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Reading Group Guide
1. The book opens on the morning of John’s 18th birthday, when he is headed down to Cape Hatteras to surf. What is the significance of John’s age? If he’d taken on this journey later in life, say when he was twenty-five, would things have ended differently?
2. John Jude reads the Tao and Whitman, listens to music by Dylan, surfs and skates. Some of these texts and cultural experiences are American. How do they influence him in his journey toward Islam? Does John become a fundamentalist?
3. John Jude Parish is an opened-minded, curious, energetic determined young man, indeed the son every parent would want. What, if anything, goes wrong for him? Could anyone have done anything to prevent John’s disappearance? In other words, who is to blame for the tragedy of this story?
4. After 9/11, some of the ideas John picks up, whether from philosophy or skating, have an ominous ring. Think back to a world before 9/11, when this story begins, and when mystical concepts such as Wu-Wei would not have the resonances they have now. How has 9/11 changed the way we think of religion and mysticism?
5. This story takes place in a very particular time and setting. If this were the sixties, would John Jude have become a hippie? Would he have joined a cult in the seventies or become a communist in the 1950’s? If John had landed in Afghanistan in the 80s, when the Soviets were fighting there and the U.S. was providing material support to the Taliban, how would his story have ended?
6. Noor and Khaled, two of John’s friends who influence his move first to Brooklyn then on to Pakistan, are both safe at the end of the novel, both students who are still in school. Discuss whether any of the characters in the book had evil designs on John, whether they recruited him, whether anyone really sent him on his mission?
7. Does this novel suggest that there is or isn’t a terrorist personality? Could anyone’s son become a terrorist? Why or why not?
8. The John Walker Lindh story, widely reported in the press in 2001 when it happened, hovers over this one; indeed Walker-Lindh makes an appearance late in the book. What is it that a fictional depiction can reveal that newspaper stories of captured terrorists do not. Why is historical fiction a popular and important genre?
9. What are John’s goals for his summer abroad in Pakistan and does he fulfill them? Is it possible to achieve a hidden or higher wisdom without succumbing to religious extremism?
10. In Pakistan, John finds himself desiring sex with another male. Do you think that this is the summer he discovers that he is in fact homosexual? Will he like girls again?
11. John’s dorm mates make fun of his ignorance of colonial history and of the US as an imperialist country. They send him to the library and to a local museum to learn and know. Do you think John ever comes to understand the politics of al Qaeda and the Taliban? Why or why not?
12. What do you make of the early scene in which John first wears the shalwar kameez and upsets Noor and others? What about the scene enroute back from Tangi, when he gives a few hungry kids his power bars? Could these scenes have been the experiences of anyone but an American? Consider how differences in cultures sets us up for clumsy misunderstandings.
13. When Barbara sees John Walker Lindh on TV, she just ASSUMES it is her son. What do you think led her to draw that assumption? Is this believable?
14. Early in the novel, John thinks “If there was anything wrong with modern man and woman, it was this: that in their attempt to grow beyond superstition, in their enlightened embrace of the rational, they abandoned knowledge of the extraordinary, the hidden, the transcendent, the whatever—call it by any name.” Does anyone in this novel learn something that transcends the tragedy? Do you?
15. Although John Jude is the main protagonist of this novel, the story ends on Barbara. How do these final scenes provide an ending for this book? How else might this book have ended?
16. Empathetic depiction, the stuff fiction is made of, offers a reader the opportunity to know and understand someone very different. John sees tremendous poverty up close and his sympathy helps him understand the Taliban’s anger at the Western world, including the USA. Would it have been possible for John to develop the understanding he sought WITHOUT becoming a sympathizer? Could he have found some middle ground between the American and al Qaeda’s positions – or are the two positions moral absolutes?
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