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American Womanby Susan Choi
Reading Group Guide
On the lam for an act of violence against the American government, 25-year old Jenny Shimada agrees to care for three younger fugitives whom a shadowy figure from her former militant life has spirited out of California. One of them, the kidnapped granddaughter of a wealthy newspaper magnate in San Francisco, has become a national celebrity for embracing her captors' ideology and joining their radical cell.
Set in the early 1970's, this is a thought-provoking meditation on themes of race, identity, and class. American Woman explores the psychology of the young radicals, the intensity of their isolated existence, and the paranoia and fear that undermine their ideals.
American Woman features characters based on real radicals of the 1970's. Juan and Yvonne (names and identities altered) were members of the Symbionese Liberation Army who kidnapped Patty Hearst (Pauline in the novel). Even Jenny has a real life counterpart in a Japanese-American woman radical who befriended Patty Hearst. When Susan Choi began writing the novel in 1998, she felt that there was relevance in the question of what drives certain people to sacrifice themselves — however rashly or even wrongly — in order to be true to their political and moral beliefs, no matter what the time period.
1. What do you feel the author was trying to say in the title American Woman?
2. If you grew up at this time, how does the novel compare to your memory of the 60s and 70s? If you were born afterwards, what surprised you most about this time?
3. How might the novel have changed if told from Pauline's point of view?
4. Discuss the many manifestations of love throughout the book. Does Pauline's arrival mark a turn in the novel's eroticism? Why does William continue to evoke such strong emotions in Jenny?
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