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The God of Animals: A Novel


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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

The God of AnimalsAryn Kyle

When her older sister runs away to marry a rodeo cowboy, Alice Winston is left to bear the brunt of her family's troubles — a depressed, bedridden mother; a reticent, overworked father; and a run-down horse ranch. As the hottest summer in fifteen years unfolds and bills pile up, Alice is torn between dreams of escaping the loneliness of her duty-filled life and a longing to help her father mend their family and the ranch.

To make ends meet, the Winstons board the pampered horses of rich neighbors, and for the first time Alice confronts the power and security that class and wealth provide. As her family and their well-being become intertwined with the lives of their clients, Alice is drawn into an adult world of secrets and hard truths, and soon discovers that people — including herself — can be cruel, can lie and cheat, and every once in a while, can do something heartbreaking and selfless. Ultimately, Alice and her family must weather a devastating betrayal and a shocking, violent series of events that will test their love and prove the power of forgiveness.

Questions for Discussion

1. Aryn Kyle chose to tell her story through the eyes of Alice, a twelve-year-old girl just learning about the adult world. What do you think of that choice? Does her youth and inexperience make her vision clearer? More vivid?

2. What is the significance of the title? Who or what is the God of animals? What do the characters' interactions with horses demonstrate about human nature, power, and the natural world?

3. Alice struggles to make sense of her family and her world, and the Winstons' tendency to keep secrets and withhold the truth doesn't make it easy for her. What does she learn about her family, and in turn, about herself as the novel progresses? What did you think was most revelatory?

4. Alice fixates on her dead classmate, Polly Cain, and invents a friendship with her that never existed. Why do you think she seeks entrance into the life Polly left behind? What conclusion does Alice reach about what happened to Polly?

5. "My mother had spent nearly my whole life in her bedroom" (3). Discuss how this affects the Winston family dynamic. Why do you think Marian choose to live this way? Is it fair? Do you think her family accepts her or enables her? Or neither?

6. Joe Winston's plans for the ranch often don't come to fruition, yet he stays hopeful that his fortune will change. How would you describe Joe? What ties him to the ranch? What does Alice see that he doesn't?

7. What draws Alice to Mr. Delmar? She keeps calling him, though she acknowledges that "in some way I could not name, we weren't playing by the rules. Eventually, there would have to be a price." (185) What is the price? Does their relationship do Alice harm or good?

8. Patty Jo separates herself from the Catfish. Why is she different? How do she and Joe help, but also hurt, each other? How does she affect Alice?

9. Alice surprises everyone, most of all herself, when she rides Darling at the horse show. What does she discover in "that moment of connection" (194) that she had never understood before? Is she better able to understand her father and Nona's connection with horses? Why do you think she's unable to replicate that moment with Darling again?

10. Patty Jo states, "Marriage is the most expensive ticket to nowhere" (262). Does her bleak characterization of marriage hold true for the other married couples in the novel? Consider the marriages of Joe and Marian, Nona and Jerry, and Mr. and Mrs. Altman.

11. At the end of the novel, Alice says "the places we come from don't leave us as easily as we leave them" (304). For which character is this most true? What hold does the ranch have on each of the sisters?

12. Over the course of the summer, the lifestyles of the Altmans, Patty Jo, and the Catfish come into sharp contrast. What does Alice observe about what wealth and class can provide, and what they can't? What happens when some of the characters reach for something beyond what they are accustomed to?

13. Discuss the role of violence and cruelty in the novel. Is there something about the harshness of life on a ranch, or working with animals, that brings them closer to the surface? How does Alice deal with her father and grandfather's brutal acts? How might her own actions ultimately figure in to her feelings? Does she forgive them? Does she forgive herself? Why?

14. Horses play a part in some of the novel's most moving scenes. Take, for instance, when Alice retrieves Yellow Cap, Patty Jo's accident, and the weaning of the foals. Which were the most powerful? What did you learn about the characters in those scenes?

15. Kyle uses the changing seasons to give a loose structure to the novel, and the extremes of the climate and Colorado setting often coincide with pivotal events. How does Kyle use imagery and descriptions of the conditions to enhance the plot? Did you find this effective?

16. The God of Animals may be considered a coming-of-age novel in that many of its events force Alice to leave the innocence of childhood behind. Was there one that stood out? Does Kyle succeed in her portrayal of a girl on the brink of adulthood? What part of her portrayal felt most authentic to you?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Aryn Kyle's fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals. Visit, or Best New American Voices 2005 to find her short stories. Discuss them at your next book club!

