This reading group guide for By the Iowa Sea includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joe Blair. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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In a candid memoir about his struggle to be a loving husband and father, Joe Blair lays bare his dreams and the stuff they’re made of. A member of the plumber and pipefitter union who also earned a masters in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa, Joe documents his home struggles—a failing marriage, a special needs child, a natural disaster, and a yearning for something new—in his debut memoir, By the Iowa Sea
. With a genuine narrative voice and an unflinching honesty, Blair documents his journey towards living an authentic life, and the challenges great and small he faces along the way.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Does a place define a family? Discuss the ways in which Joe and Deb give weight to the notion of “home.” Consider their first house in Iowa,their youthful motorcycle trip across the US, and their ultimate move back to Massachusetts.
2. Why do you think Joe was attracted to Pamela? What about her differs from Deb? Do Joe and Pamela just connect over their shared love of writing, or was there something deeper about her being a change from Deb and life at home with the kids? Also, what do you think motivates Joe giving up his affair and attempting to reconcile with Deb?
3. How does the significance of the flood change Joe’s perspective? Do you think he finds some personal catharsis in seeing solid places wash away? Why is he so attracted to the deteriorated houses on the beaches of Plum Island?
4. Joe contemplates the notion that all things will be “washed away by time.” Do you agree? Is there permanence to notions of love, family, or home? How has Joe’s view on this changed by the memoir’s end?
5. How does the backdrop of the flooding Iowa River affect the smaller disasters in Joe’s life? Discuss how this force of nature plays into Joe’s troubles in Iowa. Does the flood also help him somehow?
6. On page 235, Joe writes: “Love can be an extraordinary patience. Love can also be an extraordinary impatience.” What do you think Joe means by this? Do you think love can truly be defined as both?
7. Consider Michael’s autism and the way it affects Joe’s life and marriage. Reflect on Joe’s descriptions of being both awed frustrated by his son. How did you react to Joe’s struggle with raising Michael? Do you understand his actions and feelings? Why or why not? Do you think Michael’s return to playing with the belt in Massachusetts nullify Deb’s assessment that he’s done better since the move?
8. In reference to Isaac Newton’s supposed celibacy, Joe suggests that “what a man refrains from defines him perhaps more completely than what he accomplishes.” Do you agree? From what has Joe refrained, and what has he accomplished?
9. Discuss the games Joe plays with his children: the blinking game with Michael, the disintegrating man with William and Sam, the imaginary personas he, Deb, and the kids take on in the woods. How do these small moments of play reflect on Joe’s role as a father? What do these games mean to him?
10. What do you foresee being Joe’s greatest challenges in Massachusetts?
11. Consider the clarity Joe experiences when sandbagging. What is it about a simple, redundant process that leads to such self-understanding? How can this notion be applied to his family life?
12. In the same vein, was all that work for naught? As the river waters spread through town, was the communal process of sandbagging a failure? Is there a point to such simple actions when disaster strikes regardless? How do you justify catastrophe even when you’ve done all you can to avoid it?
13. Is it the individual moments or the final outcome that defines a life? Explain.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Make a list of the romantic notions you maintained as a child. How did those ideas change as you grew up? Did your life turn out more or less as you planned? Discuss any disasters that might have forced you to change course or reevaluate everything you’d worked for. What are the key moments of your life and love?
2. Read another memoir, such as Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle
, Alex Lemon’s Happy
, Abby Sher’s Amen, Amen, Amen
, or Robin Romm’s The Mercy Papers
. Compare and contrast the voice from one memoir to the next. Do they all contain the same amount of honesty and insight? Does a disaster—natural or otherwise—always inform a life and the reflection thereof?
3. Devise a game similar to the ones Joe plays with his kids to play with your book club members. Is there utility in pretending? Are the silly moments created just as important as the ones with more weight?
4. Visit someplace new, a good distance from your home. Can you see yourself relocating to this locale? List and discuss the ways in which a move might change your life as it stands today. Is your city, your street, your house an integral part of your identity? Discuss with your book club.