Reading guide for The Road Builder by Nicholas Hershenow

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The Road Builder

by Nicholas Hershenow

The Road Builder
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  • First Published:
    May 2001, 528 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2002, 528 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

The following are intended to enrich your conversation and help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for approaching this novel.

  1. Much of this novel revolves around communication. Characters speak in different languages, making communication difficult. Even those who speak the same language somehow have trouble connecting. What point(s) do you think Hershenow is making about our modern world?

  2. Kate is an enigma. In what way does that drive the novel or create dramatic tension in the story?

  3. In Ngemba, history merges with myth and story, so much so that it’s hard to discern hard, cold facts. Do you think the merging of narratives and beliefs encourages a broader understanding of the past or do you think it threatens history? If you believe history is threatened by the interweaving, do you believe this is a Western way of thinking?

  4. As a corollary question, much of the novel is centered on questions of truth, for instance, what is the actual truth about Uncle Pers’ past? How does being uncertain about the core of one’s own personal family history affect Kate? How is this different from the way Ngembans respond to their own histories?

  5. What is the significance of the title?

  6. Some say The Road Builder is a love story, others that it is many love stories. What do you think, and how does love affect the telling of this epic story?

  7. Hershenow spent time in Zaire with the Peace Corps, an experience that fueled the novel. Do you think this explains one reason this book offers a different perspective than other books about modern Africa? How does this affect the moral and political imperatives of the book?

  8. Will seems lost in the beginning of the book, but eventually finds an anchor. What do you believe allows him to ground himself?

  9. Interestingly enough, Tom seems the only character to reach a level of real despair--not the Nurse or Ndose. Is despair a luxury for Tom?

  10. Will is a more assertive person in the U.S. than he is in Africa. Kate, however, thrives in Ngemba. Does this reflect something about gender politics, or is it more personal expression of their own self-confidence and flexibility?

  11. Will and Kate take a huge leap of faith making the trip to Africa at all. In doing so, they embroil themselves in what may be the most defining experience of their lives. How does faith, of varying kinds, play a role in the novel?

  12. This is a novel, in part, about injustice and the efforts certain individuals make to rectify injustice. Various methods and attempts are made to create greater economic equality as well as to create better standards of living. What are those methods? If some are illegal but effective, is that better than the methods that are legal but seem never to demonstrate success?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Blue Hen Publishing. 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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