2. Get in the western spirit and find a heart-stopping rodeo near you. Click on for links to everything from rodeo tickets and DVDs to horse decals and cowboy t-shirts.

3. Take your book club on the road and spend a weekend on a working horse farm. To find a ranch near you, visit

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 6 comments:

geogguru, July 16, 2008 (view all comments by geogguru)
I chose this book because it is the Sisters branch of the Deschutes Public Library book for this month. I am not sure why they chose it, but I am SO GLAD that I took their interest in it as a recommendation. I loved reading it -- twice.

I have taught middle school, so smiled when she got the girls' ever-changing friendships just right. I "knew" the cheerleaders, the twins. the advanced class students. It all felt familiar. Even the teacher.

(In the second read, I always notice more about a book's treatment of geography. This one is wonderfully accurate.)
Thanks, Sisters!
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lsumner, June 27, 2008 (view all comments by lsumner)
This book is not about every little girl's dream of owning her very own pony. With its brutal honesty it is more likely the book every little girl should read before being allowed to have a horse. As a girl who grew up in a small town, showing horses and competing, I loved how this book struck at the heart of what that is really like. I loved how it defined the boundaries between people who grew up working with horses and people who have them as a hobby.
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patresa1, June 18, 2008 (view all comments by patresa1)
Such a wonderful book. A beautiful -- but harsh -- story about a wise and practical young girl making sense of the brutalities of the world as they are demonstrated in the business of and those involved with breaking and boarding horses.

I'm so impressed with this author. Character development was dead on. I loved that each of the characters evolved and displayed layers. Kyle did not rely on 1-dimensional archetypes to carry her story. Alice, her father, her sister, Mr. Delmar, the women who board at the ranch, Sheila who trains... they all had great range and depth -- heartbending human-ness -- beautifully scripted in the plain subtleties of Kyle's writing.

I highly recommend this book. But I will warn animal lovers that there are scenes that are very difficult to get through. It was not gratuitous, however. Every element of the story was carefully crafted into the storyline, the landscape, and the overarching philosophical/spiritual themes (as I perceived them to be, anyway).

Really fantastic read.
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Product Details

Kyle, Aryn
Scribner Book Company
Kyle, Aryn
General Fiction
Publication Date:
March 2007
Grade Level:
9 x 6 in

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Coming of Age

The God of Animals: A Novel Used Hardcover
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Product details 305 pages Scribner Book Company - English 9781416533245 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Alice Winston is one of the most likable characters I've come across in a long time; smart, tough, and intuitive beyond her years, her voice is both utterly realistic and absolutely captivating. Aryn Kyle's extraordinary debut novel treats the reader to a whole host of such creations; even the more minor characters are deeply felt and convincingly flawed. Kyle's prose, too, is gorgeous, self-assured without being showy; The God of Animals is a classic coming-of-age tale by an author that should not be missed.

"Review" by , "This is a very impressive debut....A powerful tale, from a writer with real promise, of a girl coming of age amid a dying way of life."
"Review" by , "Kyle writes an original coming-of-age story in a subtle, but strong voice. The characters are rich and pure, and you come to know them as complete people....This is a debut to make many veteran writers jealous. The story will stun you with its climax."
"Review" by , "Growing pains and the loss of innocence on a desert ranch....A talented writer's lyrical but oppressive first work."
"Review" by , "Kyle has created an adolescent voice that is charming and authentic."
"Review" by , "A memorable novel gracefully compares and contrasts the vast landscapes of the human condition....To find these elements expertly handled in a debut novel — as they are in The God of Animals — is reason for readers to rejoice."
"Review" by , "It's a pretty volatile mix that does, as promised, explode, though in a way I never expected. Despite the jagged ups and downs of Kyle's prose, I read this straight through, never leaving my chair. (Grade: B)"
"Review" by , "The God of Animals is a book with a strong bloodline: Jayne Anne Phillips's Machine Dreams, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, with their hard-luck families and wise, weary girl narrators. But the confidence, and the congratulations, belong to Kyle alone."
"Review" by , "As Walter Mosley has pointed out, the conventions of the coming-of-age novel are as deeply ingrained as those of detective fiction. Thankfully, The God of Animals turns out to be smarter than most....If the ending isn't as gratifying...I was still glad to take the ride."
"Review" by , "Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals is a moving, beautifully crafted novel about families, horses, love, death, class in America, and serious weather. Narrated by a twelve-year-old girl, it still contains a full adult measure of betrayal and desire and complex joy, and has a terrifying momentum by the end. It's a wonderful book."
"Review" by , "No novel in recent memory has captured the West so well. Kyle is an absolute discovery, her book a perfect read."
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