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This reading group guide forAngela Sloan includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author James Whorton, Jr.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.
It’s the summer of 1972 and one “strange, dry girl”—fourteen-year-old Angela Sloan—is on the run from the CIA, even though she is quite certain that her father, ex-agent Ray Sloan, had very little involvement in the Watergate fiasco. As Ray and Angela hit the road, sometimes together, more often apart, Angela, who prides herself on her ability to go unnoticed, finds herself in the company of rather unlikely car-fellows, such as a strange, pro-communist Chinese girl named Betty, and a bevy of not-so-laid-back hippies with their own hidden agenda. As she tries to dodge agents and find a way to reunite with Ray, Angela learns how to drive a car, smoke a cigarette, subsist on diner food, and charm a motel desk-keeper into giving her vital information; but most importantly, she comes to find that things are not always what they seem in this hilarious and poignant comedy of broken girls, stoic men, and mean hippies set amid the chaos of the Nixon era.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Names are transient throughout the novel; many characters have more than one name, some have no real name at all, and we never do find out Angela’s real name—yet, the title of the book is simply Angela Sloan. Discuss the significance in relation to the story and Angela’s journey.
2. Angela experiences a significant journey through the course of the novel, both literally and emotionally. Compare the early version of Angela with the girl she is by the end. Do you feel she has changed? In what ways?
3. Though Angela has been raised learning all of Ray’s tactics and maneuvers for reading people and scouting a situation, it is Betty who often makes the most astute observations about the people around them. For example, on page 163 she observes about Marilyn: “Way she smoke and eat, seem like she hate herself.” and Angela responds, “I don’t know how you could tell something like that after eating breakfast with her one time.” Why do you think Betty is able to do this? Is it simply because she is more emotionally removed from the situation than Angela is? Or do you think, in trying so hard to see everything, Angela sometimes misses the obvious?
4. Angela is horrified to discover that Betty has her, as she terms it, “under discipline,” when all along she felt as though she were the one in control of the situation. Power, and the balance of power, plays an important role in every relationship throughout the novel. Discuss how each character, at one point or another, manipulates or uses their power in an attempt to achieve a particular end. In your opinion, do many of them succeed?
5. How does the relationship between Angela and Betty evolve over the course of the novel? What are the major turning points? Did you find these changes believable? Why or why not? What about the relationship between Angela and Ray?
6. Choose one adjective you think best sums up the character of Angela and share it with the group. Were you surprised by how others in your group perceived her? What are her strengths and her weaknesses? How does your perception of Angela’s character change throughout the story?
7. Discuss the ways in which the bonds of family and friendship—for good and for ill—are central to the novel. Why do you think Wharton introduces this element into the story?
8. Betty says, “You will never fool somebody with sense, but most people don’t have any sense. You will be surprise. That is how I live, by so many people don’t have sense.” (pg. 101), and Angela observes, “People look past me because I have no value to them.” (pg. 166) Throughout the novel, the idea that people see and believe what they wish to is repeated often. Do you agree with that concept? Why or why not?
9. The theme of appearance (versus reality) is central to the book. What are some of the obvious (and not so obvious) examples of this idea throughout the story? What do you think Angela comes to understand about the way things appear versus the way they truly are?
10. Renee and Eeyore are two characters who coincidentally pop up several times on Angela’s trip, before disappearing entirely. Did you think they were working with the CIA and with Marilyn? Or that they were, in fact, just a couple of freewheeling hippies with impeccable timing? What roles do coincidence and fate play in Angela’s journey?
11. While in many ways Ray trusted Angela with much more information and responsibility than most adults offer their children, he still hid a very important secret from her about his past and his family. Do you feel he was right to keep this from Angela, or do you think by trying to protect her in this way, he ultimately did her a greater disservice?
12. Were you surprised by how Angela’s adventure turned out? Why or why not?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Read one of James Whorton’s previous books (Frankland, Approximately Heaven), or another novel that shares a sassy heroine and themes of adventure and self-discovery, such as The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz. How are they similar? How are they different?
2. If Angela Sloan was made into a movie, who would you cast for Angela? For Betty? For Ray? Discuss your Hollywood picks with you book group!
3. Do some research on the real Watergate scandal, and the tumultuous time period Angela was living in. Have each member present a fact or interesting piece of information for an impromptu history lesson! For a more in-depth account, read a book like All the President’s Men by journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and discuss.
A CONVERSATION WITH JAMES WHORTON, JR.
This is such a hilarious, zany, offbeat adventure—where did the idea for Angela Sloan first come from? Was the story inspired by research on Watergate and the time period, or was it a certain character or setting that sparked the entire novel?
My daughter was home with a cold, and we spent a day watching C-Span. She was about three at the time. Alexander Butterfield was on there, telling about the moment when he revealed the existence of Nixon's secret taping system. It was a wonderful moment, because very few people knew about the tapes. A Congressional staffer just happened to ask him, hey, you guys didn't tape every word of every conversation in the Oval Office, did you? Why yes, we did. That's what got me thinking about Watergate again.
