Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Far From Here includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nicole Baart. 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.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you think the author chose to include a Prologue from Danica’s point of view about the first time Etsell took her flying? How did this opening set the tone for the rest of the novel?
2. The author uses an interesting point-of-view technique, alternating chapters from Danica’s first-person point of view with those from a more limited third-person point of view. What effect did this have on your reading experience?
3. Danica feels betrayed and upset when Etsell tells her about his three-week trip to Alaska. She accuses him of making an important decision they should have made together. He in turn accuses her of making all their decisions. Explain Danica’s reaction. Do you feel that she is justified? How accurate is Etsell’s complaint? Use examples from the novel to support your opinion.
4. On page 47, Benjamin tells Danica, “Never do what you should do,Dani. Do what you have to do.” What do you think he means by this? Do you agree or disagree?
5. Danica and Etsell may not have had much in common, but they both grew up with untraditional parenting. Compare and contrast the relationship Etsell has with Hazel (his “surrogate mother”) with the relationship between Danica and Charlene. Did Danica have a “surrogate mother”?
6. Danica describes her oldest sister as somewhat detached and cold. Natalie doesn’t come to visit Danica until Etsell has been missing for two months. Yet Danica is “convinced of her sister’s love, even if Natalie couldn’t bring herself to say it and didn’t know how to show it.” Do you think Danica understands her loved ones and forgives them for their faults, or does she just have a lifelong history of making excuses for everyone around her? Explain your opinion.
7. Who did you suspect was at the door on page 235? Were you surprised at Sam’s news? Why or why not?
8. Danica asks her neighbor Ben—a pastor—why in all his visits he’s never mentioned God. “I have,” he says. “In lots of different ways” (page 312). What do you think he means? Identify and discuss what some of these “different ways” might be.
9. Danica’s older sister Natalie tells Danica, “We fail each other. Every day in a million different ways” (page 224). Does Danica agree? Do you? Why or why not?
10. When Danica finally tells her whole family about the baby, everyone seems divided on what she should do. Hazel and Char seem to think it would only hurt Danica in the long run to have such a reminder in her life, whereas Kat seems to feel the baby belongs more with Danica than with a stranger. What would you do in her shoes?
11. Unlike most widows, Danica is never delivered a body or even true confirmation of Etsell’s death. Identify and discuss some of the ways in which she attempts to move on with her life. What finally marks a true shift for her toward healing? How does she find closure?
12. At the end of the book, Danica wrestles with whether or not she should adopt Etsell and Sam’s child. In the Epilogue, she is definitely mothering an infant. Whose baby is it? Etsell and Sam’s? Or Danica and Benjamin’s? Use clues from the text and your own understanding of Dani’s growth throughout the book to make a case for the scenario you believe is the most likely.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Sam’s unexpected visit interrupts a game of canasta between Danica, her sisters, their mother, Hazel, and Ben. Try learning to play this popular card game from the 1940s with members of your book club.
2. Danica and Etsell often hike to the river and enjoy lazing around, their feet in the water. Bring a little of their world to life by holding your next book club meeting beside a local river or lake.
3. In the novel, Kat decides to mark Etsell’s passing from their lives in a very physical way, asking Danica to lop off her ponytail and give her a short new hairstyle. Many women mark major life changes by dramatically coloring or cutting their hair. If you’re feeling brave, why not experience the difference such a change can make in your life by visiting your favorite beautician and trying a totally new look?
A Conversation with Nicole Baart
You write a blog on your website, www.nicolebaart.com. What made you decide to start blogging, and how is it working for you?
I started blogging shortly after I signed my first publishing contract because I thought it was part and parcel of the whole writing gig. At first I felt silly and inadequate as I tried to come up with witty, interesting posts. Now I just write about whatever is on my mind. Sometimes I blog about my publishing experiences, but more often than not my posts are a place for me to think out loud about life, family, relationships . . . I even post recipes or snippets of funny conversations I have with my kids. It’s a pretty mixed bag, but I do love doing it
There’s a fantastic online community that I never knew existed until I started to blog.
Far from Here is your fifth novel. How has your writing process evolved since your first novel? What is the first thing you do when beginning a new book?
The first thing I do when I begin a new book is buy a brand-new package of my favorite pens and six legal pads of paper. When the notebooks are full, the book is done. That’s how I wrote my first book, and my process hasn’t changed much since then. I still write longhand and then transfer the book chapter-by-chapter to my computer. I’d say the biggest thing that has changed about my writing process is my approach to plotting. I used to just let the book evolve, but I like to have a pretty detailed outline to work from these days. Of course, that doesn’t mean I stick to it.
You include a lot of specific details in your novel, lending authenticity to your settings and characters. In particular, your description of Danica’s work in the salon and her restoration hobby, as well as her trip to faraway Alaska, come to mind. What kind of research did you do for this book?
My mother restored furniture when I was a little girl, and it’s something that has always interested me. I’m currently in the process of refinishing an old dining-room table for outdoor use by weatherproofing it and creating a mosaic tile pattern on the tabletop. It’s fun, but a bit overwhelming.
