Reading Group Guide
A Note to Readers from Peter Hedges
- An Ocean in Iowa is a striking title because of its incongruity. What is the title conveying about Scotty's feeling about his place in the universe and his ability to fit into his environment?
- The father in this story is strikingly complex, eliciting anger in some scenes, and tremendous sympathy in others. In the end, what do you make of him? Do you feel sympathetic towards his situation? Or, do you feel that he is in a situation of his own creation, and somewhat deserving of his misery? Is he really miserable, or has he come to terms with his life by the book's close? How do you interpret his identification as the Judge, rather than father or Walter, through most of the book? Does this say something about his character or about the primacy of his professional role over his familial role?
- The mother is a major character despite the fact that she appears in relatively few scenes; she is ever present even in absence. What do you make of her, on how is your feeling limited by her absence? Like the Judge, she is a complex character. Do you feel sympathetic for her, or do you blame her for the problems she has wrought on herself and her family? Is she, in some ways, a victim to her time? How would her life have been different had this been the 80s? 90s? How would it have been the same?
- This book is set in 1969, just as the women's liberation movement is beginning. How would this story be different for Scotty if it were set in 1989? 1999? How would it be the same? Would Scotty have had an easier time if he wasn't the only child who lived with one parent -- or would it make little difference?
- How would you describe Scotty's relationships with his two older sisters. What differences do you see in Maggie and Claire's relationships with the Judge and Joan vs. Scotty's? Does Claire take on her mother's role in a way when Joan moves away? Is growing up just as hard for Scotty's siblings?
- The book is filled with icons and memorabilia from the late 60's/early 70's (e.g. Apollo 11, shaving commercials, Tang, Twister). What songs, games and tv shows remind you of your childhood? Where were you when Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon?
- Scotty wants to stop his age at 7. The Judge never wanted to turn 40. Is there an age you ever dreamed you could stop at? Why?
- Scotty threatens to run away more than once in the novel. He packs his suitcase with toys and a photo of himself before the book begins and runs away a few more times in the course of the novel. What did you think when Joan disappears after the exhibit of her nude photos? Did this remind you of Scotty (or visa versa)? Why is communication so difficult for the Ocean family? What is the Judge's role in all this?
- Miss Jude, the "artist" who comes to visit Scotty's class has a very limited view of art. Can you recall a time for you that an attempt at self-expression was misunderstood by an adult, particularly an adult who seems in a position to know? What was your feeling when you discovered that Miss Jude had destroyed Scotty's painting?
- Scotty's teacher, Mrs. Boyden, seems like another in a series of adults who misunderstands children in general and Scotty in particular. And yet, her reaction to Miss Jude's destruction of Scotty's painting is interesting. How did you feel about Mrs. Boyden before, and how did you feel about her after her silent vow to Miss Jude that "never again will you teach my class"?
In my experience, it takes a collision of unlikely moments, and sometimes even a happy accident, in order to have the first inspirations for a novel. An Ocean in Iowa
began in a surprising manner. During the summer of 1991, my sister and I had a long distance phone conversation where we discussed my upcoming birthday. She remembered that when I turned eight, I had cried for days, even refusing to come downstairs for my party. (Of this, I have no memory.) Apparently, I was inconsolable, for seven was my favorite number, and I had wanted to remain seven forever. Soon after, I visited my father in Texas. One hot afternoon, I sought refuge in an air-conditioned drug store where I saw a stack of Big Chief notebooks. Now, Big Chief notebooks were, in my formative years, the only notebooks I ever wrote in. Hit with a wave of nostalgia, I bought the entire stack. I immediately began to write in the Big Chief notebooks about a boy who believes Seven is going to be his year.
I wrote and wrote and wrote, filling numerous notebooks.
The act of writing on paper identical to the kind of paper I had learned penmanship on affected what I wrote. The fact that I was writing by hand, and not typing (which is my usual way of writing), had an enormous impact on the style of writing. The prose was simple, clear, considered.
Soon I had a name for my hero. Scotty Ocean. Often finding the name of a character is a key step in being able to picture them, to understand them. Scotty Ocean was the name of a boy I wanted to know. I particularly loved the last name of Ocean. Oceans are vast, deep, awe-inspiring. Could a seven-year-old boy be all of that and more?
I worked on this novel, ironically, for seven years. I worried it was taking too long. Then one day I stumbled on a letter Carson McCuller's had written her husband while she was writing Member of The Wedding.
I'm paraphrasing, but the spirit of what she wrote was this: "I've rewritten certain sections twenty or thirty times. One word or image out of place, and the whole work unravels. It's a small, delicate story, it must be done beautifully -- otherwise, there isn't much use for it."
This gave me the encouragement to be patient, to not publish the book until it was ready.
My private hope in writing An Ocean in Iowa
was that it would make me a better, more empathetic parent. If I could envision the mind of a child, and inhabit the fears and loves of Scotty Ocean, then maybe I'd be more understanding of my children -- their fragility and their resilience.
I'm often asked if the book if Scotty Ocean and I are the same person. The answer is "No." There are or three or four autobiographical moments in the novel. But ultimately it's a work of fiction. Anyway, I was born on July 6, 1962. Scotty was born on July 12th. I did not know him growing up, but I'd like to think that if I had, we'd have been best friends.