Synopses & Reviews
Charlotte Lewes, a young Briton newly widowed by the Great War, departs for colonial Burma in 1917 to escape the ruins of her life. As a schoolteacher in Rangoon she is rejuvenated by the sensuous Oriental climate, and she meets John Dollar, a sailor who becomes her passionate love and whose ill-fated destiny inextricably binds her to him.
On a festive seafaring expedition, the tightly knit British community confronts disaster in the shape of an earthquake and ensuing tidal wave. Swept overboard, Charlotte, John Dollar, and eight young girls who are Charlotte's pupils awake on a remote island beach. As they struggle to stay alive, their dependence on John overwhelms him, and an atmosphere of menace and doom builds, culminating in shocking and riveting scenes of both death and survival.
"Charlotte Lewes, widowed by World War I, becomes a teacher in Burma to eight young girls, in an extraordinary scene swims with dolphins, and becomes a sailor's lover, John Dollar's. British colonial families make a holiday expedition to a distant island. Strange natural phenomena presage disaster. One of two becalmed sailing vessels is discovered to be a ghost ship, then an earthquake and tidal wave maroons Dollar, paralyzed from the waist down, Charlotte, and the eight girls. At first, Wiggins' children are mostly names and voices—so alike we find it difficult to tell them apart—then they take on misty shapes; we can see them move and follow them as they do things, eventually terrible things, but except for the Anglo-Indian girl, Menaka, called Monkey, who manages to retain her humanity, they never really come into complete focus. This may be a kind of blessing. Completely alive before us they would be unbearable. Comparisons with The Lord of the Flies are inevitable—girls instead of boys as island castaways, most of whom revert to the primitive in their natures. Golding himself called his story symbolic. Compared to John Dollar, it now seems more symbolic than real. John Dollar has a greater feeling of inevitability, yet Wiggins accomplishes this in language more dreamlike and poetic. In the long run her shocking adventure story may come to be considered the more powerful work." Reviewed by Andrew Witmer, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)
Los Angeles Times Book Review Marianne Wiggins' power is disjunctive, disruptive; she pounds the atoms of discourse until they split and go radioactive....Wiggins writes with a feverish brilliance...close to prophetic brilliance.
San Francisco Chronicle Richly imaginative...pure adventure.
The Washington Post Book World A superb novel, hypnotic, disturbing, and artful...so good that most readers will devour it in one gulp.
The New York Times A powerful story that not only pulls you through to its final pages but also propels you back to the beginning again, where you find you want to follow her descent into hell a second time.
Los AngelesTimes Book ReviewMarianne Wiggins' power is disjunctive, disruptive; she pounds the atoms of discourse until they split and go radioactive....Wiggins writes with a feverish brilliance...close to prophetic brilliance.
Booklist Wiggins is one of those critically acclaimed authors whose books acquire passionate followings...who find passion to be a source of both salvation and gothic nightmare.
London Sunday Times Marianne Wiggins does not so much tell a story as make her reader live it.... She renews our sense of what prose fiction can be.
The New York Times Book Review In making us see her characters' humanity, she also compels us to acknowledge our shared yearning and sense of loss.
New York Newsday At her best the incantatory Marianne Wiggins goes beyond magical to sheer demonic possession.
The Washington Post Book World Marianne Wiggins dares to make fictions that stand in the face of heart-cracking circumstance, fictions that, in fact, resound with hearts shattering.
About the Author
Marianne Wiggins is the author of seven books of fiction including John Dollar and Evidence of Things Unseen. She has won an NEA grant, the Whiting Writers' Award, and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and she was a National Book Award finalist in fiction for Evidence of Things Unseen.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Marianne Wiggins' John Dollar. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. READING GROUP QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
- John Dollar traces the fortunes of Charlotte Lewes, a grieving World War I widow who feels like a passionless "ghost" floating through the streets of England. When she comes to teach English children in Rangoon, Burma, Charlotte recovers her sensual nature and experiences a reawakening of love with John Dollar, a sailor with an unknown past. But this novel is hardly a straightforward love story. How would you describe Marianne Wiggins' novel to a friend? What kind of a novel is John Dollar? A satire? A tragedy? In particular, what roles do religion, power, imperialism, and magic play?
- The members of the English community in Rangoon devote their lives to creating a facsimile of their English homeland, which to them is "myth and memory, a place more real in microcosm, in its re-creation, than in any actuality." Why does this bewilder and even offend Charlotte, and how is she different from her "mannered, pre-emptive, supercilious" countrymen?
- The first time the snake appears in the novel, it is coming through the window of Oopi's room, threatening to slip inside her and kill her. To fend it off, Oopi feels she must draw on the privilege "of her race," and "call upon her inbred nation if she's to hold her own against the vagaries of nature." What is happening here? What does the snake seem to represent to Oopi, a seven-year-old product of English society, and what symbols and themes is Wiggins beginning to establish? What is the significance of the snake, and how does this significance shift as serpent imagery recurs throughout the novel?
- Along with the snake, what other images and metaphors color the course of John Dollar (i.e.: dolphins, kites, rubies, sea turtles, bananas)?
- With a "sense of exhilaration which comes when one's life bears a likeness to the fictions that one's dreamed," each member of the King George Island expedition steps ashore with The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in mind. How does Daniel Defoe's classic adventure -- in which a seventeenth-century Englishman is marooned on a tropical island, where he ponders the nature of God and man, and of morality and civilization -- inform Wiggins' story about twentieth-century English colonials? What is Wiggins doing here? If you had to reduce Robinson Crusoe and John Dollar into a pair of brief morality tales, how would their messages, politics, and ideologies differ from each other?
- Beyond Robinson Crusoe, how does John Dollar recall and complicate some of the Western literary canon's established works? For instance, your reading group might consider the ways Wiggins' novel enriches and riffs on themes that arise in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, or Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.
- What significance does the act of naming people and objects play? In the Old Testament, to name something is to perform a God-like act that echoes the creation of the world in the book of Genesis. In John Dollar, the English re-name the Island of Our Outlawed Dreams to honor King George. And the native servants are each named after a different (English-language) day of the week. What are some other examples of naming in the novel?
- How do the acts of naming and lawmaking become expressions of power as the girls establish their new civilization on the island? Who holds the power, and how is the girls' miniature society structured? Why does it fall apart?
- In John Dollar, the act of storytelling is itself an expression of power, a way to mark the supremacy of a culture or religion. Cut off from English society, the girls turn to storytelling as a way to feel and find meaning, to remember, and to escape from the increasing languor and lassitude of their decaying island civilization. Why isn't it possible for the stories Monkey learned from her Indian mother to coexist with Nolly's biblical stories?
- How exactly does Nolly's belief system work, and how does it influence the nature and workings of the girls' microcosmic civilization?
- What happens to the island community after the girls watch the pygmy "children" eat their fathers? How does the introduction of fire on the same day affect the power structure on the island?
- What presumptions of superiority and entitlement are inherent in the way the English colonials in Burma enjoy "the weighty thrill of bringing light, the torch of history, into one more far-flung reach of darkness"? Explain. Considering the eventual fate of the novel's characters, what do you think Marianne Wiggins might be saying about colonialism -- and notions of civilization -- in John Dollar?