Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for A Violet Season includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kathy Leonard Czepiel. 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.
The violet industry is booming in 1898, and a Hudson Valley farm owned by the Fletcher family is turning a generous profit for its two oldest brothers. But Ida Fletcher, married to the black sheep youngest brother, has taken up wet nursing in order to help her family, and her daughter, Alice, has been ordered by her father to leave school and find work or an early marriage. As they near the brink of losing their share of the farm, the two women make increasingly great sacrifices for their family’s survival, which will take them from their small farming community to the dangerous streets of New York’s Lower East Side and set them against one another in a lifelong struggle for honesty and forgiveness.
A tragedy and a love story, the narrative is told in the voices of both women. It unfolds against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century America, including the grueling world of women’s everyday work, the nation’s involvement in the Spanish-American War, and the details of life on a violet farm. The story is framed by an amateur historian’s interview with the elderly Alice, whose redemption will come only with her willingness to break a silence of more than seventy years and recognize her mother’s courage in the face of a changing world.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. A Violet Season is divided into four parts: Whitewash, Harvest, The Stokehouse, and New Cuttings. Discuss the significance of the title and part titles. What is the significance of the violet itself in relation to both Ida’s and Alice’s journeys?
2. Discuss the relationships between the various female characters in A Violet Season; do you feel that they could have done more to support one another? Consider the three sisters-in-law, Harriet, Frances, and Ida; the girlhood friends Claudie and Alice; and the women who work in Mrs. Hargrave’s house. Were you surprised, for example, that Alice never tried to write to Claudie? Do you think Ida might have had a better relationship with her sisters-in-law if she had tried opening up to them—and vice versa?
3. Compare and contrast the young male characters Oliver, Avery, Norris, and Joe. How is each character an illustration of the environment and societal expectations that shaped young men during this time period? How have expectations changed—or remained the same—today?
4. As demonstrated by the character Anna Brinckerhoff and the inclusion of Women and Economics, this was a time when women were slowly calling traditional gender roles into question and exploring what their “place” was in marriage and in the wider world. Discuss the various examples of relationships between men and women throughout the novel. Consider, for example, Dr. Van de Klerk’s reaction when he finds that Ida has “decided” to take on two babies, or Frances’s confession that she believes William married her solely for her fortune.
5. There is a moment, right after Frank announces he’s left Alice in the city, when Ida storms out of the house, thinking to secure Alice’s return by turning to William and Frances. But then she stops: “They must’ve questioned his judgment. But what was there to demand, to say, to do now? No one would do anything....She could rely on no one.” Do you think this is true, and that she did the best she could, given the pressure of her circumstances? Or do you feel Ida made a mistake that cost Alice dearly? How much of the blame for Alice’s situation do you feel lies with Ida? Do you agree with Alice’s angry accusation that she was “blind”?
6. In justifying what he did to Alice, Frank says: “She could’ve saved us.” Of all their children, Frank thinks Alice is the one who could have saved them, even though he clearly only cares for the future of his sons. Discuss this irony in the context of the period and the way women were viewed and valued.
7. A Violet Season is told from both Alice’s and Ida’s perspectives. Why do you think the author chose to construct the novel this way? What elements do the varying perspectives add to the narrative? If you could have read more from one character's perspective in this novel, whose would it be? Is there another character’s perspective you wish the author had included? What did you think of the interview sections of the novel, where an elderly Alice recalls her mother and everything that happened to them?
8. Do you think if Ida had mentioned the encounter she witnessed between Alice and Joe Jacobs to Frank, things could have turned out differently for Alice? What about if Alice had confided in her mother that she loved Joe right from the start? Why or why not?
9. Joe goes through an immense amount of trouble to save Alice from Mrs. Hargrave’s. Were you surprised then by his decision to abandon their relationship once he and Ida brought her home, his only words to her being a final “Godspeed”?
10. At the only point of confrontation between Frank and Alice, in Mrs. Hargrave’s study, Frank forcibly takes Alice’s locket. What is the significance of this action? Why do you think he did it?
11. Discuss the evolution of Frank’s character. Did you find him as terrible and cold in the beginning as he becomes by the end? Or did you find him somewhat sympathetic at first, blighted by his circumstances and the grudges he and his brothers have been carrying for so long?
12. Alice and Ida both read Women and Economics by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, and both focus on select passages, as follows:
“In the passage Ida read that afternoon, Mrs. Stetson chastised the economic system for pressuring mothers to withhold from their daughters the truths about marriage and motherhood, a practice she decried as evil.”
“Though the book placed Alice outside its argument...she couldn’t put it down, for it also claimed Alice was not so unlike young married women; Mrs. Stetson saw marriage itself as a form of prostitution in which women married men because it was their sole means of financial support….In the end, the book left her despairing even more deeply, for if she were to have a choice, it would be between prostituting herself as a married woman or living her life alone as a working woman.”
What do you think about the conclusions each woman draws from the passages that speak most to her? Discuss these ideas in the context of the time in which they were written and in the context of our contemporary world. Do you still feel that Mrs. Stetson’s words are relevant?
