Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The World As We Know It 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.
As adolescents in rural Maine, Ed and Allard Keer save the life of Sarah Patrick, their new neighbor, who has fallen through a thin patch of river ice. As a result, a kind of special bond is formed among the three, but especially between Allard and Sarah, who eventually fall in love. The three of them grow up together, with the dream to work someday together at their own nature film production company. It seems that nothing, including jealousy or separation, can part them—until Ed’s accidental death mere days before Allard and Sarah’s wedding. Unable to make sense of or reconcile himself to his brother’s death, Allard buries himself in his work, avoiding his family and his fiancé, until two years later, when an assignment brings them back together. Reunited with those most important to him, he is finally able to put the memory of his brother to rest.
Topics and Questions For Discussion
1. Nature acts as a main character in this novel. How does the setting influence the course of the book? How much of what happens is a result of the setting?
2. Allard and Ed’s father believes that owning land is salvation. Do you agree? If you could own a piece of land in any part of the world, where would it be?
3. Allard’s father tells him that “the heart is always inexperienced.” Do you agree with him, or do you believe that we take what we learn from one relationship to the next?
4. While reading, did you experience a sense of foreboding regarding Ed and Allard’s trip? Did you see Ed’s death coming? Or were you surprised?
5. When Ed dies, Allard loses his best friend and only brother. How would you have reacted if you were Allard? Would you have gone through with the wedding? Why do you think he needed to isolate himself? Do you think he was overwhelmed with guilt that he survived and Ed did not?
6. Even until the very end, Ed remains an optimistic person. How do the two brothers complement each other? How would the story have been different if it had been Allard trapped in the rock instead of his brother?
7. Were you surprised when Sarah and Allard part ways at the end of Part II? What kind of advice would you have given Allard in this situation? What about Sarah? Do you think they had to split up in order to ultimately be together?
8. What did you believe would happen between Allard and Sarah when he proposes a second time? How do you feel about the ending?
9. In the end, Sarah forgives Allard and accepts his second marriage proposal. Do you think she was right to forgive him for abandoning her? Would you have been able to forgive Allard?
10. The Baker River plays an integral role throughout Allard’s life. How is Allard a different person when he visits the river later in his life?
11. Sarah, Ed, and Allard show a true passion for nature and wildlife. How were you impacted by the conservationist message in the book? Do you share a similar vision?
12. The dangers inherent in working in the wilderness hit Allard and Sarah hard, but their desire to continue in their chosen field does not seem shaken. Knowing the sacrifices people in this line of work make and the dangers they face, do you believe the end product is worth the risk? Why?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Keer brothers are set on making the Baker River Film Company a reality from a very young age, and both work in film as adults. The Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth series is an excellent example of nature films. Rent the DVDs with your book group or watch clips online at http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/planet-earth to get a sense of the Keer brothers’ dream profession.
2. PBS Now has also shown a documentary called On Thin Ice, about the rapid rate of glacier melting, which mirrors the topic of the documentary Allard and Sarah help produce in the novel. Watch it at http://www.pbs.org/now/on-thin-ice.html, then discuss.
3. Wilderness is central to the lives of the characters in The World as We Know It, but many of us rarely spend much time in the outdoors. The National Park Service has a “Find a Park” section on their website (http://www.nps.gov/index.htm) that can help you plan an outing for your group. Or check out your local state parks.
4. Sarah Patrick not only takes part in the Baker River Film Company but becomes an acclaimed nature writer. To learn more about the experiences of living in harmony with nature, read Joseph Monninger’s critically acclaimed memoirs Home Waters and A Barn in New England.
A Conversation with Joseph Monninger
1. What was the inspiration for this story/novel?
I live in Warren, New Hampshire, where the novel is set, so the inspiration for this narrative is all around me. My wife, Wendy, and I raised a son here, so it wasn’t difficult for me to imagine what growing up in this town might have been like. From that beginning point, Allard and Sarah’s story developed naturally. As someone who has moved around a fair amount, I wondered what it would be like to stay rooted to one place, one community. The joy Sarah and Allard experience is the joy of knowing where you belong in the world. Ultimately, this is a story that echoes the loss of Eden. Luckily, Allard and Sarah catch themselves before they are banished forever.
