Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Eternal on the Water includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joseph Monninger. 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.
When Jonathan Cobb takes a sabbatical from teaching to go out and experience nature as Thoreau did in the mid-nineteenth century, he does not expect to meet the love of his life, any more than Mary expects to meet him. But from their first camp side meeting, they know they are soul mates. Set against the sweeping natural backdrops of Maine’s rugged backcountry, the exotic islands of Indonesia, Yellowstone National Park, and rural New England, nature plays a key role in their romance. But their story is tragic as well as inspiring as their perfect love falls beneath the shadow of her impending fatal illness, and he must help her make an important and difficult decision.
Questions for Discussion
1. Cobb has taken a sabbatical from teaching to learn from nature. Specifically, he wants to kayak down the Allagash, along Thoreau’s path. How do you think Cobb’s trip into the unknown alludes to or is a metaphor for other aspects of his life?
2. Early in the book, before Cobb meets Mary, a moose blocks his way in the road. Then, a female moose crosses, and the male trots after her. How does this foreshadow his meeting Mary? What other appearances do moose make in the novel, and what do you think these appearances signify?
3. During their first meeting, Mary asks Cobb if he’s a bear. The mythology of bears turning into humans to steal dances and charm people is a recurring one throughout the novel. Mary’s mythological stories about crows pop up throughout the novel, too. Examine the use of mythology and folklore in the story and discuss their role in the novel.
4. Cobb’s fondness for Thoreau is illustrated in his love for nature and his desire to live life simply. Even when they are spellbound in their first romantic days together, Mary respects Cobb’s desire to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps and gives him some time to be alone on Pillsbury Island where Thoreau camped, and he agrees even as he wants to be with her. What does this say about his dedication to Thoreau’s way of life? What draws him to it so strongly? What does it say about Mary’s respect for others?
5. Cobb describes his motto as hurry gradually. What do you think he means? Do you think he and Mary managed to live by this motto? Why or why not?
6. We know from the very first pages of the novel that Mary has died on the river. What effect did knowing the ending have on your reading experience as you traveled back in time to read about Cobb and Mary’s budding relationship? Might you have felt differently had you not known what was coming? Why or why not?
7. The novel features many references to circles throughout. For example, Mary eats her sandwiches in circles, Cobb describes himself as a circular kisser, and birds circle around carcasses. Identify the ways in which circles appear in or influence the story and discuss their significance.
8. Francis is a secondary character who has an emotional impact on Cobb and Mary, just as they do on him. How did you feel about the way Cobb and Mary took Francis under their wings during his difficult times? How would you have reacted if Francis was a student or protégé of yours?
9. The Chungamunga Girls play an important part in Mary’s life. What do you think was their main function in the novel? How does their motto, we are Chungamunga girls, we are eternal on this water, have an added poignancy for Mary?
10. Freddy, Mary’s brother, says that “the real world is always somewhere else” (page 187). What do you think he means by this? Compare and contrast his love for sea turtles with Mary’s love of crows. How else are the siblings similar or different?
11. Why do you think the author decided to make reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “Annabelle Lee”? How is the love described in the poem similar to that of Cobb and Mary?
12. Mary does not want to know her test results because, if she tests positive, she does not want to live in fear of the disease and its inevitable conclusion. But Cobb encourages her to find out so she’ll know how to plan. How do you feel about this aspect of the story? What does it tell you about these characters? If you were in Mary’s position, would you want to know whether you had a terminal illness?
13. Cobb wants what is best for Mary, but he finds it painful to go along with her decision to end her life on her terms—in dignity, before the effects of her disease totally take over. How do you feel about her desire to end her own life doing something she loves? Did you find her decision believable given what you learn of her throughout the novel? Why or why not?
14. This novel delves into the full meaning of love. Was there a scene or a moment that seemed to sum it all up for you? Do you think love can be defined in a moment, or is it the compilation of many moments? Did you find the evolution of Cobb and Mary’s love realistic? Why or why not?
15. Why do you think the author chose the title, Eternal on the Water? Discuss the significance of the river to Mary’s story in particular.
Enhance Your Bookclub
1. Cobb likes to live life simply, like Thoreau. Later we learn that Mary does, too, and so does her brother, Freddy, and Cobb’s father. Make your own experience living the simple life by turning off and pledging not to use electronics for a weekend, go for a hike in the woods, or plan a camping visit to a state park. If you live near water, try a canoe or kayak ride. Get out into nature, and feel free to take along a good book.
2. This novel implies that you should live life to the fullest, every day. Or, as Mary’s mother says, say yes to the good things in life and grab them! What are some things you have been wanting to do, but have been putting off? Identify one or two things that would help you to live your life to the fullest and do them!
