Blues Lessons

Blues Lessons

A Novel

  • reading group guide
In the lush countryside of 1950s Michigan, young Martin Dijksterhuis has everything he could ever want, living among his extended family and working in his family's orchard fields. Despite his mother's plans for him to attend college in Chicago, he has no desire to leave home.
One autumn, in a camp of migrant farm workers, Martin discovers a music that touches him like nothing before -- the unsettling melodies and timeless words of the country blues. He also falls in love with Corinna, the daughter of the black foreman who runs the orchards. He ends up fathering her child, only to lose her in a stunning betrayal. Martin's music and his love for Corinna are the two themes of his life. His struggle to combine them in a single story takes him far from home and the life he had always envisioned for himself, only to bring him back again in a way he could never have imagined.
In this beautifully rendered novel, Robert Hellenga explores the fragility of happiness, the struggle to discover one's true calling in life, and the sorrows and satisfactions of family.
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  • Scribner | 
  • 336 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743225465 | 
  • January 2003
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Vocation


It was not unusual for missionaries -- sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs -- to visit the Methodist church in Appleton, Michigan. They'd speak in church on Sunday morning and then, after the regular offering, there would be a special collection for whatever mission they were serving. These visitors were generally middle-aged, stout, and earnest, but Miss Prellwitz, who came late in the summer of 1954, just as I was about to enter my junior year of high school, was young and beautiful and lighthearted and spoke with a clipped British accent, and the stories she told on Sunday morning in church... see more

Reading Group Guide

Blues Lessons: Discussion Points
1. For Martin, growing up with Cory in Appleton, Michigan, was truly paradise. What parallels can be drawn between Martin's life in the orchard and the biblical Garden of Eden? Why is he, like Adam, ultimately expelled from the garden?
2. Vocation is an important theme in Blues Lessons. What is Martin's vocation and how does he struggle to find it? Do you think everyone has a vocation? Do you agree with Reverend Taylor's belief that God has a plan for each person, but that it's up to us to choose to follow that path? Or are we more or less at the mercy of dumb luck?
3. The work of Ayn Rand makes a big impression on Martin in high school. After seeing the movie, his mother deftly sums up the main theme of The Fountainhead: "You have to live for yourself, heroically, if you want to achieve something for mankind" (page 30). In what ways could Martin be said to succeed -- or fail -- at living for himself, heroically? How about Cory?
4. Why do you think Martin chose to enlist in the navy and then take a job with the RPO instead of studying at the University of Chicago, as he intended? How do you make sense of his decision, and how do you feel about it?
5. Where did Martin's passion for the blues originate? With what does he connect its sound and its power to move him? The blues is sometimes identified with feelings of disappointment and longing. In fact, as a teenager Martin claims that he's come to reg see more

About the Author

Robert Hellenga
Photo Credit: Anthony Loew



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