Earth Advanced Book Group Guide
Advanced Book Group Discussion Questions
Question 1: Characterization
When authors build a character in a novel, we explore the character’s greatest strength and fatal flaw. By fatal flaw, we mean some perception or idea she carries that could end up killing her. What do you think Pearl’s greatest strength is? Her fatal flaw? For even more advanced study, explore strength and flaw for all of the characters. This is a great exercise for budding writers!
Question 2: Depression and Madness
Pearl has a vision of a Native American in the forest.
“We’re both in a dream now. Or we are both crazy. Or we are dreaming and we are crazy.”
“The world is crazy. Maybe we’re the sane ones.”
He laughed and coughed, and put his palm to his chest as he tried to breathe. He twitched his leathery hand over tattered trousers. “We sane people sure look like piles of shit.” He coughed.
Later, in the psyche ward, Sister Alice says to Pearl: "I think some of the people who end up here are the barometers of how the world’s doing."
Do you agree with this?
Question 3: Money
Money seems to be thrown around in Earth, falling to the floor, getting muddy in a clearing, and littering a city street in St. Louis.
There’s the money Jack finds in the mud in the clearing toward the end of the book.
When Pearl and her mother are about to find out the father has been killed in a hunting accident, money falls from the mother’s purse.
When Pearl is trying to pull her sister from the car in St. Louis: The car door slammed.
The car screamed off. The fight had jostled the cash loose in my coat pocket, the cash Meghan had stuffed there. The wind took the bills and whipped them up, danced them high. I watched from my back on the sidewalk as they floated silver like large fireflies. The women around me ran in high heels after the money, like children chasing lightning bugs, hands up and giddy. They ran in slow motion, with their spangles and bright colors, after the glowing money, laughing and giddy like little kids.
What, do you think, the novel is saying about money in these and other instances? What does Pearl think about money? The mother? The father? Jack?
Question 4: Setting
When building a novel, an author creates a setting. Earth is, of course, set in Missouri.
We lived in the middle of the middle of the middle. Landlocked. Missouri was a place where the people may have been poor, but the land was stinking rich. In the woods, rattlesnake and deer, skittering mammals dragging fur-bellied along the debris of the earth. In the depths of hundreds of waterways, carp, trout, muddy-bellied catfish. Turtles the size of small children Mother plopped into a pot to boil. Skies teemed a rainbow of bluebirds, red robins, crimson cardinals, blackbirds. The body of the landscape rose up in limestone and dolomite cliffs. Most nights, a blackness so deep, a speckling of fireflies so glittering that a mythology grew in the stars of the blue-black sky.
How does this setting define the lives of the characters? How does it define the plot of the novel? How are rural Missouri and "town" viewed by Pearl? How does the earthy setting affect Pearl?
Question 5: Seeing and Being Seen
Pearl talks often in the novel about seeing other people and being seen by them. Jason’s drawings of her are his way of seeing her, and these drawings often shocked and scared Pearl.
Maybe that was all any of us could do. Wake up and see another person, just one other person. To witness them. Maybe then all the blind people I knew, after someone had witnessed them, would open their eyes, and be able to really see a specific tree or a particular bird or the person sitting right next to them.
Why do you think Pearl being witnessed was so important to her life? Was Nadine “witnessed”? What about Meghan? Who witnessed the mother’s soul and how?
Question 6: Telling Stories
Storytelling, or the lack thereof, is a consistent theme in Earth. There is a lack of family stories, a lack of history of the Osage tribe. There’s the concept of the poor uneducated man’s story and an educated person’s story. And Pearl talks about how she doesn’t want Jack to define her; she doesn’t want the likes of him to tell her story. About her father, Pearl says:
If nobody wanted to hear a poor man’s story, a poor girl had no chance at all. A farm girl was expected to let them spoon feed her story to her, and if she denied them, if she had her own wisdom, they beat her to a pulp.
If only the rich and important people are allowed to tell stories, what happens when the other side isn’t heard? In history books, who tells the stories? How would differing viewpoints of single historical events change if they were told by a variety of different voices?
Question 7: Relationships
Pearl has a complex relationship with most of the other characters in the book.
