Book Club Reflection: Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian

12 May
Me and Chris Bohjalian

Me and Chris Bohjalian

This is the longest it’s ever taken me to write a book club reflection. To the women and man of my group, I apologize for the delay. There have been so many wonderful literary things in my life to blog about that I’ve been putting off this one that will take so much time. I hope you enjoy.

There are going to be a lot of posts about this book on my blog and I’m excited to share them. I write this review a few weeks ago and I’ll soon be posting something about meeting Chris Bohjalian. He is a wonderful individual.

My biggest question was about Charlotte’s fault in the whole situation. She’s twelve, how much can she be blamed for shooting a gun that she was (arguably) playing with? She always seemed to blame herself and felt guilty about her father’s injury the whole book. And she never came out to say specifically if she’d done it on purpose. She thought at times about the moment, how she’d felt at the time and what she’d really seen, but she never says she did it on purpose. We thought that she did mean to kill a deer and that was her way of being rebellious. Her relatives would be happy that the deer was gone, but her father would be furious. It would be a way to pay him back for the plastic shoes and vinyl purse she had to carry.

When drugs and alcohol are involved, there’s always a fuzzy line when placing guilt and blame. If someone’s driving drunk, is their crime driving with a high BAC or hitting another car? Can we blame them for hitting the car if we’ve blamed them for turning the key in the first place? It’s a question of when there is a bad decision and when there are consequences of that decision and if we view them differently.

We suspected that the girls were not really very drunk or high. We thought their loopy state was more in their own heads than real. I’ll admit to being someone who feels dizzy after two beers but as far as actually drunk, I’d say there’s a pretty major difference. As for the marijuana, I’d doubt they were suffering much of its effects. It’s pretty well-known around a college campus that you don’t get high the first time you smoke. I personally doubted Charlotte when she said she’d smoked before and it was plainly Willow’s first time. They were probably acting a lot more like their normal selves than they thought: probably not much dinner than them after too much caffeine and sugar.

Nan never felt guilty for not putting the girls to bed that night. She was angry that their parents weren’t taking care of them and walked away, never looking back to think that she could have stopped the accident by caring for her granddaughters. She was frustrated with her own children for not being parents. When her own children were that age, she took very good care of them because her husband was out of the house and left her to do that alone. It was her favorite thing to do and why she likes to take care of her granddaughters for a month each summer. Though it seems that she’d reached her breaking point for being a babysitter that night, hoping her son-in-law would overcome his moodiness. But Spencer wasn’t much of a father at that point in the story. He was so absorbed in FERAL and his work that he didn’t have time to be a father. At least, that is, until his accident.

We were shocked the lengths Spencer was prepared to go to hold on to who he was before the accident. He threw himself into work so strongly that he didn’t even try to stop his wife from leaving him over the lawsuit. He seemed to be clinging to his identity as an obsessive worker and unable to let it go now that he was injured. I think people have to change a lot when they have major accidents that can cripple them. It really makes you re-assess you life. We were just as shocked that Catherine would consider leaving her husband in the state he was in. They had to help him put toothpaste on his toothbrush for God’s sake. How could she leave him to his own devices knowing he couldn’t do the simplest task? I was floored.

I think there was a lot of symbolism in Spencer getting his arm amputated. It seemed like it was him parting with the final piece of his personality from before the accident that he had clung to. He left it behind like the life he led before the injury; he was able to part with his work obsession and blindness to his family’s needs.

A part that seemed strange to one of our members was when John and Catherine would talk on the phone before John and Spencer reconciled. She thought it seemed odd that the siblings would keep a close relationship despite the feud between John and Spencer. I know if my husband’s ever mad with one of his siblings or a friend, I take his side immediately and am equally as mad. I suspect that the rift between Catherine and Spencer helped the siblings stay together because they were both on the short end of Spencer’s affections.

