The Nine Book Club Discussion Topics
What is the history behind the Hannah and Samuel story?
In the Jewish Bible, the story of Hannah is significant and one that I have thought a lot about over the years. It describes how Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, would offer a sacrifice at the temple in Shiloh every year. On one trip, Hannah (the favored wife although the second wife and barren), was in deep despair over her childless state. She goes to the temple alone, and prays with great fervor to God. She prays for a son and vows to return her child to the temple for a life of service to God. Unbeknownst to her, the High Priest is sitting next to the doorpost watching her.
Because of the way her lips move and her swaying motion, the High Priest assumes she is drunk and rebukes her. Not long after this pilgrimage, however, Hannah conceives and bears a son, and names him Samuel, which translates to “heard by God.” Hannah raises Samuel until he is weaned (the length of time this takes being somewhat metaphorical) and, in fulfillment of her vow, delivers him to the High Priest at the Temple along with a sacrifice.
I have always been struck when reading this story, both as a young mother and as my own children have grown up over what it would mean to bear a child for the purpose of handing him over, and to a patriarchy that has criticized your intentions no less! But isn’t this what parents do? Our children are in our safekeeping for such a short period of time.
Hannah’s desire to raise a child with integrity and goodness and to deliver him to a high place is one that I think most parents can relate to. In The Nine I am putting this ancient story in a modern context where the academy has become that revered place on high, and a well-heeled headmaster is akin to a high priest.
Why does Hannah grapple so with how to mother Sam once he starts high school?
Don’t we all grapple with our most precious relationships? It is especially so when those relationships undergo change. Hannah is so focused on getting Sam to Dunning, she hasn’t considered what his departure will mean in her own life. It was almost as if his acceptance was an abstract concept she was pursuing, always out in the future, and when the moment came, it took her by surprise. When one is in the thick of raising children, it is common to hear “these days will go by so quickly, cherish them,” but one’s mind never quite believe it’s true. The Nine captures that moment in time when everything changes, irreversibly.
What is Hannah’s motivation for pushing Sam so?
Hannah is a well-meaning woman. Her style of parenting is a reaction to the way she was parented. I am a believer in the pendulum theory between generations. Hannah spent a good amount of her time raising her siblings while her parents worked. As the eldest child, her talents and interests were not cultivated as her parents counted on her to help around the house. As a result, when it is her turn, Hannah is content having one child, a smaller, less chaotic household and focusing all her attention on Sam.
I also believe that Hannah raises Sam in an interesting period in time when many women were torn with staying home full time or working outside the home. Those that decided to stay home, often took on mothering with the zeal and seriousness of a profession, sometimes bordering on competitiveness. I definitely felt like I mothered my children in such an environment, and looking back this fills me with such sadness and regret. Maybe it’s a phenomena more typical to New England, but I wanted Hannah to find herself a conflicted product of this generation.
How are Hannah and Edward different in this regard, and how are they the same?
Whereas Hannah grew up outside this waspy New England world, Edward grew up within it, and as a result, they view Sam’s world and opportunities quite differently. For Hannah, everything Sam faces leading up to college admission is the be-all and end-all. Richard, however, having gone to boarding school himself, understands the pressures, the highs and lows, and takes the journey more in stride. When Sam goes off to Dunning Academy, Hannah experiences loss, whereas Edward sees an opportunity to exit a life he is no longer happy in.
Why do schools like Dunning Academy turn into breeding grounds for scandal?
Maybe the problem stems from the tension around a school’s purpose. When a remote boarding school campus exists to provide a comfortable lifestyle for its faculty more than look after the well-being of its students, therein lies the rub. Entitlement and entrenchment are the enemy.
Another reason could be their remoteness and their history of operating under their own set of rules. They are often a primary employer in the small towns in which they exist and are given special status and autonomy.
Discuss the role of privilege, both personal and institutional, in the novel.
I’ve already touched a bit on institutional entitlement – but characters like Max and Justin personify individual entitlement in The Nine. Going one step further, Justin’s entire family exhibits entitlement. Justin does not face the same punishment as Sam, his college future is guaranteed and protected, and his collaboration and deceit with Uncle Henry is the manifestation of privilege to the furthest extreme. In an age when Sam would be considered privileged, The Nine, takes the concept to an entirely different level.
What role do clubs, fraternities and societies play on a campus? Why do they crop up?
Campus novels are fun to write because they act as microcosms of society at large. Even though we all value the ideals of diversity and openness, characteristics espoused by academic institutions, human beings seem to crave structure and finding like-minded individuals to spend time with. Cliques are most associated with children and teenagers, but definitely continue on into adulthood. The secret brotherhood of The Nine exists as a reaction to the administration’s attempts to diversify the campus and effort to preserve “Old Dunning.” Coach Schwartz’s underground group exists for a group of coaches who may feel marginalized on a campus filled with academic elites. Teams and clubs exist so that kids can find belonging on this larger campus.
Dunning Academy is fertile ground for these groups because of the institution’s legacy. There is a tradition of elitism as well as sexism and racism. As the academy admits different types of students, the population may become more diverse in appearance, yet the underlying attitudes on the campus are slow to change. As long as institutional biases are in the air, the community will fracture and suffer internal battles.
