2001 National Book Award Finalist
Synopses & Reviews
Serafina is an illegal migrant worker living in California when the police catch her and send her back to Mexico-without her three-year old daughter. Twelve years later, with a pair of silver barrettes her only tangible memory of Elvia, Serafina begins a harrowing journey back across the border to find her daughter. At the same time Elvia, now fifteen and pregnant, resolves to track her mother down. They travel a landscape populated by desperately poor migrants moving from harvest to harvest, truckers living hand-to-mouth in seedy motels, and lost children in foster homes. But the memory of love inspires hope, and out of these womens losses-and their determination-Straight has crafted a deeply moving tale of the meaning of home and family.
About the Author
Susan Straight's novels include I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, and The Gettin Place. Her work has appeared in Harper's, Salon.com, Reader's Digest, and other leading periodicals. She was born in Riverside, California, and lives there with her three daughters.
Reading Group Guide
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
“Packed with the kind of detail about people, places and emotions that transports the reader.” —San Francisco Chronicle
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups reading of Susan Straights Highwire Moon. We hope they will provide you with interesting ways of talking about this story of a naïve young illegal immigrant, her troubled and feckless Anglo lover, and their daughter, who is separated from her parents at the age of three and thrust into the foster care system. Set in southern California, it is stunning chronicle of lives lived on the fringes of society and of the quest to create a sense of personal identity and value in the face of poverty, fear, and the cruel indifference of those who wield power.
1. Why does Elvia refuse to speak when she is placed in foster care [pp. 8—10]? How do Elvias reactions to her foster families shed light on the emotions hidden beneath her stoic exterior?
2. Elvia “liked looking strange, like someone no one would want and no one would want to mess with” [p. 15]. Do you think this is a common attitude among children who grow up in foster homes? From what you have read about foster care and the way many children are treated, what role does the system itself play in creating this sense of alienation and defiance?
3. In explaining why he finally comes for Elvia, Larry says, “I got un-lost” [p. 14]. What insights does this explanation and other conversations Elvia and Larry have about Serafina [p. 67, for example] offer into Larrys image of himself and his approach to life? Do his actions in the novel support or belie the advice he gives Elvia: “Dont set yourself up. Dont expect anything. Ever” [p. 68]? Does the story of his own childhood make it easier to understand both his good intentions and his inability to stick to them?
4. What draws Elvia to Michael? In what ways is he similar to her father? Is Michael better able to cope with his situation (“Half Mexican, half Indian. Half the year here, half in Dos Arroyos” [p. 24]) than she is, and if so, why?
5. What is the significance of Elvias interest in geology? Why is her collection of stones so important to her?
6. During her travels with Michael and Hector, Elvia comes to realize that “Michael was good at dreams. But Hector was good at the rest of life” [p. 174]. Discuss how the author conveys this distinction, not only in descriptions of their behavior but also through the observations they make and the stories they share with Elvia throughout the journey. What particular events or incidents demonstrate Elvias naiveté about the historical and cultural forces that define Californias social divisions? How does the knowledge she acquires about the dangerous, often fatal migrations of illegal workers, and her own back-breaking experience picking fruit, change her outlook on the world and her sense of her place in it?
7. Serafina makes her journey in the company of two men, Florencio and the coyote. To what extent is Florencios role parallel to the roles Michael and Hector play in Elvias journey? Does Serafina undergo changes comparable to Elvias?
8. The focus of the narrative alternates between Serafina and Elvia. Is this merely a device to increase the suspense of the story? What else does Straight accomplish by juxtaposing these two tales?
9. Do your feelings about the three main characters change during the course of the novel? Which of them did you find the most interesting? The most likeable?
10. Straight portrays several parent-child relationships in Highwire Moon, from Serafinas devotion to Elvia and to her own mother when she returns to Mexico to Callies blatant and sometimes dangerous neglect of Jeff, to Elvias complicated feelings about Larry and Sandy Narlette and her longing for the mother she barely remembers. What do these different examples convey about the reality of parenthood, as well as the effects of culture and tradition on raising a child? Are any of the relationships easily classified as either “good” or “bad”?
11. Hectors aunt says, “the one feed you, take care of you, take you to la clinica for sick, wash the clothes, who is the mother” [p. 158]. How do you think Serafina would react to this statement? How does it relate to Larrys description of his role in Elvias life [p. 73], as well as his memories of his treatment of Serafina, who is just Elvias age when he meets her [p. 81]?
12. Elvia and Serafina visit several of the same places. Did you find this series of coincidences credible? Did you hope that the two would cross paths? What do you think would have happened if they did find each other?
13. Highwire Moon is in many ways a book about traveling: Serafinas harrowing trek northward, Elvias journey to find her mother, and Larrys restless wanderings in search of jobs and drugs. How does this motif enhance the novels themes? What does Highwire Moon share with other classic American novels built around journeys-for example, Mark Twains The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbecks The Grapes of Wrath, and Jack Kerouacs On the Road?
14. One reviewer comments, “[Straight] puts identity politics to shame. She explodes the fiction, fashionable as it now is, that white folks ‘get white folks and only black folks ‘get black folks and the experiences of raped women is comprehensible only to other raped women” (Christina Nehring, Washington Post Book World, 8/12/01). Do you agree with this evaluation? How does Straight capture the distinctive qualities of the various ethnic groups she writes about? Are the portraits equally convincing?
15. From the first page of the book, when Serafina feels Elvias “small hands fluttering like moths on her shoulders” to Elvias decision to get a tattoo of three moths [p. 117], references to moths, both metaphorical and literal, occur throughout the book. What do they symbolize? What other recurrent images does Straight use? Do they evoke consistent associations (either positive or negative) or do they represent the ambiguity inherent in even the most ordinary events and objects?
16. Straight includes both Spanish and Mixtec words throughout the book. What effect does this have on your experience as a reader? How does language help to define each character?
17. The title of the novel comes from a conversation between Sandy Narlette and Elvia [p. 70]. Why is the image of the moon briefly “balanced” on a wire an appropriate metaphor for the way life unfolds for Elvia and her parents?
Read an exclusive essay by Susan Straight