Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for A Young Wife includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Pam Lewis. 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.
Amsterdam, 1912. When fifteen-year-old Minke Van Aisma travels to Amsterdam to care for the dying wife of a wealthy man, she has no idea what journey lies ahead. Only hours after his wife’s death, her employer, Sander DeVries, proposes marriage. Within days the couple has set sail for the oil fields of Argentina. They settle in the rough coastal town of Comodoro Rivadavia, where Minke eventually learns that her husband is not a successful trader, but a morphine producer. The future that seemed so bright takes an even darker turn the morning their toddler son, Zef, is kidnapped. Sander seeks murderous revenge for the kidnapping, and he must flee Comodoro and start over in another country. Already pregnant with their second child, Minke has little choice but to wait for the new baby’s arrival, then follow Sander to America, leaving their firstborn behind forever. But when she arrives in New York and discovers that Sander has betrayed her, she leaves him, finds works as a seamstress, and vows to find her son, no matter how long it takes.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- When we first meet Minke, she is a fifteen-year-old girl from a tiny Dutch town. How does Minke change over the course of the novel? What risks has she taken by the end of A Young Wife that she might not have seemed capable of at the beginning?
- Consider Minke’s relationship with Elisabeth DeVries, Sander’s dying wife. How do Minke and Elisabeth bond? Why does Elisabeth’s death haunt Minke? What lessons does Minke fail to learn from Sander and Elisabeth’s marriage?
- On the way to Comodoro, Cassian tells Minke, “Truth is a matter only what you put in and what you leave out…. Truth is in the selection of fact.” (p. 73) How does Minke learn about the flexibility of truth and lies? How does Cassian use selective truths to his own advantage?
- Discuss Minke and Sander’s relationship to the Dietzes, their fellow travelers to Argentina. What are Minke’s first impressions of the Dietz family? How do the Dietzes react to the death of their daughter, Astrid? Do you think they hold Minke and Sander responsible for Astrid’s death? Why or why not?
- What are Minke’s first impressions of Comodoro as she arrives by ship? What dangers and thrills await her in this “vast, colorless” land? (p. 124)
- Consider the gauchos of Argentina and their relationship to the settlers of Comodoro. Why is Minke fascinated with the gauchos’ traditions and lifestyle? How are the gauchos’ values different from the settlers’ values and what tensions exist between these two groups?
- After Cassian is attacked in Comodoro, Minke is “forced to see herself, her family, in a new light as corrupt, even evil, and protection as something that could vanish in the wink of an eye.” (p. 214) How does Cassian’s attack serve as a turning point in the novel? What other acts of violence and betrayal follow soon after? What does Minke realize about her role in Comodoro’s community?
- Compare the two scenes of immigration in the novel: Minke’s arrival in Comodoro with Sander, and her passage through Ellis Island with Cassian. What are Minke’s expectations during each scene of arrival? How are her expectations met or thwarted as she settles into a new life?
- After Sander’s infidelity, Minke “thought back over their years together, almost three now. Why hadn’t she seen his character before? The signs had been there.” (252) What signs of Sander’s true nature did Minke miss, and why did she ignore them? How did Sander deceive Minke? What motivates this complicated character?
- Trace Minke’s relationship with Pieps, from their first meeting on the Frisia to their unexpected reunion in Comodoro at the end of the novel. How does Pieps help Minke feel at home in a foreign land? What does Minke learn from Pieps? Do you think their friendship will evolve into something more?
- Discuss the relationship between Minke and Fenna. How are the sisters similar, and how are they different? Facing Fenna after her betrayal, Minke realizes, “She didn’t despise Fenna. That would have required passion. No, Fenna had shown her true colors and Minke was no longer interested.” (p. 335) What are Fenna’s “true colors,” and what price does Fenna pay for her deceptions?
- Minke’s mind clears when she realizes the conspiracy behind Zef’s kidnapping: “Like a fog lifting, a world comes newly into focus, she had to let go of one set of beliefs and make room for another.” (p. 302) Name another occasion when Minke learns to let go of her beliefs. What does she learn from others’ deceptions?
- Revisit the luncheon scene between the Wileys and the Dietzes. How is this scene funny as well as suspenseful? How do the Wiley siblings outsmart the Dietzes, and how does Minke prove that their little boy is Zef?
- A Young Wife ends with Minke’s return to Comodoro with Zef and Elly. “New York was not a place to raise her children. She has tasted better, far better. Comodoro is her gift to them.” (p. 346) What is it about Comodoro that draws Minke back, even when her children’s future seems more secure in New York? What opportunities await this small family in Comodoro?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- Arriving at Ellis Island, Minke and other immigrants “could bring into the country only what you could carry yourself.” (p. 234) Brainstorm a list of what you would bring if you had to start your life over in a new country. What would you pack in your suitcase, and what would you leave behind?