2. Have you yourself ever been, like Allard and Ed, lured by the map of the great north? What was that like?
My inclination has always been to go north. I’m not sure why. I once owned a home on an island off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. I’ve taken a mail packet boat along the southern Newfoundland coast and spent some time on St. Pierre and Miquelon watching the seal colonies. I like pine trees. I like cold rivers. So for me, adventure has always pointed north, and I suppose I transferred that impulse to Allard and Ed and their dad.
3. Do you have a position, like Sarah does, on animal rights?
Oh, this is a tricky one. I love animals, and I have been a vegetarian at different times in my life. I struggle. I always think, gosh, I love my dog and cat, so why should I kill other animals when it isn’t necessary? I won’t even get into all the ecological questions about raising livestock, but those concerns are considerable. Add to that the ultimate question of animal intelligence, their capacity to suffer, and so on, and you have an entire bundle of issues. So I suppose Sarah is espousing views that represent part of my mental state. At the very least, I believe those important questions should be part of our consciousness. They are worth asking and exploring.
4. As the author of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir, do you find one easier to write than the others?
Not really. They all require the same set of muscles. Nonfiction is a bit more time-consuming because it requires verification and research. Fiction permits us the luxury of making things up. But I like doing both.
5. Does nature play a big role in your personal life?
Absolutely. My wife and son are avid kayakers, and we try to take a river trip once a summer at least. We also live beside a river—the Baker River, from the novel—and we fish in it, swim in it, and canoe it. I’m also a lifelong fly-fisherman, so I am on the water a good deal during the spring, summer, and fall. So yes, nature is an everyday part of my life.
6. Do you believe in fate?
Not really. The idea of fate is an intriguing one, but I don’t quite buy it. Dramatically, though, it’s an important concept. Romeo and Juliet are “fated.” So are many tragic heroes. Readers, I think, feel the need for things to come right . . . to have consequence and inevitability. Maybe that’s fate.
7. What is your favorite moment in this book?
I like the sequence when Allard has a dinner for Sarah up on a meadow. That little rift in the relationship is important to the novel, and I think it’s true to life. I enjoyed writing those scenes. I also like the opening because it represents my initial engagement with Allard’s voice. For a writer, it’s pretty special when a character begins whispering his or her story.
8. Do you fly-fish or do woodworking?
As I mentioned, fly-fishing is one of my passions. I always tell friends that it is “the only thing I do that is the only thing I do.” Meaning, it wipes my hard drive clean and lets me think about nothing. And again, I won’t even go into the animal rights issues associated with fishing.
I’d love to do more woodworking, and maybe will someday, but I wasn’t brought up in that environment. My wife is better at woodworking, and most around-the-house skills, than I am. I’m learning, though. It actually seems to rely on the same thinking patterns as fishing. It engages me when I do it and it takes me away.
9. How do you relax at the end of the day?
Scotch! Actually, we have a bell on our porch that we ring at cocktail time. But I also love movies and sports, so sometimes I’ll watch something. My wife insisted some years back that we buy a hot tub, and I thought she was crazy. I figured it would end up like an exercise bike with clothes draped all over it. Not so! Turns out we take a hot tub four to five times a week. Winters in New Hampshire require a plan for heat and relaxation!
10. Who are your favorite authors or authors who may have influenced your writing over the years?
Oh, probably too numerous to give any kind of meaningful list. I’ve loved certain books at certain times, and I am grateful to those authors. One of the earliest memories I have of reading revolves around Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. And Lord of the Rings was awfully important to me during high school. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, I loved the big, fat nineteenth-century novels because they provided another world to visit. But I love books, plain and simple.