13. At the end of the novel Ida reflects, “She missed him. Not the man himself....But she missed desperately the idea of him, the man she’d thought he was. That man was more real to her than the one who had betrayed them all.” Have you ever fallen in love with an idea, only to be confronted with a less appealing reality?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Check out author Kathy Leonard Czepiel’s website, www.KathyLeonardCzepiel.com, and learn more about her.
2. Divide parts of Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution by Charlotte Perkins Stetson (later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman) to read and discuss with your book club. What do you make of the author’s opinions on marriage and family values? Does she have any ideas that still seem relevant today? Does she have any ideas that are unacceptable today? Did reading and discussing this book change any of your thoughts about or reactions to A Violet Season?
3. The poem in which Keats refers to the violet as “that queen of secrecy” is Answer to a Sonnet by J.H. Reynolds, Ending. Read the poem, below, aloud with your group and discuss its significance to the novel.
Answer to a Sonnet by J.H. Reynolds, Ending
by John Keats
"Dark eyes are dearer far
Than those that mock the hyacinthine bell."
Blue! 'Tis the life of heaven, -the domain
Of Cynthia, -the wide palace of the sun, -
The tent of Hesperus, and all his train, -
The bosomer of clouds, gold, gray, and dun.
Blue! 'Tis the life of waters: -Ocean
And all its vassal streams, pools numberless,
May rage, and foam, and fret, but never can
Subside, if not to dark-blue nativeness.
Blue! gentle cousin of the forest-green,
Married to green in all the sweetest flowers -
Forget-me-not, -the blue-bell, -and, that queen
Of secrecy, the violet: what strange powers
Hast thou, as a mere shadow! But how great,
When in an Eye thou art alive with fate!
4. At the turn of the century, the violet was thought to stand for constancy and devotion. Use a flower dictionary (online or printed) to have each member look up the meaning of his or her favorite flower and share it with the group.
A Conversation with Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Congratulations on your first novel! What has been the most exciting part of the process so far?
The most exciting moment occurred on the November afternoon in 2010 when my agent first called, saying she was interested in representing my novel. The whole process of pitching and selling, revising, proofreading, publicizing, and marketing has been interesting to learn. There’s a steep learning curve the first time around, but that makes it exciting.
How did you come to be a writer? Who are some of your favorite writers?
I’ve always loved writing. Even before I could write, I would dictate stories to my mother, and she would copy them into little stapled booklets for me to illustrate. I grew up in a family that valued reading and writing. I was probably the only kid in my school who had a typewriter in her bedroom.
That question about favorite writers opens the floodgates, but I’ll try to keep it simple. A page of “Books I Love” is included on my website. In general, I tend toward American literature, and most of the contemporary fiction writers I read are women, though not by design. I’m just more drawn to their stories. If I had to choose just a few writers to read for the rest of my life, I’d probably pick Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, and of course Shakespeare, who covers all the emotional ground of human experience. That’s a crazy list with huge gaps. Ask me tomorrow, and it will be different.
You are a native of New York’s mid-Hudson valley. What was it like growing up there for you? Did your familiarity with the area influence the setting of the novel?
Like many people, I didn’t really appreciate the beauty of my hometown until I left. Now I know that the Hudson Valley is among the most beautiful places in the country, and though I don’t live there today, it still feels like home when I return. I grew up in a small town where we thought life was pretty boring when we were teenagers, and we really only paid attention to the river when we crossed it to go shopping at the mall. The Hudson River is cleaner now than it was when I was a kid, thanks to a number of wonderful environmental organizations, including Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. I once sailed on their historic sloop for a week as a volunteer and really got to be on the river—a thrill! I think it’s pretty common for first novels to be set in a place that has deeply imprinted itself on the writer’s life. The Hudson Valley is that place for me.
What inspired you to write A Violet Season?
I returned home a year or so after college to work for the local weekly newspaper, and that’s when I learned that the area where I’d grown up had once been known as “The Violet Capital of the World.” How is it possible that I never knew this before? In fact, most evidence of that once booming industry has disappeared. That was the seed for the novel, but I didn’t know it right away. I had to do a lot more writing and living before I was ready to tackle a novel, and then the violets came back to me. I knew I would be working on the novel for a long time, so the subject had to be something really compelling to me. I thought the violets would be intriguing to readers as well.
What kind of research did you do for the novel? Did you know a lot about violet farming and wet nursing before you started writing?
I knew nothing about violet farming. Almost all of the research on the violets came from a single, fat file at the Museum of Rhinebeck History. I found other sources, but all of them led back to Rhinebeck. Then I visited a farmer named Fred Battenfeld in nearby Red Hook. His family once grew violets, and his father had been interviewed by someone at the museum. That interview became my most valuable written source. Fred has one bed of violets left, but his primary crops today are anemones and Christmas trees. He showed me around his greenhouses, which gave me the visuals, the smells, the feel of things. Then he answered a bunch of later e-mails as I ran into more questions, and he read pages and fact-checked the violet passages for me. The novel couldn’t have been written without his help.
