Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Emma, Mr. Knightley, and Chili-Slaw Dogs includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mary Jane Hathaway. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Life doesn’t always turn out like you planned. Just ask Caroline Ashley. Convinced she will be a career woman and never marry, she never imagined leaving her dream job as a journalist in D.C. to return to Thorny Hollow to care for her grief-stricken mother after her father’s death. Or ask Brooks Elliot. He never intended to see his lifelong friendship with Caroline change in ways that alarmed and confused him. Neither one of them could have planned the unexpected series of circumstances and relationships that set them up to be modern-day actors in Jane Austen’s classic story of Emma. And no one was more surprised than they were at where the road led them.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What did you enjoy most about Emma, Mr. Knightley and Chili-Slaw Dogs? Which character was your favorite? Which one annoyed you the most?
2. On page 8, the narrator of the story says: “Taking care of her [Caroline’s] mom had turned into taking the easy way out.” Describe what you think the narrator meant by this comment about Caroline. Based on what you learned about Caroline throughout the story, do you agree?
3. One of the themes of the novel is the indirect communication between some of the characters, more specifically between the men and women. What are some of the pros and cons of the indirect style of communication between the various characters in the novel? What impact does the indirect communication have on their relationships? Do you prefer indirect or direct communication? Why? 4. Compare and contrast Caroline Ashley with Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma. How are the worlds they inhabit both similar and different?
5. On page 51, Caroline and Brooks argue over their opinions about how men and women view each other. In what ways do each of their actions throughout the story confirm or refute their expressed opinions?
6. Describe how each of their parents’ marriage has shaped Caroline’s and Brooks’s beliefs about marriage. What do they each fear about marriage? In what ways have your beliefs about relationships been shaped by your family relationships?
7. On page 78, the narrator says: “He [Brooks] understood her [Caroline’s] unspoken question.” Describe the ways that Brooks and Caroline accurately interpret each others’ unspoken words and actions as well as ways they misinterpret one another throughout the story. How does their familiarity with one another contribute to their misinterpretations?
8. Why do you think Caroline Ashley takes such an interest in Lexi Martinez and her career choice? On page 95, Caroline says: “You need to follow your heart. God’s given you a gift and you shouldn’t squander it in accounting classes,” and, on page 94, Lexi says: “Finding your calling sounds like something rich people worry about.” Which one do you agree with? What does Caroline’s advice reveal about her assumptions about life? How would you have advised Lexi?
9. Compare Brooks Elliot to the character of Mr. Knightley in Emma. What do you appreciate the most about Brooks? Did anything annoy you about him?
10. What role does the relationship between Lauren Fairfield and Franklin Keene play in the story? What characters from Emma do Lauren and Franklin resemble?
11. What are the various perspectives of marriage presented throughout the story? Contrast these with the perspective of marriage presented in Emma. How are marriage and social status related in both stories?
12. How does Caroline’s inherited social status inform her assumptions and biases about life and the future? What are some of the catalysts in the story that challenge her assumptions and biases?
13. In what ways does Caroline’s relationship with her mother reflect one of Caroline’s fatal flaws? Describe the flaw and how it is reflected in other relationships as well. Do you see any growth in Caroline throughout the story?
14. If you could spend an afternoon with one character from this story, who would you choose? Why?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Watch the movie Emma. Compare and contrast the attitudes toward women, marriage and communication reflected in the time periods of the two stories, Emma and Emma, Mr. Knightley and Chili-Slaw Dogs.
2. Take a field trip and go antiquing. As you look at various items, imagine the stories that brought the item to its current place.
3. Throw a Jane Austen party, inviting people to come dressed up as their favorite Jane Austen character. Serve pink lemonade.
A Conversation with Mary Jane Hathaway
What inspired you to write this story?
Emma by Jane Austen, of course!
Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel?
