Are Any Two Group Alike? Reflections on Leading Two Well-Read Mom Groups
by Ana Braga-Henebry, M.A.
I lead two Well-Read Mom book groups in two different urban communities one hour apart from each other. Since we started in 2013 neither group has missed a meeting, South Dakotan winters and all.
Albeit geographically close, I am the only link between these women--the members of one group have not met the members of the other group. And yet they live just one hour (or less) apart and share many of the same values and manner of daily life. For the sake of this reflection, I will call them the South and North groups.
When I started both groups, I expected that there would be repetition in opinion and theme when we met. Obviously the books and questions would be the same, but I also expected a fair amount of repetition in the discussions.
Was I wrong!
Human beings have a way of being incredibly diverse in thought and opinions--even if so close in geography, belief, and culture. Well, my two book groups are proof of that.
There are differences of opinions and insights in all of the books, and mostly they stem from personality differences, I think. Such as liking or not liking a fictional character. For example, while some of us, myself included, have loved Jane all of our lives and believe Jane Eyre to be a story of a very real, believable female character, there was at least one member who was very put-off by Jane, considering her to be far "too-good" to be real. The same thing with the Bennett sisters, and more so with Mrs Bennet herself. I have read Pride & Prejudice now so very many times, that I have really grown to love that woman. As I age and my children grow, mature and get married, I seem to understand her motherly heart so well. Even I must skip the "fluttering and beatings of the heart on my poor nerves." And yet Mrs. Bennet is an easy target, because she is truly made ridiculous in the book and film versions, and few were the members who would take my side on that issue. (I insist however that a careful reading of certain passages reveal her determined motherly love.) Still, the opinion on Jane, and Lizzy, and even Lydia Bennet, they vary as people's tastes can vary.
But then there were deep differences of opinion between the groups, differences that truly form a chasm.
Take Mary Lavin's stories. That month, my North group was first to meet. In this group one of the members is from Ireland herself, and early on in the meeting she voiced her dislike for the stories. She met with nods and agreement from group. I should insert here, parenthetically, that I try--some times more successfully than others, to keep a neutral tone during discussions. For the ones who know me they know this can be difficult: the very fact that I enjoy organizing and leading two simultaneous book clubs may lead the reader to correctly surmise that I have strong opinions! And yet during the discussions I am genuinely curious to hear other members' opinions--and especially so the strong ones. If I have a strong opinion, and sometimes I do, I try to leave my elaboration on those towards the end of the meeting. Again, sometimes I am more successful than others.
Back to the first meeting on Mary Lavin's stories: in this case I maintained my opinions very neutral. The language and tone of the stories were very obscure to me--somehow that whole world in which her stories take place, the family interactions, dialogue, their very setting--it was like they were all behind an impenetrable veil to me. I wonder even if I had been to Ireland, I could connect with Mary Lavin's world. So I sat and listened to the discussion and opinions, and learned as well. The stories were depressing, they thought, and seemed void of an uplifting message. There was no love-loss for a single character, as they were thought to be but shadows of real people.
A few days later, after enjoying dinner and conversation at a nice restaurant, the discussion started in my South group. Immediately a delight was expressed in her writing, in the development of characters, and in her ability to bring the Irish world into her writing. The themes of family love, of friendship, of the sacrificial dimension of the life of the wife and daughters, all of these surfaced. Some expressed a desire to read more of her stories, and indeed I lent my copy away as I hadtwo of them. I smiled to myself, and brought up some of the opinions expressed in the other group, which were met with no nodding of heads.
(This is not to say the groups' opinions were all that homogeneous. I am grouping the majority's opinions in a sense, but there are always dissenting ones, while not as eloquently defended for various reasons.)
And then... there was The Secret Diary of Elizabeth Leseur. For me, the book was hugely personal. During the reading I was being touched in so many ways, and I had an ongoing online conversation with a member who was having a similar experience. My opinions and experiences regarding the book were of such an interior dimension that I had a very difficult time beginning to express them in either meeting. In a way I didn't even try, as I did not see demand for it: both groups were talkative during those meetings.
Few times I have been as astonished as with the second group discussion on the intimate, spiritual diary. The North group had enjoyed the book even if it had touched them on different levels--but there was agreement in the opinion that we faced here a higher spiritual account of the life of a beautiful, loving and generous soul. The South group, however, had a different opinion. I must add that it was a week plagued by both winter weather and scheduling issues, and it was an unusually small gathering. But what I heard surprised me. There was unhappiness expressed over the fact that Elizabeth didn't tell us more of her comings and goings during the day. That she remained silent when she should have expressed herself. That she chose to be submissive. And the list went on. In truth at least one member, with me, vehemently defended Elizabeth, as we both stressed the fact that the book wasn't a diary of events but a spiritual one, and that, reading both between the lines and the biographical notes, we can begin to see that she was lively, joyful, attractive woman in many ways to their circle of friends, and not at all a dour person.
And yet such is a book club meeting--at times I feel at a loss. I must remember that books do not touch people the same way, and that some may just not be ready for certain readings, I too have been just as guilty in the past of disliking, or "not getting" a book that later opened itself so clearly and beautifully to me.
A case in point is Anna Karenina, which I just finished at the time of this writing. I have tried in the past, more than once, to persevere in the reading of this masterwork of Russian literature, but the adultery theme and initial scenes seemed so repulsive to me that I couldn't go on. Now I understand that the book, even though demonstrating what grave, unrepentant sin can cause in a soul, is also filled with hope and light in the character of Levin.
Leading two simultaneous Well-Read book clubs has been a gift to me. I started both clubs when our family was in midst of a painful move and transition. The book clubs were tremendously helpful to me in both maintaining my relationship and friendship with one location, and meeting and making new friends in the other location. I am grateful to both of my groups and their lovely members, and I confess I look forward to more of their dissenting opinions!
Ana Braga-Henebry has a Masters Degree in Humanities/Aesthetic Studies from University of Texas at Dallas and is the mother of seven children with her husband Geoffrey, a graduate of the St. John's College Great Books program, now a scientist and Professor at South Dakota State University. Ana has written Catholic plays for children, articles and features for Catholic periodicals, and was a founding editorial board member of Mater & Magistra. She has been a book reviewer for 20+ for various sites including Love2Learn and Amazon.com. Ana is also the author of the Catholic Textbook Project workbooks. She welcomes visitors to her blog at anabragahenebrysjournal.blogspot,com and she can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.