THESE ARE QUESTIONS WHICH MIGHT BE OF INTEREST TO YOU AS A READER, MEMBER OF A BOOK CLUB OR TEACHER/STUDENT. FEEL FREE TO USE THEM, BUT PLEASE CITE THE SOURCE.
NOTE THAT ALTHOUGH NO ANSWERS ARE GIVEN, AND MOST QUESTIONS ARE OPEN TO A WIDE VARIETY OF INTERPRETATION, THE QUESTIONS THEMSELVES CAN TAINT A FIRST READING. IT IS BEST TO READ THEM AFTER A FIRST READING.
1.The novel begins with a quote from a veneration prayer to St. Jerome Emiliani, the patron saint of lost children: "We ask to be transformed into children so that we may one day enter the Kingdom of Heaven." As with most coming-of-age novels, childhood has a huge hold on the protagonist. What are some of the key images of childhood or innocence in the novel? How might R.J. be a lost child? In what ways might R.J. be "transformed" during this summer?
2. Most of the novel takes place in a fictional, possibly timeless valley that is surrounded by actual places on the coast of California in the year 1978. What are some of the details of 1978 in the book? What are some of the details that are fictional?
3. If you were to identify one major moment in your life, what would it be? When would it be? Where would it be? What are some of the details you remember about your place and time? How significant were things such as movies and songs, political events, clothes and style, etc. to your experience? In other words, what makes a book, or your experience, unique? What makes it universal?
4. In the chapter Figment, as R.J. is walking along the riverbed thinking about the first tale he has just told the old man, he says, "It takes a good listener to make a story whole…" How does a listener (or reader) do this?
5. R.J. tells Leguin, "And I wouldn't even feel bad about slipping in that made-up stuff 'cause when it comes right down to it, made-up parts have the most for-reals in them." What does he mean? Do you agree?
6. In Windowpane, after putting his sibs to bed with a scary story, he says, "A whole flying saucer full of blood sucking aliens is nothing compared to a single Blackjack." What does R.J. mean by this?
7. Voice. There is a difference between R.J.'s voice whether he is thinking or narrating or speaking to a variety of people. Identify the differences. Why would he use different voices? Do you have different voices? If so, how are they different? When do you use them? Why? Describe your "real" voice.
8. Roxanne is described on the very first page of the novel: "Roxanne's hair is blacker than the twenty-coat paint job on Chaco's Impala. She parts it down the middle and it hangs straight down around her shoulders. In that light, it's an oil slick blue, and the way the drops bead like a slick wax job, she don't even need a hat. She stares at me with her eyelids drooping…She won't let go the hate between our moms." Although she's absent from much of the novel, it could be argued that Roxanne is one of the central characters. Do you agree or disagree?
9. Two songs from Roxanne's era echo her life. What are the songs and how do they capture her? Is the Tale of Foxy Roxy and the Bad Place "for-reals" or "make-believe"? To whom is R.J. telling this tale? Why is he telling it?
10. R.J. first describes Theresa in the second chapter, Cannibals: "I glimpse (her) back in the kitchen. She used to tie her hair in barrettes, but now it's a ribboned ponytail falling to her butt. Then the door closes." In Banzai, his last description is of her sitting on the roof, "where she has a clear view all the way to the end. Her knees are up around her chin, her arms wrapped around her legs. Her ponytail is undone and her hair hangs around her shoulders like a shawl." Describe the relationship between R.J. and Theresa. Do you think it will continue after the novel? Why or why not?
11. Compare and contrast Theresa and Roxanne and discuss what R.J. may or may not have learned about girls and about love from each of them. Try and capture what you think you know about romantic love in a single sentence.
12. In Cannibals we get our first glimpse of R.J. carrying his brother: "Charley has this way of wrapping his legs around my waist and his arms around my neck so that he weighs no more than a backpack. He knows that one day he'll be too big and I'll drop his sorry ass for good." How do you explain R.J.'s conflicted feelings toward his brother? Why is it so common in life for brothers and sisters to have conflicted feelings toward each other? Or do you disagree with this?
13. How does R.J. justify his behavior toward his brother in The Tale of Charley's Toes and their Greater Purpose? Near the end, R.J. asks Charley, "You still think there's some greater purpose to it?" How would you answer this question?
14. What is Charley's so-called super power? Is it "for-reals"? How or why do you think he acquired it? Do you have a super power? No? Then why not?
15. Here's R.J.'s summary of his relationship with his best friend Manny: "We fought at the end of lines through the next couple grades until Abuelita shamed us into stopping by telling us stories of Coyote, who jacked his friends with his mean, sneaky ways. Even though we haven't fought since then, we've stayed best friends." Discuss the friendship between R.J. and Manny. Why doesn't R.J. take Manny when he visits the old man? Why doesn't Manny help R.J. with the Banzai Run?
16. R.J. contrasts their physical appearance: "We're sort of the same but different, what Mr. Sanders calls a paradox. I'm cursed with freckly skin, while he gets brown the color of the mission pews. I got what mom calls an auburn mop, and he gets straight black hair tied in a cool ponytail like an Indian." These two boys come from different cultures, yet they are close friends. You could say they are family. Compare and contrast their backgrounds. How have these cultures changed and how have they remained the same?
