Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
In the tradition of The Good Mother
by Sue Miller and Before and After
by Rosellen Brown, A Map of the World
is the riveting story of how a
single mistake can forever change the lives of everyone involved--in ways that
are beyond imagining. One unremarkable June morning, Alice Goodwin is, as usual,
trying to keep in check both her temper and her tendency to blame herself for
her family's shortcomings. Six years ago, when the Goodwins took over the last
dairy farm in the small Midwestern town of Prairie Center, they envisioned their
home as a self-made paradise. But these days, as Alice is all too aware, her
elder daughter Emma is prone to inexplicable fits of rage, her husband Howard
distrusts her maternal competence, and Prairie Center's tight-knit suburban
community shows no signs of warming to "those hippies who think they can
run a farm." A loner by nature, Alice is torn between a yearning for
solitude coupled with a deep need to be at the center of a perfect family.
On this particular day, Emma has started the morning with a violent tantrum,
her little sister Claire is eating pennies, and it is Alice's turn to watch her
neighbor's two small girls as well as her own children. She absentmindedly
steals a minute alone--a minute that turns into ten: time enough for a
devastating accident to occur. Her neighbor's daughter Lizzy drowns in the
farm's pond, and Alice--whose volatility and unmasked directness keep her on the
outskirts of acceptance--becomes the perfect scapegoat. At the same time, a
seemingly trivial incident from Alice's past resurfaces and takes on gigantic
proportions, leading the Goodwins into a maze of guilt and doubt culminating in
a harrowing court trial and the family's shattering downfall.
A page-turning narrative of extreme literary depth, A Map of the World
is an achingly accurate drama about an American family and a rural way of life
that is fast becoming obsolete.
For discussion: A Map of the World
- In the opening pages of the novel, Alice says about her situation,
"Now, in my more charitable moods, I wonder if our hardworking
community members punished us for something as intangible as whimsy. We
would not have felt eccentric in a northern city, but in Prairie Center we
were perhaps outside the bounds of the collective imagination." (p. 4)
How does the idea of alienation figure into the novel? Why do Dan and
Theresa belong to Prairie Center? Does Howard belong? Feeling that she
doesn't belong, could Alice have done anything to make herself less
vulnerable to public censure?
- Compare the different ways the characters grieve: Are there parallels in
the husband/wife relationships within the couples--Alice and Howard, Theresa
and Dan--and how each spouse expresses, or fails to express, his or her own
grief? Do the characters' respective genders play a role in the way they
deal with grief? What role does grief play in Howard's relationship with
- We get very little objective sense of the characters in A Map of the
World in relation to one another and their environment; their accounts
are extremely subjective and heavily tinged with emotion. How does this lack
of objectivity affect your reading of the novel? How well do you feel you
know the characters? Are Alice and Howard's versions of the events of the
novel believable? Does Alice come across the same way through Howard's eyes
as she does through her own?
- What is the function of Howard's narration? Does his perspective change
your feelings about Alice and what happens to her? Is it clear why he doubts
- Does Alice's sense of her own inadequacy contribute to how she is viewed
by the people of Prairie Center? Does it contribute to Howard's feelings
- At the outset of the novel, Alice says, "I had always suspected that
Howard was able to slip into a phone booth, shed his rubber overalls right
down to a blue body suit, and then take off into the sky, scooping up the
children with one strong arm.... He has always been capable." (p. 9)
What are some of Howard and Alice's respective strengths and weaknesses? Is
either one stronger than the other in any way?
- At the point of the novel when Alice is arrested, she is still completely
overwhelmed and incapacitated by Lizzy's death and her role in it. How do
the accusations against Alice and her time in prison change her and help her
to deal with what happened to Lizzy?
- What is revealed about Alice through her interaction with other prisoners?
Does her sense of belonging shift while in prison? What new perspectives
does she gain?
- While in the jail hospital, Alice reflects on her marriage, "Lying in
the hospital bed I thought to myself that my passion for Howard had soon
been replaced by something that was stronger than respect, or habit, or
maybe even need.... "I wasn't certain the group of feelings wouldn't
cancel each other out, if any of them could possibly be powerful enough to
carry me along by his side, shoulder to shoulder." (p. 298) What binds
Alice and Howard? Do the events of the novel change the essence of those
Page numbers refer to the Vintage paperback edition. Reading group guide and suggested reading list reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Vintage.
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.