I thought it was Pride and Prejudice, but after reading and rereading Emma so many times for this book, I realized it was much funnier than I remembered. There are lines in the original Emma that make me laugh every single time I read them . . . and that is hard to do. I’ve heard some say that not much of anything happens in Emma, but I disagree. I love the heroine, in all her stages, not just the end where she learns to stop trying to make the world bend to her will. I love Mr. Knightley as the family friend, and as hero stuck firmly in the friend zone. I especially love him at the end, when he is brave enough to offer his heart to Emma, even though he doesn’t think he has much of a chance.
Do you like chili-slaw dogs and pink lemonade? What inspired you to include them as part of the story?
Funny, I love pink lemonade! I have wonderful memories of pink lemonade at parties in my youth, but it’s not a very sophisticated drink. I thought it would be fun to torture Caroline with pink lemonade everywhere she goes.
I’ve had a chili-slaw dog twice, and it was fine. I’m not a fan of coleslaw so I felt like I was ruining a really good hot dog, though. It’s hard to find a food I won’t eat, but I might have my slaw on the side next time.
As for why they’re in the story, I have a friend who loves to stop at a little stand outside his town in Mississippi and have a chili-slaw dog. He was gracious enough to ask the owner for the exact ingredients, and then I made some here in Oregon. I know, the life of writer is so much work! Eating and talking and writing and eating some more.
Antiques played a central role in this story. Are you an antique collector?
Not at all. I think Austen said it best in Persuasion, when she had Mary Elliot Musgrove say, “A lady, without a family, was the very best preserver of furniture in the world.” I can have a house full of kids (including four boys under ten) or I can have nice antiques.
But I do love giving new life to old or broken furniture. Every now and then someone will throw out or give away a very old dresser or table or trunk. I really enjoy spending time cleaning, sanding, repainting or staining it, then putting the piece to good use. My oldest kids and I have refurbished a hundred-year-old trunk, and that was a great family project. Lots of time and elbow grease involved, but we learned a lot. The Internet is a global community and we found many sites that offered direction on refurbishing. We found how-to advice, replacements parts and even hobbyists who would examine a photo of your item and tell you the make/year/style. We have another project waiting for good weather so we can do the work outside and not worry about the mess.
Who was your favorite character to develop in this story?
My favorite character was probably Blanche.
What endeared her to you?
I know it’s a little cliché to have a crazy old lady/grandma figure, but I loved her spark and her curiosity about everything in the world. She’s had her share of grief (losing her husband and her daughter), but she finds the good in every experience. When Brooks mentions the Austen dance, Blanche dives into the planning and puts her own spin on the party.
I think the most annoying character was Frank. I know he’s the villain, but I wanted to reach through the page and give him a smack. It’s easier to deal with an honest villain than the villain who pretends to be the hero. Frank is charming, funny, exciting and smart. But even when he’s turning on the charm, Emma sees small habits and attitudes that raise red flags. He acts in a way that Brooks never would, because Brooks is a gentleman and Frank is not.
What was the hardest part of writing a story that is patterned after a classic like Emma?
I thought I would really struggle with the “friends turn into more” story line but it was so much fun. I had to find little ways to show the reader that Brooks and Caroline were in love, without letting the characters realize it. It seems too obvious to those of us on the outside, but it really needed to take them both by surprise at some point. Of course, that point was different for both Caroline and Brooks, so that was another fun part of the story. Brooks realizes his feelings for Caroline first, while Caroline takes much longer, just like the original Emma.
The hardest part was not stealing every scene that Austen wrote. She had a wonderful eye for setting up a character’s emotional state, and I had to work at finding my own places for Caroline and Brooks to interact. Every now and then I would find myself slipping back into the idea of Brooks visiting, the way a man in the Regency period would. Or I would want to write a big dinner scene with a long table filled with delicious food. There are always visits and dinners, but the Regency period included a lot more social entertaining and visiting than we do now in our modern, busy lives. It sounds odd, but I have a Post-it stuck to my laptop screen that says, USE CELL PHONES AND CARS. When I’m in the middle of an Austen story, I want everyone to send letters and walk everywhere!
Would you have enjoyed living during the time period of one of Jane Austen’s novels?