How is the “other” or the “outsider” portrayed in The Nine?
Hannah as a Jew from a middle class family in the Midwest, an outsider in this east coast world from the beginning. She is delighted for Sam’s acceptance as she equates it to her own acceptance. Sam is an outsider at Dunning because he is not a legacy, but he assimilates very well. Shawn Willis is an outsider and looks desperately for ways to be accepted. He does this even against his better judgment. Being an outsider in this world is exacerbated because those who are “insiders” lord that status over others. Upperclassmen can’t help bullying newer students. The ways in which Dunning Academy operates aren’t always written down, it has to be figured out, making “outsider” status an especially vulnerable position to be in.
Discuss how lives are led differently in the novel underground versus above ground, online versus in real life, on campus versus off campus?
I wanted to contrast the type of behavior on display in broad daylight, versus the insular groups and associations that form underground, i.e. the way one would treat a girl in the classroom versus the laundry room. Even in something as above board as a college counseling meeting, there were parents like Hannah who would go on to follow the prescribed course of action, while there were those parents who follow their own inside track.
Grabs was different in real life than he was online as was Uncle Henry. Sam and Justin had a much different friendship on campus than they did off campus. In many ways the campus aims to operate as an idyllic, democratic space, especially in the classroom. However, when the less than ideal side of characters needs to operate or express itself, it goes underground.
Discuss the role of pastimes such as swimming, baseball, and robotics in the novel.
Swimming is highlighted as a skill for survival in the beginning of the book when Shawn is overseeing the swim test. Later, swimming, or more so escaping underwater, becomes very important to Sam. Lastly, I’ve always viewed swimming as a most rigorous sport. Practices are at early hours and pools are cold in the wintertime! The idea of being a swimmer in New England is one I wanted to use in order to accentuate the brutality of Sam’s daily schedule.
Watching baseball, following baseball, and playing baseball were pastimes Sam enjoyed with his father. Spending time together and talking about this sport represented much of their communication in the novel up until Sam’s parents decide to separate. It is cliché, but many men bond over sport and use sporting events to interact with one another. This was the case with Sam and his father until they exchanged it for more substantive topics.
Robotics carries a nerdy image, but it is the one club in which Sam could be most himself, even more so than in the classroom where he doesn’t always feel comfortable speaking up. In addition, Nathalie could be herself in the robotics club and if it wasn’t for their experience together, writing code and designing robots, the social expectations of teenage life and high school may have kept them apart.
Eden Book Club Discussion Topics
Eden is utopia, a place of innocence, idyllic, most enjoyed by children. Ideals and paradise are, however, hard to hold on to. What happens when you cling to a place for too long, hide within its walls, expect too much?
The Garden of Eden is also an archetypal creation story. Eden is a creation story as well – it is all about babies being born! The circumstances around a conception have consequences for the mother and father and baby for years to come. Let’s say it sets the stage…
History repeats itself with regard to the Meister women being sent away…
Sadie was sent to Banford. Becca was sent to the Willows and Rachel sent herself to Copper Hill. They all go for different reasons, but they each take a hiatus from society to deal with a problem: postpartum, depression, pregnancy, alcoholism.
What about these ‘banishments’ from society? Where has progress been made over the years and where has it stayed the same? Clearly, Sadie and Becca lived during eras when their situation could not be discussed in polite company, nor, ironically enough, could they be discussed within the family. Were their retreats more for their sake or to protect their social class from unseemly details.
Rachel, leaves in more modern times and attends a 12 step program. It is her choice and her affliction is not exclusive to women, however, her departure echoes what happened to her mother and grandmother.
There is also a pattern of unplanned pregnancy…
Eden illustrates how between only two or three generations in one family, so much can stay the same, while a great degree of change is imposed by the outside world. In the years between 1920 and 2000, so much changed in the United States. There were enormous industrial and technological advancements, economic shifts, and the impact of world wars. Eden shines a spotlight on the additional changes women faced. My characters, women from the same family, have lives that span a century and experience extremely different education and career opportunities, and especially different choices when it came to their reproductive rights. Each mother wistfully observed the freedoms her daughter enjoyed.
The book’s earliest matriarch is Sadie. She is married and in search of effective birth control in the early part of the 20th century, inspired by the contraceptive pioneer, Margaret Sanger. She is not successful and has a late in life pregnancy that she is unhappy about. Her daughter, Becca, is raped, although given the era in which she lived, is not equipped with the awareness nor vocabulary to call it such, and becomes pregnant. The only option Sadie will consider for her daughter, is to send her away to a maternity hospital under a veil of secrecy. Becca’s daughter, Rachel, is impregnated by her college boyfriend, and Becca and Dan coerce the young couple to do the “honorable thing” and marry. And modern day, Sarah, with almost no societal pressure at all to worry about, entertains the option of being a single mother.
Which Biblical allusions stood out for you?