- Minke speaks three languages: Dutch, Spanish, and English. Teach your book club how to greet each other in Spanish and Dutch. Start with some Dutch phrases here: http://www.omniglot.com/language/phrases/dutch.php.
- What is the history of morphine, the drug that Sander and Cassian produce? View a timeline of opium’s history, from 3300 B.C. to the present day: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/heroin/etc/history.html.
- A Young Wife is based on a true story from Pam Lewis’s family. If you could write a novel based on any story from your family’s history, what would it be? Write a paragraph or two about the most interesting story from your family—past or present, real, or imagined—and share it with your book group!
A CONVERSATION WITH PAM LEWIS
A Young Wife is based on your grandmother’s secret past. How did you come to learn this extraordinary family story?
We moved often when I was growing up, and my grandmother’s rare visits were highlights of my childhood. She told stories of a disaster at sea, a burning ship, circling sharks and a husband’s heroism. She spoke of her life as a new bride in a place called Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina, of handsome gauchos who rode into town on fabulous horses decked in turquoise and silver and their thunderous races down the dusty main street.
There the story stopped. It picked up again with my grandmother’s serene life in California, her four daughters fully grown and a smattering of grandchildren.
After my mother died in 1984, information began to flow. I learned from relatives that at age fifteen, my grandmother had been hired to tend a dying relative in the home of my then thirty-five-year old grandfather. They fell in love, and, causing a scandal in the small town where they lived, sailed to Comodoro Rivadavia to start a sort of trading post there. He ultimately abandoned her in New York with four young daughters to begin another family with her own sister. Astonishingly, my grandmother continued to love him until the day she died.
This scant but rich information was a rare gift for a fiction writer. The exotic settings, the passion, and the devastating betrayal became the bones on which to build my story. I was glad not to know everything — virtually nothing of my grandfather to this day— so that my imagination was free to make up the rest.
A Young Wife is a new direction for you as a writer, after two books of suspense fiction. Was your writing process different this time? What elements of suspense were you able to incorporate into this turn-of-the-century saga?
My writing process didn’t vary much with this book. In all three, the suspense was added relatively late in the writing process. For A Young Wife, I knew the general shape of the story but surprised myself with the suspense. My grandmother lost a child in Comodoro when a nurse mixed water that hadn’t been boiled into his food. I loosely intended for this to happen in the novel but when the time came to write it, I couldn’t bear to see the child die and decided he should be kidnapped instead, which raised the far more interesting questions of who did it, why, where was the child taken and would he ever be seen again?
From gauchos’ traditions to Ellis Island medical exams to New York fashions, A Young Wife must have required a lot of research. How did you learn what Amsterdam, Comodoro, and New York looked and felt like a hundred years ago?
I was reading W.H. Hudson’s The Purple Land on the elliptical machine at the gym when I realized he was writing about the same part of the world where my grandmother had lived. This started a fury of reading. Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago and Idle Days in Patagonia, the novellas of Eduardo Mallea. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Incredibly, I was able to find a book of photographs of Comodoro from 1910 to 1915. There was the Almacén, the Explotaciòn and the Cerro Chenque. I was shocked at what a hardscrabble life my grandmother must have had there compared to what I had pictured, and I could only conclude that her memory of that time was so lustrous not because of the place but because of her intense love for her husband.
My sister, Gail Tobin, my aunt Winnie Schortman and I went to Enkhuizen which had barely changed since my grandmother’s time. I also Googled furiously to learn about everything from life on board ship, life in New York City, right down to the name of the school that little Woodrow DeVries would have attended.
A Young Wife features several morally-questionable characters, including Sander, Fenna, and the Dietzes. Which of them was the most fun to create, and why?
I often write with my eyes closed. That way, I can picture the scene unfolding in front of me and write what I see. I can’t do that so well with dialogue, but I love to do it when several people are in a scene, and I want to know what they look like, what they’re wearing, how they move and so on. Tessa Dietz really came to life when I saw her at the estancia with that big ratty blue parrot on her shoulder. She was hands-down my favorite morally-challenged character. I loved her outrageous sense of entitlement, so awful to the people who worked for her, and so completely narcissistic.
Minke proves to be a talented seamstress and dressmaker. Which fashions do you find more interesting: those of the 1910s or the 2010s?
In terms of construction, the fashions of the 1910s are more interesting because of the hand sewing. I live near Willimantic, aka “thread city.” Interestingly, when those mills started mass-producing thread, people started owning more that two sets of clothing. So the clothing of today is more interesting to me; there so much more of it and so much more varied than in Minke’s day.