The wet nursing was easier to research. There are lots of good books out there on the history of wet nursing, and I had nursed both of my own babies. That experience hasn’t changed much over time, so it was easy for me to write about Ida nursing, even though the babies weren’t her own.
The contrasts between how women are treated in contemporary society and how they were treated at the turn of the century are striking. Was highlighting the differences, the struggles women faced then, a vital component to the story you wanted to tell? Is there anything surprising you discovered while doing so?
I didn’t set out to write a novel about women’s work or the struggles they faced at the turn of the twentieth century, but it was inevitable that that theme would surface. I did have some surprises. I knew that women’s work was physical and unrelenting, but I was struck by how backbreaking the weekly job of laundering was, which is why I took the time to tell about the process of doing laundry in detail. I was also surprised by some of the things I learned about life in the brothels, particularly that there was often real camaraderie among the “girls”—a sort of “sisterhood”—and that many of them had actually chosen that life. What this really tells us is how horribly limited their other options were. But for some women—those working in the more expensive brothels who made enough money to live quite comfortably—prostitution did seem to be, in their minds, an acceptable alternative. I tried to demonstrate that in my portrayal of the day-to-day life at Mrs. Hargrave’s without minimizing the very real perils of their existence, including disease, drug, and alcohol addiction, and of course rape. It was a very fine line to walk, and I hope I did that part of the novel justice.
We understand that the love letters between Alice and Joe were inspired by actual love letters written by your own family members. Did you discover them while you were writing the novel?
In 1890–91, during their engagement, my great-grandparents wrote a series of letters to one another. She was living in Nyack, New York, and he was in Newark, New Jersey. My father had transcribed the letters, since their handwriting was difficult to read, and I asked him for a copy of that transcription. Though its subject matter was entirely different, my great-grandparents’ correspondence helped me get the voices right in the letters between Alice and Joe. I borrowed directly from my great-grandfather, whose name was also Joe, the closing to some of his letters, which I found quite touching: “I remain yours, Joe.” Fortunately, the outcome for my great-grandparents was better than it was for Alice and Joe. They were married for forty years until my great-grandfather’s death and had five children, the fourth of which was my grandfather.
Are there still violet farms in existence today? What about wet nurses?
As far as I know, the only farm still cultivating violets in the northeast is the Battenfelds’ Farm, but there may be others. These violets (sweet violets, Parma violets) are different from African violets, which you can find at many garden shops, but don’t ask me to explain the taxonomy of the plants – that is not something I’ve learned! In the northeast, we find a relative of the sweet violets growing wild in our lawns, but people often eradicate them as weeds in favor of keeping their grass pristine. Why not let the violets grow and enjoy them?
You can still find wet nurses, if you know whom to ask and where to look, though they work very quietly, partly because our society finds it taboo for one woman to nurse another’s baby. We can only afford to have that attitude today because we have other alternatives for feeding our infants. Fortunately, that taboo doesn’t extend to the milk itself. There are milk banks across the country where women who have an abundant supply of breast milk can donate their milk for infants who need it. The FDA advocates the use of milk banks that have screened their donors and ensured the safety of their milk over the use of a wet nurse.
Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Do you identify with any of the characters in A Violet Season?
I would like to think of myself as a Mrs. Schreiber or a Mrs. Brinckerhoff, strong women able to see beyond their own time, working for change and helping other women. Truthfully, there’s probably a lot of me in Ida. One character trait of hers that I recognize in myself is her no-nonsense practicality. But I didn’t intentionally write myself into any of my characters. If anything, I usually work against that notion. Otherwise things tend to get boring pretty quickly, both for me and probably for the reader.
What are you currently reading?
I’m always reading more than one thing at a time. It’s probably a bad habit. I’m currently in the middle of Nicole Krauss’s novel Great House (her novel The History of Love is one of my all-time favorites), and I’m about to start Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I try to stick close to the classics, as well. Next on deck will be some American writers of the 1920s and ’40s since that’s the period I’m writing about now. There’s also a teetering pile of literary journals on the floor next to my bed. My current favorites are Tin House, The Missouri Review, and One Story. This makes it sound as if I read a lot, but really I spend much less time reading than I would like. I spend more time reading my students’ papers than anything else.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another historical novel, this one set in the early twentieth century just before the Depression and just after the Second World War. Instead of violets, it is centered on a photography studio. I also have to learn how to build a house.
I’m also working on a collection of linked stories. And I have a nonfiction project that I’m beginning to toy with as well. I’m lucky that I’ve never experienced writer’s block. I always have more ideas than I have time!
One last question (we have to ask): How do you pronounce your last name?
First of all, the Z is silent. There are lots of tricks my family uses to help people pronounce it. One of them is that it’s what you do with an orange: see it, peel it. See-peel. Some people think I was crazy to take my husband’s name and give up “Leonard,” but I like having a quirky name. And I don’t mind if you pronounce it wrong. You couldn’t possibly come up with a pronunciation I have