Blues Lessons

Blues Lessons

A Novel

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Growing up on his family's orchards in Appleton, Michigan, in the 1950s, Martin Dijksterhuis finds everything he needs in his extended family and in the land itself -- in the reassuring routines of growing and harvesting, spraying and pruning. Although his mother wants him to get out of Appleton, which she finds impossibly provincial, and attend a great university -- the University of Chicago, her alma mater -- he has no desire to leave.
In the autumn of his junior year of high school, however, in the camp of the migrant workers who come north every year to pick the Dijksterhuis peaches and apples, Martin discovers his vocation, the country blues -- unsettling melodies that cry out from a place in the soul he never knew existed. He also falls in love with Corinna Williams, the strong-willed daughter of the black foreman who runs the Dijksterhuis orchards. His blues vocation and his love for Corinna are the two stories of his life. His struggle to combine them into a single story takes him a long way from home and from the life he had always envisioned for himself, and then it brings him back again in a way he could never have imagined.
In this beautifully rendered novel, Robert Hellenga, author of The Sixteen Pleasures and The Fall of a Sparrow, explores the fragility of happiness, the difficulties of following one's calling in life, and the sorrows and satisfactions of being a parent.
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  • Scribner | 
  • 336 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743236317 | 
  • February 2002
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Vocation

1954

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

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