Allusions to the Bible are scattered throughout the novel to emphasizes that the same personal struggles described in the Book of Genesis carry on generation after generation, and indeed today.
The biblical allusions in Eden that are easiest to spot are names. There’s the title for one, and the name of the family home, with its abundant gardens. The names of the women: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, are those of the Jewish matriarchs. Ruth is the dutiful daughter-in-law from the Book of Ruth, and Joseph and Benjamin are men from which future Jewish leaders are descended.
There is a serpent who enters the ‘Garden’, offering temptation in the form of Charles and Maud Butterfield. They attempt to seduce Bunny and Sadie away from their original intention of creating a space sacred for their family.
There is a flood that acts as a cleanse, almost an opportunity to start anew in the form of the 1938 Hurricane. The day after the great storm, Becca sees a rainbow in the sky, and the following summer, when her family is all together, rebuilding their home, is the best ever.
Compare Bunny the patriarch, to Sadie, the matriarch.
Bunny is the preeminent patriarch of the family. None of the men that follow after, can ever live up to him. But Bunny was in no means perfect, he was hemmed in by societal pressures as much as Sadie was. He felt pressure to send his beautiful wife away to the Banford Sanitarium, and although the question lurks as to whether he ever really understood where Becca had gone when she was sent away to the maternity hospital, he was limited by the proper boundaries a father must keep with his daughter. There were certain realms of life that a successful businessman just could not dare enter. The irony is that Bunny was not born into the society in which he ultimately found himself, he aspired to it, and sought opportunities to be accepted throughout his life.
The matriarchs in the novel did not amass the family’s great wealth nor were they responsible for constructing Eden, but Eden would not have existed without them. The women breathed life into the home. Just like the ebb and flow of the tides, and the cycles of the moon, life in Long Harbor and within the walls of Eden operated with a maternal rhythm. Although Becca had little power in the commercial world, within her family and within her home she maintained control.
The act of naming is a recurrent theme in the novel.
To name a person is a great honor. It can be done as if offering a blessing, but it can also imply power or ownership. Giving a name is a venerable act, the first thing our parents give us, and in the Bible it is something GOD does repeatedly.
Characters in Eden are named and then re-named such as Bernhard becoming Bernard and later, Sadie dubbing him Bunny.
Bunny names their daughter Rebecca for his mother’s sister, while Sadie, who is displeased by the name, shortens it to Becca.
Bunny names their home Eden.
Rachel is persuaded to name her daughter Sarah, and Sarah, in turn, will name her baby for her mother.
The blessing that Becca reads at the end of the novel is a commentary on the various names a person takes on, the best, of course, being the one a person chooses for herself.
What about the speculative conversation between Leah and Sarah in the book’s final chapter?
This conversation may or may not have actually happened. It is only something that Becca imagined. Sarah and Leah were each conceived out of wedlock, however Sarah’s parents married and Becca gave Leah up for adoption. The juxtaposition of these two upbringings and their respective emotional side effects is a primary theme of the novel. It gets back to Eden being a creation story, and to portray the different paths a life might take as a consequence of parents’ choices.
How is the setting important to the story?
Multi-generational living was much more common in the early part of the twentieth century. In summer enclaves like fictional Long Harbor, multi-generational living continues to this day. The novel needed to be set in a place where it would be believable for the generations of an upper class family to gather. Long Harbor needed to be an upper class, small town, rife with gossip and a set of rules all its own.
A summer home tradition can be wonderful and bind a family together, but can also amplify a family’s dysfunction. Adults often regress to childhood roles, as is the case with poor Rachel who loves Eden dearly even as it keeps her from moving on in her life.
What do you make of the frequent mention of natural forces in this novel?
The book is filled with the images of cycles: cycles of the seasons, the tides and the moon. The image of the full moon is present many times which emphasizes the close alignment between lunar power and feminine power.
There are also several storms in the book. There is the Hurricane of 1938, of course, which destroyed and tossed about all that man had built. Hurricane season returns at the end of the novel as Sarah’s baby is being born, however, the mood then is not of destruction, but of hope and renewal. Both storms bring about an opportunity for cleansing and the chance to start anew.
Natural forces abound to remind the reader of the presence of Mother Nature (the greatest mother of all) as well as the universality of our stories and our vulnerability.
Lilly is the only woman not in the family that gets a voice.
Lilly is outside the family, while also being a dear part of the family. If it weren’t for her, the other women wouldn’t have time to play cards, go to the beach, read, or write. There is an inference that their abundance of leisure time might lead to their communal dissatisfaction. Being on the outside looking in, Lilly is somewhat like Ruth in that way. Outsiders often have the most interesting perspective on a situation. However, Lilly is quite biased and loyal to Becca, Rachel, and Sarah. Lilly is a beloved employee of the family and the fact that her relationship is so strong and longstanding with Becca also speaks to both of their characters.
Rachel makes the claim, “Lilly practically raised me.” Although it is very common for women in affluent families to have help with their children, it is interesting to consider the buffer they create between mothers and children. Is it possible that Lilly’s presence (and Alice’s before her) may have prevented the all-important mother/child bond from fully forming?