As for Danica’s experiences in Alaska, I knew I couldn’t accurately capture that atmosphere without going there myself. So Aaron and I flew up to Anchorage for five days. It was a whirlwind trip but we had an amazing time. We have friends who live in the area and they were very gracious tour guides, ferrying us from the Loussac Library to Seward and through countless little airports and hangars. I was even able to go up in a Cessna over Resurrection Bay. It is an experience I will never forget, and one that hugely impacted the way I wrote Far from Here.
Danica’s situation is complicated from the beginning and only gets more complex as the novel progresses. What inspired you to write this story?
They say life is stranger than fiction, and in this case it’s true. My dad’s best friend disappeared in a bush plane in northern Alaska and was never found. His story always haunted me, but as a grown woman I began to consider it from the perspective of the people left behind. How could you live not knowing? The unknown can be so scary, and I tried to imagine what it would be like to live with all the questions and what-ifs. Could a person find hope even in that? I’d like to think so.
This novel is set in Blackhawk, Iowa, which is described as a tiny, out-of-the-way town that time (almost) forgot. Is this a real place, or based on one? What was it like writing about a small town like the one you grew up in?
There is a little village not too far from my hometown that served as the inspiration for Blackhawk. It’s tucked next to a small river in a valley that cuts between acres of rolling hills and farmland. I’ve always loved it—especially the big, white bridge that spans the river as you enter the town. However, I took some serious creative license as I dreamed up Blackhawk. The fictional town is bigger and more picturesque. A perfect Anytown, USA.
As for writing about small towns, it just feels natural to me. I’ve lived in the city and on a farm, but I’m a small-town girl at heart. There is a very unique sense of community in a small town, an unspoken understanding that we are all family—even quirky great-aunt Mildred and the guy who talks to himself next door. Everyone fits somewhere in a small town, and I wanted that sort of close-knit community for Dani.
Though love is an important theme in this book, it’s anything but a typical love story. Through your characters, you explore how love and marriage can change over time—how careful we must be as their caretakers. At one point, Natalie seeks to comfort Danica by telling her, “We fail each other. Every day in a million different ways” (page 224). Do you think this is true? What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about marriage?
I do think that we fail each other, but I believe even more strongly what Dani muses shortly thereafter: “Sometimes we come through for one another. Sometimes we forgive” (page 225). The truth is, we are all very selfish beings. We try to put others first, but even in the relationships that mean the most to us, we often default to elevating our own wants and perceived needs above those of the people we love.
Love is a daily, sometimes hourly, choice. Even though we fail, we have to keep trying. It breaks my heart when I hear a version of the sentiment: I love him, but I’m not in love with him anymore. What does that mean? To me, it’s just a pretty way of saying: “I don’t feel like trying anymore.” That may sound harsh, but love is hard. It can be exhausting and frustrating and heartbreaking. But I’m a romantic at heart—I believe it is always worth fighting for. I tried to communicate that through the pages of Far from Here. In spite of their differences, and in spite of all that happened, Etsell and Dani kept fighting for each other. They forgave. And in the end, I think they both chose love, even though they stumbled and fell and could have spent the rest of their lives resenting each other. I think that is the single most important thing I’ve learned about marriage: Be gracious to one another. Always.
The issue of adoption comes up at the end of the book. You also have adopted a child. How did that experience influence your inclusion of this plot twist in Far from Here?
Adoption is very near and dear to my heart, even if it is a hotbutton topic in the world today. Some people will argue that children should remain within their context at any cost, and though I agree that the preservation of identity within a particular culture or society (even the culture of a specific community within the same state or country) is important, I believe that in an ideal world every child should experience the love of a family.
Sometimes that family isn’t going to look like a “normal” family. Sometimes that family might live across the country or even across the globe. It probably sounds idealistic, but I think that love really does have the power to overcome seemingly insurmountable hardships. I wanted to address that belief with Dani’s impossible question: Could she adopt the love child of her husband and a woman with whom he had a one-night stand? Could I? Could you? The answer is going to be different for everyone—and that’s okay—but that doesn’t change the fact that a living, breathing child is the result of Etsell and Sam’s “mistake.” A child who needs a home. Who needs the miracle of adoption.
Tell us a little about One Body One Hope, the nonprofit you co-founded.
One Body One Hope is a nonprofit organization that works alongside a church and orphanage in Monrovia, Liberia. My husband and I met the pastor of a Liberian congregation when we were in Ethiopia bringing home our son, and it was evident in the two weeks we spent together that we simply couldn’t walk away and pretend that our lives could go on as normal. The people of Liberia had imprinted themselves on our hearts in that short time, and we left Ethiopia with the promise to do anything we could to support our new friend and his struggling community.
One Body One Hope began with basic relief work—distributing rice to starving families and providing a monthly sponsorship program for the fifty-some children in the church-run orphanage. But we’ve moved past those fledgling efforts and are passionately
rehabilitation and development in both the orphanage and the greater community. Liberia is still experiencing the devastating effects of a bloody civil war, and the economy is very fragile. Eighty-five percent of Liberians are unemployed. We’d like to see that change. It is our goal to walk beside our Liberian friends and offer whatever assistance and support we can to help them rebuild their country—one family, one person, one community at a time.