Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Shelter includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Frances Greenslade. 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.
In the wilds of Duchess Creek, British Columbia, Jenny and Maggie Dillon grow up in a quirky but tight-knit family. When Maggie is ten, however, a logging accident kills their father. A few months later, just as the sisters are beginning to get back on their feet, their mother abruptly drops them with family friends in a nearby town, promising to return in a few weeks. She never does.
As Maggie and Jenny learn to make the best of their new life, they cannot help but wonder how their warm and loving mother could have willingly abandoned them—and if she did not, then what happened to her? Maggie’s struggle to answer this question forms the heart of Shelter, a gorgeous debut that celebrates the love between two sisters and the complicated bonds of family.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the different women who play the role of mother to Maggie and Jenny. Could any be labeled “good” mothers, or at least “better,” than the others? What is the author saying about motherhood, and our expectations of mothers?
2. The majority of the novel is told entirely from Maggie’s perspective. Do you ever wonder about Maggie’s reliability as a narrator? Why or why not?
3. Maggie often takes off on her own, hitch-hiking and camping without adult supervision or permission. What does she find in nature that she doesn’t find at home? How is her relationship with nature different from Jenny’s?
4. Maggie calls herself a born worrier and exhibits a lot of maturity for her age. How much of this is a result of her upbringing and family circumstances? How much is innate?
5. Maggie can’t decide if she pities Chiwid or envies her. What is it about Chiwid’s life that Maggie envies? What does this tell us about Maggie?
6. How does the experiences of spending their vulnerable early teenage years without a mother influence Jenny and Maggie? How do they individually deal with this abandonment?
7. Irene’s relationship with Emil is a strange, albeit loving one. How does knowing their backstory affect your understanding and opinion of Irene? To what degree do you sympathize with Irene and the choices she made?
8. There are many mystical elements to the storytelling in Shelter. Why do you think Frances Greenslade chose to tell the story this way?
9. Describe your reactions to the section of the novel comprised of letters from Jenny to Maggie. What did you learn about the two sisters' relationship from these letters? Was there a certain part of Jenny's letters that particularly stood out for you? Describe.
10. Jenny decides to keep her baby. How do you think her own upbringing and relationship with her mother impacted this decision? What would you have advised her to do?
11. The setting of Shelter shifts between rural life, town life, and city life: Duchess Creek, to Williams Lake, to Vancouver. How do these different settings shape the story?
12. Other people are caught up in the Dillons’ lives: Ted and Bea, Rita, Vern and his Uncle Leslie. How do you think each of these people contributes to shaping Maggie and Jenny as they are growing up?
13. In your opinion, was Irene planning to return? What do you think her vision was for the future?
14. Reflect on your own experiences with mothers and motherhood. How familiar or unfamiliar are the struggles the characters face?
15. The novel closes with Jenny and Maggie building a new family together, planning a cabin on the land Jenny inherited from Emil. What do you imagine their lives will be like in five years? Ten years?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. There is a special section dedicated to book clubs on Frances Greenslade's website (www.francesgreenslade.com), which includes a Shelter soundtrack of songs from the 1960s and 1970s, a photo album from Greenslade's travels in British Columbia, and reading list of books that Greenslade referenced while writing Shelter. Consider listening to the Shelter playlist during your discussion or looking at the pictures of British Columbia with your group.
2. Potato Mountain is a real place. You can see pictures online at http://www.summitpost.org/potato-mountain/images/p-282243. Discuss with your book club how well the photos match what you envisioned while reading the book.
3. When was the last time you went hiking? Plan a hike or a walk outdoors with the group. To find local trails in your area, visit www.trails.com. Consider trying to build a model of the shelter Maggie builds with her father.
A Conversation with Frances Greenslade
Irene’s struggle to define herself aside from her role as a mother is as relevant today as it was four decades ago. Do you think it’s gotten any easier since Irene’s day?
There are more opportunities for women to find the kind of independence that some of the characters in Shelter seek. But for mothers, the expectation we have that they be perfect, and perfectly focused on their children, is in some ways more intense than ever. In the sixties, my mother and her friends would get together in the afternoons and send the kids outside to play and we wouldn’t be seen again for hours. We lost our boots in the creek and ate dirt. That nonchalance is not a parenting style we approve of now.
Post partum psychosis is a relatively rare condition. What led you to include it in Jenny’s experience of motherhood?
Jenny’s circumstances, her age, and family history all make her vulnerable. For so many woman, the reality of being a mother comes as a shock, and the transition from a self-focused individual to mother can be traumatic. I wanted to show that the transition doesn’t necessarily come naturally or easily.
What first inspired you to write Shelter? Was it a specific moment or was the idea brewing for a long time?
The idea came first with the death of my own mother. After she died, I learned she had once wanted to be a painter and live alone by a lake. I felt betrayed by that dream, which made me start thinking about the way I’d always seen her, as if she was born my mother.
Have you ever built a shelter—like the one Maggie builds with her father—yourself?
I’ve long had a fascination, an obsession maybe, with survival in the wilderness. I taught myself to build a shelter and also to identify edible plants.
Nature is hugely important to Maggie, an essential retreat from the problems in her life. Is this a reflection of your own experiences?
Yes. Like Maggie, I find comfort in nature. When I’m out camping and I look up at a sky full of stars, it reminds me that my human problems are so fleeting and insignificant in the scheme of things.
Did your characters surprise you at any point? Did you already know everything that was going to happen to the Dillons when you started the book?
My characters constantly surprise me. Maggie’s independence grew as I wrote and I began to understand her desire to be self-sufficient. Irene started as a model of a good mother who ends up a victim of circumstance. But as I wrote, I realized that she had made choices that were essentially selfish. I tried not to judge her for that.
Would you consider Shelter a feminist novel, or yourself a feminist writer? Why or why not?
One of the themes in Shelter is about how we can become trapped by the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we live by. Having control over our own stories is a feminist concern. I don’t set out to write with any kind of agenda. But my characters reflect the struggles and desires of girls and women I’ve known.
You’ve written two other books that are both memoirs. How was the creative process different for you for fiction versus nonfiction?
It’s harder to write kindly about yourself, for me anyway. In writing Shelter, I fell in love with the characters. I want things to turn out for them.
Who are your influences as a writer of fiction? Are they different for nonfiction?
My first influences were the Canadian writers, Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood, two great storytellers who both reflect a love of the land in their writing. I also love Rohinton Mistry and Isabel Allende, writers whose work you drop into and disappear for hours.
What are you working on next?
A new novel set in Bombay and rural Manitoba.