Set in Minneapolis and Saint Paul during the years 1912-1919, Mary Sharratt’s debut novel is the story of a young German immigrant who translates fairy tales for an enigmatic older woman. The heroine is drawn into a mysterious new world as the tales assume a reality of their own, mirroring her awakening in a time of alienation and war.
1. Why does Kathrin immigrate to the United States? What is driving her? If Kathrin’s journey is a quest, what is the object of that quest?
2. What role does the loss of her parents play in Kathrin’s life? How absent or present is the parent/child role throughout the novel?
3. As Kathrin moves from mill worker, to translator, to housewife, to bookkeeper, her work is very connected with her self-esteem. What do jobs say about her in the different stages of her journey? Contrast Kathrin’s successes and failures in relationship to work with Lotte’s. How does work liberate and oppress them?
4. Contrast Kathrin and Lotte, as working-class women, with Violet and her sister, as upper-class women. Which class of women has the greater degree of autonomy and self-expression? Who is most trapped in her role?
5. Violet and Kathrin form a compassionate relationship that seems to offer both of them the love and companionship they desire. What draws them to each other? What roles do age, wealth, class, and education play here? Does Violet abuse her power over Kathrin?
6. Compare and contrast the relationships between men and men, women and women, and men and women in the novel.
7. Compare and contrast the different sexual encounters in the book. What unites them and what sets them apart? How does sex function as an initiation and an awakening for Kathrin?
8. Jan and John Jelinik have different ideas about the role of the bookstore and how it should be managed. John is in search of prosperity and will do anything to achieve it. How valid and attainable is this dream? What is the hidden root of John’s hunger and longing?
9. What is Kathrin’s defining moment of progressing from an “immigrant” to a “true American”? What is John’s? How does John’s American dream contrast with Kathrin’s? What particular personality traits and life events cause Kathrin and John to go in such different directions?
10. How are fairy tales used in the book? How do they connect to womanhood?
11. What do the fairy tales mean to Kathrin? How do they empower her and illuminate her? How do they lead her astray? What truths do the tales represent? What illusions?
12. Throughout the narrative, there are many references to witches and sorceresses. How do these archetypes evolve in Kathrin’s psyche as her story progresses? By the end of the novel, how have the tales transformed her?
Book Excerpt | Reader’s Guide