Her father was a difficult and tortured man. When he dies, why does she mourn so hard for him? Why in the end does she want to take his boots? What did the father represent?
Meghan is licentious, not particularly nice, and steals Meghan’s things, including her prized possession, her leather pouch. What did Meghan represent to Pearl?
Pearl doesn't particularly like Jack. Why? What different belief systems do the two represent?
What do you think of Pearl's relationship with her mother? In the end, when Pearl is fighting for her life outside the mental institution, she has a moment with her mother.
Mother came up to me, leaned in and gave me a loose hug. We didn’t hug. It wasn’t done. She whispered in my ear: “You got to work real hard. Harder than you ever worked. Your life ain’t going to be easy.”
She moved back. She raised her hand, those knobby knuckles, and for the briefest moment, placed her rough palm against my cheek. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, she was already heading out of the clearing.
Does Pearl love the members of her family? Is What legacy has been passed down through generations here?
Question 8: The Visions
Pearl’s visions are a wild mix of apocalyptic prophecy, painful past lives, visions of war and even loving insights. In this novel, she does not figure out what they mean? What do you think they mean? In the girls’ bathroom at school, after Pearl has a vision in art class, Jason says:
“I have a theory. Maybe the squaw is just trying to show you that there’s another world than this one. Maybe all these visions are just trying to show you this other realm or reality or whatever.”
Do you believe this? What else could the visions mean? Are they a gift or a curse?
Question 9: The Role of Touch
Nobody touches each other in Earth; it wasn’t done. Pearl finds her mother in the kitchen crying:
She cried like her heart was breaking. It seemed to me one of the greatest tortures in life was to watch your mother cry. I didn’t touch her. It wasn’t done.
What other instances are there of “not touching” in the book (hints: Lady Luck, Nadine, Grandma Elizabeth). When touch does appear in the book, it comes out violently, through slapping or the butchering of animals. How do you think this lack of gentle touch defines the characters in the book? At the end, the mother touches Pearl’s cheek. Why is this important?
Question 9: Global Warming and Earth
In what ways are Pearl’s visions and her life a metaphor for what is happening to the earth with global climate change? In what ways are we all disconnected from the earth? When Pearl starves herself, she says:
Hunger strike. I would desire nothing. You cannot take from me that which I do not desire. I would not desire the earth. I would not crave the soil. I would not want its food. I would not want anything.
In what ways are Pearl’s thwarted desires for the sensuality of the soil, her lack of balance that ends up sending her over the edge, related to our industrialized society?She says in the novel that she wants:
To tell the stories, for the sake of tales left untold. For the sake of a bruised patch of Missouri land. For the sake of bruised parents, a bruised Meghan, a bruised me.
How are the bruised characters in the novel like the bruised earth? Are the two iterconnected?
When Pearl has her car accident, she’s been drinking, she’s not been eating well for months, she’s on pharmaceutical drugs, she’s dealing with a crazy sister…later when she writes letters to Sister Alice, the nun gives her this advice:
She kept talking about balance, how I had to keep the balance. She wrote a list in one of her letters. No alcohol. No drugs. No smoking. No bars. No boys (for a while). No cruising. No Meghan.
What might Sister Alice be saying about the current state of the planet?
Question 11: Letting go
Pearl must let go of the farm, let go of her father after his death, let go of her mother, and finally let go of the only patch of earth she’s ever known.
I thought of the earth as a gem in my pouch, and realized why I’d had the vision. I had to leave Missouri. I had to say goodbye to the only earth I’d ever known. That was why Jason was so sad. He knew. This was why he’d brought me to skydive in the first place. He knew I needed to leave. This was the gift Jason was giving me. He was letting me go.
How do you think all of this letting go might affect Pearl? Have you experienced letting go? What do the final three words of the novel really refer to?
Question 12: Pearl
Did you like Pearl as a character? Why or why not? What about the other characters: Mother, Father, Jack, Jason, Bonnie?
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Simple Storytelling - The Epic Event Exercise
An exercise for writing one story, which then can be used in a memoir or novel, or as a short story or essay. Click here to download the exercise.
Characterization Exercise - Through Another’s Eyes