wealthy couple who
wanted a large family, Miriam is raised to fulfill all her parents'
expectations. What does Saul offer her that her own parents were unable
to provide? Goldberg writes, "The two bond over their mutual lack
of family ties" [p. 22]. How do their assumptions about marriage
and, later, their behavior with Eliza and Aaron belie the notion that
they are free of the legacies of their own parents?
In addition to his desire to achieve a higher level of
spirituality, why does Saul devote so much time to his studies of Jewish
mysticism? Do his retreats into his study serve another purpose, either
conscious or subconscious, in his life? Is the time he spends with Aaron
early in the book and later with Eliza compensation for--or relief
from--his self-imposed isolation?
Discuss the development of Eliza's enchantment with spelling. Is
she driven by more than just the desire to please her father? How does
the author use metaphors and other literary devices to extend the
meaning of what is happening to Eliza at each stage? For example, what
does Goldberg mean by the sentence, "When Eliza studies, it is like
discovering her own anatomy" [p. 44] and her descriptions of
Eliza's delightful characterizations of each letter [p. 49]?
When Eliza triumphs at the Greater Philadelphia Metro Area
Spelling Bee, Miriam is struck with a sense of pain as she
"realizes too late that she has made her daughter more like her
than she ever intended" [p. 59]. Saul, in contrast, feels gratitude
and humility; he "would like to think he has kept his distance in
order to protect his daughter from his unfulfilled hopes" [p. 61].
Is this self-deception on Saul's part? How do you think Eliza would
respond to her parents' feelings?
Why is Eliza's failure to appreciate Miriam's gift of the
kaleidoscope so devastating to Miriam [p. 67]? Would the situation have
been different if Miriam had explained its importance to her? Why
Eliza's transformation from ordinary student into nationally
recognized spelling prodigy undermines the roles Aaron and Miriam have
always assumed in the family and sets in motion events that destroy the
Naumanns' facade of contentment and normalcy. Is there a common thread
that links Aaron's experiments with different religions, Miriam's secret
excursions, and Eliza's plunge into Jewish mysticism? In what ways do
each of their quests embody the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam,
"the fixing of the world" [p. 87]? What parallels are there
between the rituals they perform, the risks they take--and the
revelations they receive?
What does Miriam's sudden sexual aggressiveness symbolize? What
does it represent in terms of her feelings about Saul and their
marriage? How is it related to the other signs of her increasing
recklessness? Despite his discomfort and shock, why is Saul reluctant to
discuss it, choosing instead to sleep in his study? Why does he convince
himself "that he is there for Eliza's sake" [p. 186]? What are
other examples of his unwillingness to face the profound changes
occurring in the family?
Eliza masters arcane skills and grasps mysteries that few people
in history have even dared to examine, yet she remains a typical little
girl in many ways. How does Goldberg bring this to life in her
descriptions of Eliza's thoughts and actions? She writes, "Abulafia's
words speak to Eliza like a promise" [p. 195]. How do Eliza's
studies, of both spelling and mysticism, relate to the concrete facts of
her life and the promises she hopes will be fulfilled?
Describing Saul's reaction to the room Miriam has constructed,
Goldberg writes, "Saul starts finding it difficult to breathe. . .
. When Saul starts to cry, it is out of this sense of supersaturation as
well as having arrived at a new level of understanding" [p. 225].
Does Saul live up to this "new level of understanding" when he
sees Miriam at the hospital [pp. 235- 236]? When he discusses the
situation with Eliza and Aaron?
How does Eliza's final act shed light on her character and the
changes she has undergone in the course of the novel? Is it an act of
defiance or of resolution?
Bee Season presents the narrative viewpoints of all the
family members. How does this technique add depth and nuance to our
understanding of each character? How do the self-portraits differ from
the portraits, implicit or explicit, sketched by the other members of
the family? Which characters become more sympathetic or appealing
through this juxtaposition of perspectives and which ones become less
The book opens with quotations from the mystic Abulafia and
spelling champion Rebecca Sealfon. It is clear how they relate to
Eliza's life; in what ways are they relevant to the other characters in
the novel and the themes Goldberg explores?
From The Author
after reading about spelling bees in an essay in Granta, a friend of
mine told me of a fairly traumatic spelling bee experience. I became
obsessed with spelling bees and how they can take on such great
significance to the children and the parents involved in them. My
feelings were confirmed when I traveled to Washington, D.C., for the
1997 National Spelling Bee. In the two days I spent there watching the
bee, interviewing some of the contestants and eavesdropping, I felt I
had entered an alternate universe of anxiety and expectation ruled by
one of the most arbitrary of systems: the English language. While some
of the kids were actually having fun, it became quickly apparent that
the spelling bee was pathologically important to a tangible percentage
of contestants and parents. Though I was never an active spelling bee
participant myself, I recognized in these kids my own childhood
imperative to fulfill expectations and live up to my potential. I
realized that part of my own fascination with the spelling bee--and part
of the reason I think it makes the national news and is televised on
ESPN every year--lies in the fact that it is so easy to recognize
ourselves in these kids and in this ridiculous contest. We have all felt
the desire to please or to succeed against irrational odds. We have all
felt what it is like to fail. The universals, underlying what at first
sight seemed like such an odd niche of humanity, were a large part of
what powered the 18 months it took to write Bee Season.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor 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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