3. The Chungamunga girls play a large part in Mary’s life. What are some clubs or organizations you can think of that are similar? Girl Scouts? Nature clubs? Consider introducing a young adult novel, such as Joseph Monninger’s Hippie Chick, to a group of young girls. Encourage them to form their own book club and to discuss the books they read. You will have a lasting effect on the girls just as the Chungamunga girls did on Mary.
4. The idea of coincidences—that two people have to be in the right place at the right time in order to meet, and the odds are against it—plays an important role in this novel. Can you think of important events in your own life that seemed to come coincidentally? Think about the life-altering coincidences in your life, and all of the variables that had to be in place to make them happen, and share with your book club at your next meeting.
A Conversation with Joseph Monninger
1. This novel is infused with an appreciation for nature. Do you find it easy to use nature to tell a story? Do nature metaphors and settings come, well, naturally?
I hope so. I live in a beautiful part of the world—western New Hampshire along the Baker River—and my family and I spend a lot of time outdoors. A brook runs past our bedroom and our house opens onto a meadow. We have grown accustomed to seeing the seasons change and we mark time by the way light moves across the field and into our house. We ran sled dogs for many years and raised chickens. It would be nearly impossible at this point in my life to write a “city” novel. Nature is all mixed up in my day to day life. So, yes, nature metaphors come naturally, no pun intended.
2. Although Cobb and Mary are central, there are scenes that involve a dozen or more characters, and we feel as though we know all of them personally. Do you find it easy to make so many characters come alive with their own personalities and speech patterns, or is that a challenge?
Well, it’s always a challenge, of course. Someone once said plot is character. If you think about it, we like seeing characters in interesting situations. Simple plot is boring, although it serves as a motor for narrative. It provides us with and then, and then what happened, and then, and then, and then. If plot were enough, then the Freddy Krueger movies would be worth rewatching (or watching once!) but the series of startling events becomes silly because we don’t care about the characters. I try to make sure I know who my characters are before I let them get swept away by potential plots.
3. Cobb and Mary both seem to want to live life simply, following in the footsteps of Thoreau. Is that quality a reflection of you as an author? What effect did you hope this thematic choice would have on readers?
I actually believe in simplicity as a way of life. My wife and I are considering moving into a yurt! I know it sounds a little crazy, but the world, as Wordsworth warned, can be too much with us. How much time do we spend doing things we care nothing about? Living simply, wanting less, asking for little. . . . It is a way to free ourselves, I think.
4. Bears often pop up in the scenes of this book even when they’re not really there. Is this bit of folklore (that bears can turn into people to steal dances and charm humans) something invented by you, or is it something you discovered?
It’s partially invented and partially a long standing bit of folklore. Bears are extremely human, even down to their footprints. But I am also a fly fisherman, so I have fished beside brown bears in Alaska and was once charged by a black bear. I love bears. In our town in New Hampshire, there is a story about a girl who was supposedly sheltered by a bear for a day or two. Many cultures have similar stories. Plus, bears have a comical side. How can you fail to like a creature with a wide bottom who loves more and more honey?
5. In your writing, you display an intimate knowledge of kayaking, camping, and other outdoor activities and sights—all part of what makes Cobb and Mary’s experiences so believable. Do you try to go out and experience the things you know you’ll be writing about? Or do experiences you’ve already had in your life help feed your writing?
Well, as I mentioned, I spend a good deal of time outside. I kayaked the Allagash River by myself some years ago. It’s a spectacular experience. It runs ninety miles northward through a pristine part of Maine. My wife and I have kayaked the St. Croix River in Maine and, of course, we live on a river. When our son was ten we bought him his first kayak. I’ve been a New Hampshire fishing guide and I’ve travelled around quite a bit in the west fishing and hiking. And I love Yellowstone. When I travelled to Indonesia and visited those islands, I was interested in seeing green turtles. It was only afterward that I invented Freddy and a turtle nursery. I am aware of the need to keep trying new things. As a writer, you never know how the piece will fit into the puzzle, but you do know you need to keep pawing through the pieces.
6. It’s obvious through this book, and others you have written, that nature influences your writing. When you set out to write a book, do you go out into nature and visit the places you will write about? How does nature inspire you?
That’s a tough question to answer, but maybe it will help to know I don’t take pictures. I’ve never liked the moment of seeing something beautiful—a sunset, a moose, an elephant—and then raising a camera and trying to capture it for some future moment. That’s always struck me as strange. Experience the moment now, I say. If the moment is important enough, you’ll have an internal album of pictures from which to draw. That’s what I hope inspires my work.
7. Although nature is prominent in the novel, you also make steady reference to new technologies, such as MySpace, Facebook, cell phones, even a scene of these two “oldfashioned” nature-lovers watching a classic film on a laptop in bed. Was it important for you to show how nature and technology can coexist?
