Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Aldine acts impulsively at several key moments in the book. It’s because she invites the missionaries into the house, for example, that Aldine’s sister meets an American, and it’s because she’s willing to move to an American state she knows nothing about—Kansas--that Aldine finds herself utterly dependent on the Prices. Is she brave or foolish? Is she to blame for what happens to her, and is she to blame for what happens to Ansel and Ellie? Does she seem more impulsive than male characters who strike out for unknown places?
2. On April 30, 1987, the New York Times columnist Mary Morris referenced an oft repeated line about the two most common plots in literature: 1) a man goes on a journey and 2) a stranger comes to town. She wrote, “Since women, for so many years, were denied the journey, we were left with only one plot to our lives – to await the stranger. Indeed, there is no picaresque tradition among women who are novelists. Women’s literature, from Austen to Woolf, is mostly about waiting, usually for love. Denied the freedom to roam outside themselves, women turned inward, into their emotions.” Discuss this in relation to the plot of The Practice House. Is it one or the other, or both?
3. How does Aldine’s Scottish-ness affect how she views Kansas? How does it affect how Americans perceive and treat her?
4. The building called the Practice House doesn’t appear until halfway through the novel. Does the title have an allegorical meaning that justifies its prominence? Is it significant, for example, that Charlotte’s wedding reception is held there? If you think the title does not fit the novel as a whole, what would you have called it and why?
5. The female characters in the novel take jobs that we now see as stereotypical: Aldine is a doctor’s secretary, then a teacher, and finally a waitress. Likewise, Ellie and her sister leave home in a burst of independence, but they find work serving food to men. Charlotte, too, becomes a teacher, and she seeks financial stability—upward mobility, in fact – by marrying an older, wealthy man. Is the book perpetuating certain ideas about the dependence of women, or is it documenting them? What role does historical fiction play in our understanding of the past? Of the present?
6. Women in the novel both resent and seek comfort in what used to be called the Home Arts. How is Charlotte’s life different from her mother’s? In what way did Ellie’s choices shape Charlotte’s? Is that pattern of cause and effect something that the characters are conscious or unconscious of? Does consciousness of the pattern mean that it can be broken?
7. The Price family leaves the Great Plains for California to find a new life during the Dust Bowl, just as the Joads do in The Grapes of Wrath. How is the California the Prices find different from your mental image of Steinbeck’s California?
8. To some extent, novels have a moral function in our society: they depict the social and psychological consequences of broken taboos. How does Aldine’s fate compare to that of other literary heroines who commit adultery, such as Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Hester Prynne? Who is punished for adultery in this novel, and how? Is there a tendency for novels to punish characters who break taboos, and what effect does that have on you now? Is it different from how you were affected when you read novels in school?
9. Who seems the most opportunistic character in the novel—Charlotte or Aldine? Who seems the most innocent—Clare, perhaps, or Neva? To what extent does our sympathy with a character depend on his or her naiveté?
10. In some ways, novels can be compared to food. Some are considered comfort food, some are marketed as nutritious (particularly when taught in school), and others are haute cuisine. Who decides which is which? What makes a novel comforting, and what makes it culturally significant? Is there a relationship between “significant” novels and the behavior or persona of the main characters or the author? What would you call this novel, and why?
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Books by Tom and Laura McNeal