Then there was also a separate idea about a girl who is traveling the country without her father, sending him messages. I don't know where that one came from.
It’s one thing to build a novel around a relatively unknown event in history, but quite another to take perhaps the greatest political scandal in the U.S. and give it such a twist! How did you decide to tackle this time period in this tongue-in-cheek fashion?
Well, a lot of strange things happened. It's hard to tell it straight. I think I left some of the crazier parts out, just for the sake of maintaining the very minimal standard of plausibility that I do try to maintain. For example, I left out the Cubans who were hired to shout "traitor" at Donald Sutherland. Nixon did that, or his people did. But it sounds kind of made-up, I think.
Same thing with the Congo interventions. It seems like a stretch to have Che Guevara organizing French lessons for the Congolese, but that happened. He was there, doing that. It's also true that the CIA had a plot to kill Patrice Lumumba, the first elected leader of the Congo, by poisoning his toothpaste. But I didn't put that in, because I don't know what to do with it. Do you laugh, or do you howl? It's not just bad, it's like wax museum land. Too scary, too circus-nightmare. Howard Hunt in a red wig. Sorry, no. The world inside a novel is less than real, but the advantage to this is that you can imagine it. It's a step toward imagining reality, though it doesn't get you quite there.
This is your third book. Was the process or experience of writing Angela Sloan different in any way from your previous two novels? Do you have a favorite and least favorite part of the writing process?
This one was much slower. Slow, slow. I did a lot of reading and studying, and some traveling, and I enjoyed that a lot, though it took time. I visited the CIA, and I went back to Baltimore, where I lived for a while, to remember what that was like. I walked all over DC. There was also the complication that Angela is very different from me. To begin with, she's a girl. Most of the important characters in this book are women. The men are the opaque ones, which is backwards from how a novel by a man usually works, I think.
There are great descriptions of how to read and react to people in the novel, such as Ray’s tutorial on getting someone “under discipline” in the motel. Were these lessons based on your own observations of human behavior?
In that case, no—the tutorial that Ray gives Angela is the method that is really taught and used by case officers in the clandestine service. I first read about it in a book by Miles Copeland called Without Cloak or Dagger, but it's described elsewhere, too.
Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Which character do you identify with most? Are any of the characters in Angela Sloan based on people you know?
They're all based on people I know, but in piecemeal ways. None is based on a single person. I don't really think they're extensions of me. I guess the one I identify with most is Ray, though the book does not really delve into him much. He's there, but he's not very articulate.
The concept of names, and their importance (or lack thereof), is an interesting one—how did you name your characters? Was it random, or was there a process involved? Do any of the names or code names have a deeper significance than would appear on the surface?
I don't think too much about the names—something comes up, and maybe it seems right, and then it sticks. I tried to avoid loading the code names with too much significance. Richard Helms, who was Director of Central Intelligence during Watergate, said he used to keep a list of random words, and when they needed a new code name they would take the next one on the list. This was supposed to keep them from accidentally choosing a word that would signify something. Sometimes the names were suggestive anyway, though. For example when Lyndon Johnson had the CIA investigate the antiwar movement, which of course was something they should not have been doing, that program was called CHAOS.
From D.C. to Baltimore to West Virginia, Angela’s forced road trip takes her to a whole host of places. Are any of the locations she ends up passing through inspired by your favorite destinations?
Yes. They are all places I've lived or spent time in and have lots of affection for. The interstate bridge over the Holston River—I lived about four miles from there.
What do you hope readers will take away from Angela’s story?
I hope people will be entertained. Also, give an old man a break sometime.
Your bio notes you are both a “former Mississippian” and a “former Tennessean,” and you now live in New York. How does your background inform your writing?
I wonder about that. I don't know. I do think people are different, in different places. Angela's not really from anywhere, and I sort of know that feeling.
Who are your writing influences? What are you currently reading?
Well, I met a Congolese English professor by email and asked him to recommend something, and he recommended King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. So I'm reading that. And I just finished a book by Chris Lear called Running with the Buffaloes about the University of Colorado cross country team of 1998, and before that a novel by my fellow Hattiesburger Elliott Chaze called Black Wings Has My Angel, and before that a really good novel by Diane Johnson called The Shadow Knows. And I got Thomas Powers's new book The Killing of Crazy Horse, which I am looking forward to. He wrote maybe the best book ever on the CIA, The Man Who Kept the Secrets. Another one by him that's worth reading is a book called Diana: The Making of a Terrorist. It's about Diana Oughton, who was with the Weather Underground.
Now that Angela’s story is complete, what’s next for you?
Something fast. And something set in Rochester, I think. I'm still kind of new here and trying to get a grasp of the place. It's a city, yet there are deer and turkeys everywhere. And we occasionally see black squirrels, which I would not have believed, had I not seen them.
James Whorton Jr. is the author of two other novels, Approximately Heaven and Frankland. A former Mississippian and former Tennessean, he lives in Rochester, New York with his wife and their daughter. He is an Associate Professor of writing and literature at SUNY Brockport.