A good life these days seems to require a blend. I like movies and I like computers and I also like getting away from them. I don’t own a cell phone, for instance. I’m probably the last human alive not to own one. I do it deliberately. I have phones . . . I just don’t want to be on call at all times. Sometimes it’s inconvenient not to have one, but I often hear friends grouse about having to answer their phones all the time. Long ago I visited Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s a great museum, by the way. But he insisted that the new technology in the house—a telephone—be tucked away in a wooden booth. Just because technology is available does not mean we need to employ it.
8. You have written literary fiction, young adult novels, memoir, and nonfiction. Do you have a favorite genre? How do you choose which kind of story you will write next, or does the genre choice depend on the message or story you have to share?
Oh, I like stories. I like narrative. I can feel when a story starts churning around in me. I hear most of what I write unlike some people who see their stories. But as a reader I read all sorts of things. So, as a writer, I like to try different things. I love young adult books because the readers—kids—are so honest in their reactions. Also, kids read with a wonderful concentration and joy. But the writing exercise is pretty much the same in all books I attempt.
9. As a seasoned and successful author, can you briefly describe your writing process? Are you more of a “write every day” or a “write when inspiration hits” sort of author?
Long ago I read a biography of Jack London written by Irving Stone. It was called Sailor on Horseback. In the book, London claimed to write a thousand words a day. I adopted that as my practice. My son had a play fort out in the backyard and when he turned fourteen or so he lost interest in it. I’ve taken it over. It has a standing desk, a chair, and a woodstove. . . . And nothing else. It’s very quiet and it has a beautiful view. I write in the early morning and afternoon. I try to write every day. “Nulla dies sine linea.” (Not a day without a line.)
10. Can you share some of the authors, writers, or role models who have helped to shape your writing?
I love many, many writers, but I don’t dare mention them by name for fear of leaving someone out. I always have a book on hand. I love the feeling, when you close a book, that you have read something truthful and genuine. Hate what’s false; demand what’s true. I love the writers who don’t cheat. And that cheating can take place even in the most so-called serious novels. But I also have to say that I am a teacher, and teaching keeps me honest. Students have a ready-made lie detector. I’m always amazed that they sense falseness in bad novels and detect worthiness in genuine novels. Deep down, of course, it all comes back to the Hardy Boys. If I can give someone the pleasure I felt reading the Hardy boys, that’s probably accomplishment enough.
11. Eternal on the Water delves deep into the meaning of love, illness, and death. Was it difficult to write about the nature of Mary’s illness and death, yet still keep it a light, tender love story? What inspired you to write this novel?
Mary’s character made this novel a pleasure to write. I like her. I like Cobb, too, but I really like Mary. I happen to have a lifelong friend who is a biologist at the University of Connecticut. Biologists are different. I’ve been to parties with him and other biologists where they cook up roadkill. They simply see the world slightly different, perhaps more on a cellular level. So Mary is trapped, sort of, by her knowledge of science and her love for Cobb. But as they say, we are all mortally ill. Mary simply knows she has a shorter time on earth, which provides some of the pressure to make the story move forward. Every story about death is personal.
12. The reader knows from the opening pages what has happened to Mary and how it happened—including Cobb’s part in it. Why did you decide to start with the end?
The why of something is often more interesting than the how. Or at least it usually is. If I use a headline and say, “a local gamekeeper was swallowed by his own snake today in such and such a place,” you are going to read to find how why and how. The story itself is already over. You know the ending. So in this novel I wanted the reader to wonder what in the world happened and be curious. It’s up to other people to decide if it worked.
13. When Mary mentions late in the novel that seeing a moose is a good omen, it brings back the previous scenes—Cobb seeing a male moose chase after a female prior to his meeting Mary, and later, seeing the dead elk. Was that the sort of thing that you had planned, or was it something you went back to fold in during revisions?
That just fell in! In fact, I didn’t even think of it until I was asked this question. Thanks for pointing it out. The first moose that Cobb sees shakes him out of his nervousness about running the river. I always like the Robert Frost poem about the way a bird shook snow off a barn door “saved some part of a day he rued.” I know what he means, I think. Nature is restorative.
14. This novel spans the globe, with sections set in Maine, Indonesia, Yellowstone, and New Hampshire. Have you spent time in all of these places? What kind of research did you have to do in order to use these settings?
Yes, I have been to those places. I have been to Maine and Yellowstone many times. My son lived for a student year abroad in Indonesia and my wife and I visited him there. It’s a wonderful country. We may go back there for an extended stay next time. I’ve always been a traveler, though. I hitchhiked across country three times while I was in college and went right out of college into the Peace Corps. I spent time in West Africa and led student groups all over the world. So, yes, I love to travel. Research? It’s just living.