17. Theresa calls R.J. and Manny, "Ninito-y-little Smitty." What does she mean by this?
18. In Double Cross, while recovering from a beating by the Blackjacks, R.J. says: "Mr. Sanders, with his Canterbury Tales, he taught me about pilgrims that lived in a past that went back hundreds and hundreds of years. And Father Speckler, with his New Testament, he preached about a future that won't come until forever and ever, amen. Neither way does me any good now, against the Blackjacks. All I can do is live in the here and now." How does the unique way R.J. narrates his story reflect this statement? Do you agree with him regarding how to live one's life?
19. R.J. says of Father Speckler, "I'd say my last Father, with an edge to it so he'd know I wouldn't ever want him to be my for-real father." And he says of Mr. Sanders, "And don't give none of that father garbage. If I'd wanted a father I wouldn't have picked no drunk." Compare and contrast R.J.'s relationships with Father Speckler and Mr. Sanders. How are his feelings toward these men influenced by his feelings about his own father?
20. See how many of these animals you can identify in the novel: Peabody. "A gang of butterflies." Amazing Grace. The Old Tumbler. Barf Vadar. The grunion. Chickens. Shellfish boogers. Coyotes. A bag with "pieces of bone and fur." Harvey the dog. Carrier pigeons. The Banzai Flyer (well, it's sort of like an animal). Discuss the ones that affected you most. What animals are in your life?
21. There are a number of recurring images or motifs in the novel. Some are large, such as the conflicting motifs of the joy of flight versus the terror of confinement. Some are small. Toes. Identify and discuss some of these images. Do "identifying and discussing" such things as motifs or symbols add to your enjoyment of a work or do they ruin a good story? If you were to write the story of a key moment in your life, what images or motifs might it contain?
22. In the chapter Windowpane, as R.J. sits late at night on the empty slab that once held Mr. Sander's trailer, he reflects: "Nino-'n-Smitty say war killed my dad…they also told me he had been killed by windowpane, which is LSD, and I thought there must be a window somewhere I could see my dad on the other side. Father Speckler tried to con me into thinking that was heaven, but I don't buy it. I never seen such a window. So my dad couldn't have died in war. But Mr. Sanders, he said there are all kinds of ways war kills people." What kinds of ways can war kill people? Two wars from vastly different times haunt characters in this novel. In what ways are these wars and their aftermath similar? Different? How do the details and effects of these wars compare to war today or war in the future?
23. "There was an old lady who lived in a shoe…" How does the nursery rhyme connect to R.J.'s mom? Has she been a good mother? Why or why not? When he makes up a story telling her he's been with Roxanne, "just as fast as my words, her hand flashes out and slaps me, the healing bruises burning deep." Why does she do this?
24. In the chapter Ka-boom, R.J. and Manny are trapped by the Slows, bullies from the college outside the valley. As R.J. and Manny are being tormented by them, the Blackjacks emerge and Ace puts a stop to the Slow's bullying. "The Slows are the same size as the Blackjacks, and probably more athletic. But if it comes to a fight, the Slows don't stand no more chance than a golden retriever against hungry coyotes." Is it out of kindness or conscience or something else that the Ace steps in to save R.J?
25. And then R.J. notices the redhead, "wearing a ruffly blouse with a gold crucifix nestled in that valley between the lacy edges of her bra…She is looking at me in a new light, thinking I'm with the Blackjacks. God, I'm ashamed she thinks I'm a part of them. Then I'm even more ashamed because I am a part of them. Not in the way she thinks it. But in the way any victim is a part of his tormentor. Shame is a weird, sick feeling." How can R.J. feel shame if he's the victim? Can he be both a victim and an accomplice?
26. Evil. Is it an actual thing, such as a force or a being? Or is it a concept? Can there be good without evil? Evil without good? Are the good and evil in this valley contained within such places as Dead Man's Gorge, or the oak, or the chapel or the root cellar? Or are those simply places where ordinary people sometimes behave with grace or abomination?
27. How can a place or an object influence human behavior?
28. The Catholic church has a profound influence on R.J. What are some of the many images and settings that reflect this? Do you consider R.J. a spiritual person? What does the nun mean when she says R.J. is an old soul? How does the feather of an angel connect the old man and the boy? Consider such things as R.J.'s view on religious relics or his comparison between girls and churches.
29. "He's the oldest guy I ever seen. The skin is tight and thin and crinkled so that you don't need x-rays to see his bones. I scope the claw. It really is a claw. Well, there are fingers and all, but they're twisted like a claw…He just sits there watching poor Charley like he's thinking, baked or fried…Whatever this is, it's more than some cranky-old-man kid's story." Discuss the evolution of the relationship between R.J. and Mr. Leguin. Did you discover the secrets along their journey at the same moment as R.J., or were you ahead of him? Explain.
29. "I ain't God or Jesus or a priest. I ain't nothing…I'm only just R.J."
"Forgive." Is Mr. Leguin worthy of redemption? Is redemption R.J.'s to give?
Thank you. I am honored that you read my novel.