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Reading guide for A Brief History of The Flood by Jean Harfenist

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A Brief History of The Flood

by Jean Harfenist

A Brief History of The Flood by Jean Harfenist X
A Brief History of The Flood by Jean Harfenist
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 224 pages

    Paperback:
    Jul 2003, 224 pages

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  1. As the book opens, Lillian's mother, Marion, looks around the breakfast table at her husband and children and says, "Now this is how it's supposed to be." What does she mean? What does the author wants the reader to understand from this comment?

  2. Marion creates a surprising pontoon-boat float for her family to ride on in the Acorn Lake Fourth of July boat parade. Its theme might be viewed as a baseline for eight-year-old Lillian's ideas about what life is supposed to be like. What events force her to reconsider? If Lillian, as an adult, were to construct a pontoon-boat float symbolizing her own idea of happiness, what theme might she choose?

  3. Some families seem to be held together by the glue of secrets. What secrets are kept by the Andersons? Why? Would those same secrets be kept in a family today?

  4. What is the significance of the girls who work the nightshift making salads for airline flights? How do they add to our understanding of Lillian's life? Of Marion's? Are they merely relics of a time gone by, or are they still relevant today?

  5. Lillian says about her best friend, Irene, "Once you reach homecoming queen, there's no place else to go but bad." What does this statement say about small towns? About opportunities for girls?

  6. Little actual violence takes place in the Anderson household, yet Lillian says that living with her father, Jack, is "like living under a clenched fist." How is this tension created and maintained? What makes this tension tolerable to Lillian? To the reader?

  7. Is Lillian a reliable narrator? That is, in short, would she lie to you?

  8. The title, A Brief History of the Flood, comes from a letter Marion writes to the IRS. Why do you think the author chose this title? What might you have called it?

  9. Lillian says, "I don't want anybody ever looking at me like the girl who got her ducks shot." What does this statement reveal about her character? Is she different or like other family members in this characteristic?

  10. Lillian says of her best friend, Irene, "Nothing you can say will shock her... Usually that's what you want in a friend." In what other ways does Irene resemble Lillian's mother? How are they different? What does Irene offer Lillian that she can't get from other relationships?

  11. Why doesn't Marion seem to see Jack's failings as a husband and father?

  12. How are Lillian's actions in "Duck Season" a continuation of what took place in "Body Count?"

  13. What role does shame play in the Andersons' behavior? What are its sources? Which children are most affected by it? Why? How does it influence their choices?

  14. Men generally aren't portrayed here in a positive light. What type of men do you think Randy and Davey will become? Why?

  15. At the end of the book how does each member of the Anderson family think "it's supposed to be?"

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Mona Simpson, Anywhere but Here;
  • Mary Karr, The Liar's Club: A Memoir;
  • Tobias Wolff, This Boy's Life;
  • Richard Russo, Empire Falls;
  • Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster;
  • Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine;
  • Annie Proulx, The Shipping News;
  • Ann Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant;
  • Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres;
  • Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina;
  • Susan Minot, Monkeys;
  • Alexandra Fuller, Don't Let's go to the Dogs Tonight;
  • Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping;
  • Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries;
  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird;
  • Mark Train, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


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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