This begs the question of why Spencer was so mad with John. It shocked me that John seemed to be the guilty party so early on in the action. To me, it was clear that Charlotte had committed the crime. If my husband leaves a baseball bat in the foyer and someone breaks in and beats us with it, whose fault is it? My husband’s for keeping a baseball bat? I think not. But maybe it would be different if it were a gun. Then would it be our fault for keeping a gun in the house? (For the record, I’m very anti-gun and our compromise is a katana sword.) I think Spencer blamed John because he couldn’t put blame on his own daughter and was dealing with the fact that John hunted. I don’t think John was to blame.

One point that irked our group was Nan’s death. It seemed very convenient and almost cliché that she died in the end. We decided that she was the family glue that held them together and once she wasn’t needed any more and passed away, the family had made its own glue and could hold itself together without her. Before the reconciliation in the final chapters, they still needed her. But after, they could go on without her.

Some members were also put off by the bird who found the casing shell. We would have been perfectly happy without knowing it was damaged because the story was more about the family than it was about the accident by the end. The family fixed but there was no way to fix Spencer’s arm. There’s no use crying over spilled milk.

We liked that the characters had very conflicting opinions on a lot of topics. I think that’s very representative of modern families. I have opposing political views from my parents and my brother and I fiercely disagree on the merits of Indian food. John liked venison and Charlotte liked soy substitutes. Sara didn’t mind having a gun in the house while Spencer hated the idea of guns. Willow wanted to tell the truth more than anything while Catherine had no problem lying about eating meat.

Sara that “… the problem with Nan – and with John and Catherine and, yes, Spencer when they were all together – was that they could never just… be” (p. 38). We wondered what was meant by this. We pointed out that Nan could never stay still. She always had a towel in her car just in case she could go swimming and had no problem taking impromptu hikes. Catherine and John learned this growing up with their mother and Spencer, who had known Nan since he was a teen, had adapted to this as well. When they’re that busy, they don’t have to think. One of our members pointed out that the Kennedy’s had a very similar life style and would host their own Summer Camp activities. We wondered if they were an inspiration for Nan and her children.

While I loved the characters, some of our members strongly disagreed. They thought they were unbelievable and unlikable. I think being so unlikable was very believable. Is there anyone you know who you like 100% of the time? Because I know I don’t. As I said in my review, I thought the young girls used vocabulary words beyond their years and one of our members added that they were psychologically beyond their years as well. I felt this was the only fault.

Gun control was an obvious theme of the book. It was clear Bohjalian thought not everyone should have a gun. If John doesn’t know how to use it properly, should he have one in his house? The gun experts were portrayed very positively in the book so we didn’t feel that Bohjalian was anti-gun, but that he had opinions on controlling access.

We felt that FERAL was portrayed in a very negative light. They were taking advantage of a situation and we felt that Bohjalian was reflecting them negatively. It was a “Don’t let any tragedy go to waste” kind of feel, which is irksome. Spencer’s extreme dedication surprised most of us. Some members had never heard of veganism and were shocked at all the dietary restrictions imposed by vegans. We wondered if Spencer would have stayed a vegan, knowing that his wife had no intention of remaining one. Would he have continued to force it on his daughter as well? We think he would have remained a vegan but that Charlotte would have had the chance to choose for herself.

I have never read The Secret Garden before and our other members filled me in on how it applied to this book. The Secret Garden is a hidden place like a family’s secrets are hidden. From the outside, you don’t see them but when you pull the ivy aside, there’s something very different on the inside.

The other cultural reference we tied significance to was the title. It’s taken from the poem Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye. There’s a quote before the book begins taken from the poem.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.

You can read the full poem here. Spencer lost his arm, but found his family and humanity. They found kindness in each other and were closer in the end than they were in the beginning. We wondered if they could have reached that level of closeness when Nan was still alive, but we think they would have been too busy playing tennis at the club.

I hope you enjoyed this book club reflection. I’ll be posting in the near future about meeting Bohjalian. Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

 

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