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Keeping the Houseby Ellen Baker
Reading Group Guide
1. Keeping the House explores the societal constraints imposed on vari­ous generations of women. Do you feel that Dolly, living as a housewife in the 1950s, has more choices and independence than Wilma did in the late 1800s? Why or why not? Do you think that American society places social constraints on women today? If so, how are the constraints simi­lar or different?
2. The Mickelson house is such a big part of this book that it almost be­comes its own character. Why do you think Dolly was initially so drawn to the house and intrigued by its history? And what do you think some of the different meanings of the title, Keeping the House, could be?
3. Discuss Dollys motivations for her initial and then her continued at­tendance in the quilting circle. Do you think she felt compelled to go for more than just curiosity about the Mickelsons?
4. Mrs. Fryt feels quite sure she knows the Mickelsons inside out, but did you believe the stories that she and the other women in the quilting circle told? How did your opinions of the Mickelson family change when seeing them from other points of view?
5.Throughout the novel are quotes from old magazines (particularly from 1950s issues of Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping) with advice for housewives. Find a few of these quotes and discuss how these tips illustrate the change or evolution of the twentieth-century housewife. Do you think any of the tips are valid or helpful today?
6. The World Wars provide backdrop for the story. How are these con­ﬂicts portrayed? Do you believe that the hardships that John and JJ ex­perienced in the wars excuse their treatment of women in the novel?
7. Dolly ﬁnds herself unable to stiﬂe her desire for a more extraordinary life. Wilma, too, struggles to control her “selﬁsh” desire to play the piano. How does each character handle her conﬂict between desire and duty? What could each have done to avoid the crises that arose due to her actions? Do you think the obligations that each felt were real or imagined? Do you think Wilmas and Dollys obligations were products of the times in which they lived?
8. Discuss Dollys desire for a child. Do you think she truly wanted to have a child, or was she attempting to conceive in order to ﬁt the model of the “perfect housewife”? Is there such an ideal today? How has it changed?
9. Men-particularly Byron, Jack, and John-have interesting roles in this novel. Discuss how they felt about their responsibilities, and how obligations differed for men and for women. How are the roles of men and women different or the same today?
10. Do you think the rumored curse on the Mickelson house impacted the choices that members of the family made? Why or why not? Do you agree or disagree with Dollys conclusion that the family used the curse as “an excuse for their bad behavior”? Do you think things might have gone differently for the family had there been no rumor of a curse?
11. Each character in the novel seems to have a different idea about what love is and what it means to love. In 1917, Wilma believes that “her love for [her children] had been holding her hostage in this town, this house, for more than twenty years” (page 73). What do you think Wilma learns about love over the course of the novel? Discuss what JJ, Elissa, Nick, John, Jack, Harry, Byron, and Dolly do for love in the novel, and what they learn about love. Do you think that by the end of the novel theyve learned enough to stop hurting one another? Or do you think their destructive patterns will continue?
12. Weigh in on the quilting circles argument about the Mickelsons (pages 101, 273). Who do you blame for the Mickelson familys down­fall?
13. Wilma says that John “was the only one who always seemed able to forgive her” (page 348)-do you agree with her perception? Why do you think she, in turn, is unable to forgive John? What do Harry, JJ, and Anne learn about forgiveness? What do Dolly and Byron learn?
14. Despite the fact that the whole Mickelson family has left Pine Rapids, their memory is preserved in the minds of the community mem­bers, and tangible reminders of their existence remain in the house and in the bronze statue of Chase in the courthouse square. In fact, JJ is only lonely for his family after he leaves Pine Rapids, as they seem to be so present in that town. What do you think Dolly learns about the signiﬁ­cance of storytelling and memory? What purpose do you think the Mick­elson familys story serves for the people of Pine Rapids?
15. In the end, why do you think Elissa and Nick cant seem to separate from one another? Why do you think Harry keeps their secret from the rest of the family?
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