I might get my “Austen fan girl” card taken away, but I would say no. Especially as a mom of six, I do like modern medical care. We’ve never had any real medical emergencies, but I’m grateful that if we do, I won’t have to be calling the country doctor to set a bone or watching my kids suffer through diseases we’ve eradicated.
That said, I adore the dresses and the manners and the dancing! If I could spend half my time there (as a noblewoman, mind you) and half here, I would take that offer in a heartbeat.
What do you enjoy doing for leisure when you’re not writing novels?
I like to run marathons. (All my real-life friends just fell over laughing. I actually despise running. I like to watch other people run, though.)
I have a billion projects going at once, it seems. I love to paint, and my laundry room has two eastern-facing windows that make it the perfect spot. I also like to refurbish furniture, although I’m not very good at it and it takes a lot of time. My kids are always interested in some new thing (owls, planes, geology, pirate treasure maps) so we like to take short trips around the area. I’ve learned a lot from their hobbies, since I was never really interested in birds, aviation or geology, but so far we haven’t found any pirate treasure.
Who are some of your literary heroes, other than Jane Austen? What kind of books do you enjoy reading?
Oh, boy. I’m a reader at heart and I’ll try to keep this answer short. Just looking at the bookshelf, I’ll write down some authors I love (as in, top of the top, and there are many more I love but are for some reason out of sight and I’m too lazy to get up):
Stephen Crane, Louisa May Alcott, St. Teresa of Ávila, Bruce Catton, The Brontës, Franny Billingsley, Nancy Werlin, The Brothers Grimm, Markus Zusak, Willa Cather, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aimee Bender, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Erich Maria Remarque, Langston Hughes, Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket, Shannon Hale, Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Jonathon Stroud, C. S. Lewis, Scott Westerfeld, James Artemis Owen, Alan Bradley, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Simonson, Lois Duncan.
And now you know that my shelves are completely disorganized.
As a writer, did you identify with Caroline’s season of seeming disappearance from her career as a journalist?
Absolutely. After college I attended the Warsaw School of Economics. I had studied years of Eastern European languages (Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Old Church Slavonic). When I came back to Oregon, I thought it was a temporary stop on my way somewhere exotic. I met my husband, a Mexican immigrant working in a local factory, and decided to stay just a little longer in this small town. It’s not quite the same as what happened to Caroline, since her decision to return home (and stay) was more about taking care of her family, but I know her journey.
Have you ever had a season when you let go of your writing in order to care for other priorities in your life?
I started writing in 2009, so I suppose I could say this doesn’t apply to me. But I could also say, “every single day.” Like any working parent, I have to make choices about when and where I work, and how to balance my home life. It’s easy to get caught up in e-mail or little projects or promotions or even jotting down ideas. But as it says in Ecclesiastes 3 (KJV), “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” No matter if it’s during one day or days of the week or times of the year, I have to let go of my writing and care for my family. And I’m happy to do so!
How have you gained so much knowledge about the design of Southern antebellum homes?
Um . . . Google? Really, there is so much information available now that I could spend hours of writing time every day just reading about these old homes. I have two small books about antebellum and Civil War–era structures, but it’s wonderful to be able to take virtual tours of some of these historic landmarks.
What can we expect from you next?
I thought the next book would be based on Sense and Sensibility, but even though I have five chapters already written, I may just be heading toward Northanger Abbey! It seems Henry Tilney has quite a fan club, and I get messages every week hoping that Henry is the next “Austen Takes the South” hero. I had no idea that he was so high on the list of favorite Austen heroes, but when I reread the book, I see why. Henry is witty, sensitive, wry, noble, and chooses the woman he loves over his fortune. There’s a gripping love triangle, feuding friends, bad influences, money grubbers, lots of flirting and broken engagements. In the middle of it all are Catherine, a girl who expects life to mirror all her favorite novels, and our hero Henry.
Unless I get a sudden surge of requests for Sense and Sensibility, it looks like Northanger Abbey will find a new home in Mississippi!