In A Young Wife, morphine is a common drug, and its characters treat everything from broken legs to childbirth with a dose. How did you learn about morphine’s past uses, while keeping today’s knowledge of its dangers out of the plot?
The early twentieth century was a murky, semi-legal period for cocaine and its derivatives. For example, until 1903 Coca Cola contained significant amounts of cocaine. At the same time, morphine required a prescription and a bright red label with the word “poison” spelled out clearly in white letters, and it was used for everything from lesions to childbirth. In Europe, morphine production was not a crime until the Hague Conference of 1912, which meant that entrepreneurs like Sander and Cassian could no longer freely mix up batches. They would have had no choice but to leave The Netherlands and set up shop in a more tolerant place. The dangers of the drug were there, of course. We see Griet helping herself to her mother’s medicine just for the rush, and we see the young men who always lounge around Cassian. But morphine was still easy to get and I had the sense that although there were laws, they weren’t yet rigidly enforced.
This novel is refreshingly frank in its sexual attitudes—Minke’s passion for Sander, as well as Cassian’s sexuality, are important to the plot. Did you ever find it difficult to write these scenes? Was it ever challenging for you on a personal level, given that Minke’s character is based on your own grandmother?
I come from a long line of dishy women on my mother’s side, so these scenes were not at all difficult to write. I’m pretty sure my grandmother’s great love for her husband couldn’t have been prim Victorian admiration. She was an absolute lady when I knew her, always in stockings, heels and a dress, but photos of her as a young woman show a great spirit. And as far as Cassian was concerned, his homosexuality was secondary to his character but turned out to be essential to the plot. I hadn’t known it would be a problem until there was an entourage of young men who gravitated to him at the morphine works. In a small, predominantly Catholic, lawless setting this would not sit well.
Minke is a heroine with the great immigrant spirit of the early 20th century. What do you think it was like for a woman to start her life over—sometimes on her own—In those challenging times?
I’m awed by the number of people who left everything behind and started new lives in this country. Thousands went through Ellis Island every day. Women were not allowed to enter the country alone. They had to be part of a family who were already in the U.S. or on the ship with them. So Minke would have been able to enter, but without Sander’s support she’d have been truly on her own with an infant to support. It took grit. In my own family, my grandmother was hired by the Misses Wiley as a seamstress, just as Minke is in the book. In real life, Mr. Wiley found a job for my mother, then age 16, at the New York Times, and she supported the family, having to give up a full scholarship at Swarthmore to do so.
How did your family react when you told them you were writing a novel based on your grandmother? What details did you change as Minke DeVries became her own character?
My family was not only supportive, but they were also able to fill in many of the gaps. As with many secrets, the things I didn’t know were widely known by others. My second cousin told me about the dirt floors in my grandmother’s house in Comodoro and the ever-present howling wind. She said Momée was so naïve that once pregnant, she had no idea how the baby would come out.
Both Minke and Momée have a quiet strength and elegance, both are excellent seamstresses, and both are very wise. But I also gave Minke a hefty dose of my mother who was a purposeful and ambitious woman. Momée used to exasperate my mother with her reticence. Even as a young girl, my mother would have to ask store clerks for things because Momée was too shy to ask.
In searching records at Ellis Island I discovered that while Momée was quarantined in Holland with three little daughters during the war, her husband remained in New York and sailed first class to Cuba under the name Juan. He listed himself as Argentine and said his wife was my grandmother’s sister. He did such a disservice to his real wife and children that I had no qualms about creating a wretch of him even though I must say here that he never manufactured morphine and he never engineered a kidnapping.
All three of your novels are about secrets and lies, to some degree. What do you think attracts you this theme?
I’m attracted to secrets and lies because there were quite a few in my own family. From the reactions to my first books, I would say everyone has them. What fascinates me is the way children make up whole logical scenarios to fill in the gaps of information. As a child, I knew my grandfather was alive although my mother would not even give me his name. I always pictured him out there somewhere. I imagined the reasons for his not being in our lives had to be monumental. Maybe he was too busy for us. Maybe he didn’t like us. I never for a moment considered that he might be a bad man.
What are some of your favorite works of historical fiction?
JP Donleavy’s Ragtime stands out. There were so many wonderful surprises in that book, my favorite of which was the appearance of the Little Rascals. I also liked Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. I don’t read much historical fiction that predates the twentieth century, I realize now from considering this question.
What can your readers look forward to next? Will you return to historical fiction or suspense fiction, or try your hand at a new genre?
The next book will be about a group of sixty hikers encamped just outside Yellowstone who go in groups into the wilderness each day. There has been a mauling by a grizzly not far from the encampment. The story will revolve around three people—the director of the group, a young woman who has little experience with the out of doors and the man whom she is stalking.