This reading group guide for The Secret of Raven Point includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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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It’s 1943 when seventeen-year-old Juliet Dufresne receives a cryptic letter from her enlisted older brother pleading for help, and then finds out he’s been reported missing overseas. Shy and awkward, Juliet lies about her age and volunteers as an army nurse to find him. She is thrust into the bloody chaos of a field hospital, stationed north of Rome where she forges new friendships with her fellow nurses and is increasingly consumed by the plight of her patients. Christopher Barnaby, a deserter awaiting court martial, may hold the answer to Juliet’s brother’s fate—but the trauma of war has left him unable to speak. Racing against the clock, Juliet works with an enigmatic young psychiatrist, Henry Willard, to heal Barnaby’s psychic wound before the authorities take him away and any clues as to her brother’s fate are forever lost. Plunged into the horrifying depths of one man’s combat memories, Juliet and Willard are forced to plumb the moral nuances of a so-called just war, and face the dangers of their own deepening connection. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the beginning of the novel, Juliet’s identity is largely determined by her relationship to her brother and what it means to be “Tuck’s little sister.” How does Juliet’s sense of self change throughout the novel?
2. How was Juliet affected by her mother’s death and growing up without a female role model? How does Juliet find other female role models later in life? How does it affect her relationships with men? How does Juliet find other female role models later in life?
3. Which character did you find the most compelling? Which character did you empathize with the most? Why?
4. Consider Juliet’s role as a nurse at the front in Italy. How does she mature throughout her time in Italy? How does she show her bravery? Does her personal desire to get information from Barnaby in any way undermine her role as his nurse?
5. How do the nurses and doctors at the front cope when they’re confronted with death and the fragility of life on a daily basis? How does this affect the way they perceive the value of human life? Consider this passage from page 49: “Skin and ligaments held it all together, the entirety of the mass of flesh she called herself. But no bone of hers looked much different from someone else’s bone; her femur would roughly mirror the femur of any soldier on the operating table; none of the flesh she’d seen in the hospitals—the torn muscles, the exposed stomachs, the broken ribs—had anything to do with the people it belonged to. The same delicate pieces made up everyone, and if the wrong pieces or too many pieces broke, the whole person ceased to exist. Juliet had witnessed this daily for months, and yet the strangeness of it never subsided.”
6. How did you react to Barnaby’s stories during his sessions with Dr. Willard? How did these stories of being bullied by Captain Brilling and the other soldiers paint a picture of life at the front?
7. In what way does the novel’s depiction of World War II support or undermine your previous understanding of that war? Consider the story Dr. Willard tells about the Goumier soldiers after the battle of Monte Cassino. Is the battle fatigue Dr. Willard is treating similar to what soldiers experience in today’s conflicts?
8. Consider what Juliet’s relationships with Beau, Dr. Willard, and even Brother Reardon reveal about her femininity and sexuality. Think about the contrast between Glenda’s social life at the field hospital and Juliet’s.
9. How does each of the characters deal with death and dying? How does Juliet come to terms with the thought that Tucker is dead? Consider this excerpt as Juliet discovers a corpse in the woods near the lake on their leave from the hospital: “The pain of death had always frightened Juliet, but she saw now that solitude wrought the greater horror. Had Tuck been left somewhere, abandoned?” (p. 133)
10. After Mother Hen’s death, Juliet discovers that Dr. Willard is not as stalwart in his beliefs as she thought he was. Why do Dr. Willard and the others work to heal men who may return to the front and die? Why did Mother Hen try to save a man that was already dying? How does this form Juliet’s concept of justice? In the end, is Juliet more frightened of death or an unjust world?
11. Brother Reardon has the courage to do what Dr. Willard and Juliet could not when he runs off with Barnaby. How does this moment provide each of the characters with an opportunity to redeem themselves?
12. Juliet is surprised to see Liberata again, her spirit reduced, her brother lost. Why is Juliet upset that Liberata no longer pleads for her help? What did the other characters lose in the war? What do they find?
13. How did you react to the letter that Juliet receives from Barnaby? Why do you think he decided to write to her? Should it affect Juliet’s memory of her brother? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pair your book club’s reading of The Secret of Raven Point
with a nonfiction account of WWII. Try The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines
or And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II
2. Consider making a contribution, donating your time as a therapist, skilled professional or as an advocate for The Soldiers Project, which provides mental health support to veterans and soldiers. Learn more here: http://www.thesoldiersproject.org/how-to-help/.
3. Check out Jennifer Vanderbes’s previous books Strangers at the Feast
and Easter Island.
Visit her website at JenniferVanderbes.com.