Synopses & Reviews
All of us need a Ralph in our lives.
Chicago, 1978. Hank Boyd, a solid B+ student, a good kid, wants eighth grade to be his special year. But when Ralph, an oddball troublemaker who ' s been held back twice, gets the idea that he and Hank are pals, Hank's year devolves into an odyssey as frightening as it is hilarious.
John McNally, acclaimed author of Troublemakers, deftly portrays the astonishing, sometimes terrifying world of adolescence in 1970s America: The adult world becomes increasingly untrustworthy, the economy plummets, and families seem to be falling apart, yet the two boys manage to create their own small moments of transcendence.
At once wary and full of wonder, Hank and Ralph will win your heart with their outrageous, poignant, and occasionally scary antics -- and they will teach you something about the ties that bind us together, hold us back, and redeem us.
"The Book of Ralph
is like a collection of strange and wonderful objects set out on the lawn, a carnival of vivid memories. It should earn John McNally the audience that his talent and wit deserve."
-- Chicago Tribune
"Sometimes hazy, occasionally wistful, often picaresque chapters are delivered with a satirist's perfect understated pitch and announce John McNally -- also the author of Trouble-makers, a collection of stories -- as a gifted meta-memoirist."
-- The Washington Post
The delightfully original novel that Mitch Albom called "charming, sensitive, and at times flat-out hysterical." John McNally's unconventional coming-of-age tale describes the hilarious and poignant antics of two teenage boys and the moment of transcendence that can occur in everyday lives.
About the Author
John McNally is the author of two novels, The Book of Ralph and America's Report Card, and a short story collection, Troublemakers. His next book, Ghosts of Chicago, a collection of short stories, will be published this fall. A native of Chicago, he lives with his wife, Amy, in North Carolina, where he is associate professor of English at Wake Forest University. The first word he ever spoke was "Batman," who has remained, in his darker incarnations, his favorite superhero. John's first creative work, a play written in the fourth grade, featured an overweight superhero who gets stuck inside a phone booth while changing into his costume. He is happy to return to the genre, albeit thirty-four years later.
Reading Group Guide
The Book of Ralph
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The Book of Ralph is referred to as "a fiction," or a series of linked stories. Does the book, in fact, read like a novel? In an interview, John McNally said, "The chapters were...published as individual stories, so there are essentially two versions of each story: the self-contained story and the chapter that fits into the book." Does knowing this affect your interpretation of The Book of Ralph?
2. Ralph is the title character, and Hank is the book's narrator. Of the two, who would you say is the main character? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story from Hank's perspective and not Ralph's? With Hank as the narrator, the reader is privy to his view of the people in his life -- Ralph, Kenny, Norm, Kelly, his parents, his teachers. How do they, in turn, view Hank?
3. In what ways do Hank and Ralph change during their eighth-grade year? Why, at the end of the summer, do they not speak again until they're reacquainted by chance more than two decades later? Did reading about Hank and Ralph in their youth give you a better understanding of them as adults?
4. On more than one occasion Hank admits that he has no idea why he and Ralph are friends. What draws them together? Is Ralph a good influence on Hank in any way?
5. Discuss the second part of the book, THE PAST: 1975. What does this section add to your understanding of Hank and Ralph?
6. When Hank reconnects with Ralph as an adult, he falls into a similar role he played as a kid -- Ralph's sidekick, not standing up for himself, going along with Kenny and Norm's schemes. Why do you suppose this happens to him?
7. When Hank stays in Ralph's house after arriving back in Chicago, he reveals, "When I was a kid, it had seemed like a junky, run-down house, a poor person's house, but now I could see that it had more character than any other house around, despite the years of neglect" (217). What else does Hank see differently now that he's looking through the eyes of an adult?
8. Discuss how family is portrayed in The Book of Ralph. Is Hank's a typical family? Why does Ralph's mother appear only briefly in the book? Is there any significance to Ralph never having left his childhood home?
9. To what extent are the lives of the characters shaped by their economic circumstances, and by the time and place in which they live -- the South side of Chicago in the 1970s? After vowing "never to return" (249) to Chicago, why does Hank not only return but also decide to stay?
10. Discuss Hank's relationships with Karen, Janet, and Ruth. Why is he unable to fully commit to Karen? How would you describe his relationship with his sister, Kelly, both in their childhood and adulthood?
11. In one instance Hank says, "What did surprise me was Ralph. Being with Kelly transformed him into the one thing I never would have imagined Ralph: a romantic" (283). What attracts Ralph and Kelly to one another? Were you surprised they ended up as a couple?
12. What is Hank's fascination with telling the story about the squirrel he almost killed? How does this incident, as he says, "keep coming back to haunt" him?
13. What do you think is the most compelling scene in The Book of Ralph? Which scene reveals the most about Ralph? How about Hank?
14. When Hank and Ralph both admit that the prospect of being brothers-in-law is scary, Hank reasons, "We may not have been reading the same book, but we were at least on the same page" (285). Have he and Ralph been more on the same page than Hank has been able to admit?
15. Author Haven Kimmel described The Book of Ralph as being "populated by unlikely heroes." Who is she referring to as the "unlikely heroes," and why?