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On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad Reading Group Guide
On Borrowed Wings is the impeccably researched and imaginatively written story of Adele Pietra, a bright and restless girl raised by an unhappy couple in the granite town of Stony Creek, Connecticut. Determined not to follow in her mother's footsteps and marry a quarryman, Adele spends the summer of 1936 dreaming of escape and adventure. When her brother Charles is killed in a mining accident she sees her chance and, assuming Charles's identity and gender, enrolls as a freshman at Yale. Adele befriends a lively crew of undergraduate boys, including charismatic troublemaker Wick Foster. Despite her admirable navigation of Yale's rigorous social and academic pressures, great obstacles spring up along the way. Her work with a mentally unsound eugenics professor, her inconvenient crush on Wick, and her mother's unexpected meddling threaten to put an end to Adele's masquerade and her chance for a better life.
Questions for Discussion 1. On Borrowed Wings contains rich and historically accurate detail about a place few people have experienced firsthand. What did you learn about the collegiate experience in the first half of the 20th century, and about Yale in particular? What interested you most? What aspects of Yale's history would you have liked to have seen explored more?
2. When Amelia Earhart gives her speech at Yale, the students ask her pointedly personal questions about her home life and whether she plans to have children. What does this scene reveal about the expectations of women in the 1930s? Does this change your attitude toward the risks Adele takes by impersonating a man? Discuss the issue of gender roles in the book.
3. Discuss the various meanings of the book's title. Consider recurring motifs such as birds, flight, and the ways in which several characters borrow other identities.
4. Early in the novel Adele speculates on Mother's reasons for trying to force her to marry a stonecutter: "I'd think that maybe she couldn't envision my life as different from hers because she was confined by her own exampleŠ.I didn't know at that moment, and even later, to be honest, I'd never know for sure" (p. 15). What do you think of Mother's motives?
5. Mother is an extremely complicated character -- she's haughty, intimidating, and ambitious -- but she displays unexpected moments of kindness. She ultimately has a stormy relationship with Adele. What is your opinion of her by the book's end? Do you find her a sympathetic character?
6. Discuss the role of deception in the book. Do you think the author believes deception is acceptable when directed toward the right cause? Consider the evidence Adele alters in Professor Spang's study, Adele's work with the DiRisios, and her falsified identity at Yale.
7. Why does Adele follow the stranger to the burlesque show? Why does she feel compelled to have contact with him?
8. Wick thinks that falling in love will cure him of his phoniness. Do you think that it will? Can love help people correct their shortcomings?
9. When Adele discovers Phin in the library, she learns that he has a secret that might be nearly as damning as her own. How do these secrets create a bond between the two? What are the similarities in their situations? How would the consequences of their exposure differ?
10. What is the significance of the story behind Pa's "brother" Francisco? Given Mother's relationship with Pa, why do you think she withholds the secret about Francisco until the end of the book? How does this change Adele's feelings about her family? How does this revelation affect Adele's understanding of her own situation and her own character? What does it seem to say about societal limitations versus the limitations of our own character?
11. Harry is Jewish, Phin is gay, Adele is in disguise, and Wick feels his whole personality is fraudulent. Discuss how these friends are all outsiders. What is the significance of their status? How are other characters outsiders in their own ways?
12. When Mother tells Adele the truth about her "uncle" Francisco and calls Adele's father a coward, Adele makes a decision: "Even if what she was saying were true, even if she managed to contaminate my memories, I wouldn't let her denigrate Pa any further. I understood where my loyalties lay, and where hers lay, too" (p. 296). How does the book explore the issue of loyalty? Consider the various alliances between Adele's family members and friends.
13. Were you satisfied with the book's ending, and the way things were left with Wick? Do you agree with Adele's decision to cut ties with her mother and return to Yale? Given the many questions left unanswered at the book's end, what do you think will happen? Will Adele be able to re-enter society as a female, or will she be caught before completing her studies? What might the consequences of her deception be? Aside from going to Philadelphia, what might Adele's other options have been?
Tips to Enhance Your Reading Group
1. Read other coming-of-age, "Ivy-lit," such as F. Scott's Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (Princeton) or Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River (Harvard).
Read up on the real-life Amelia Earhart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amelia_earhart www.ameliaearhart.com
2. Prepare a delicious Italian potluck like the DiRisio family's, including such favorites as artichoke risotto, pasta, lamb, and ricotta pie. Find great recipes in Every Night Italian by Giuliano Hazan or on http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/recipes.
3. Learn more about Chandra Prasad at http://www.chandraprasad.com.
Chandra Prasad is the originator and editor of -- and a contributor to -- W. W. Norton's Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience, which includes original pieces by Ruth Ozeki, Danzy Senna, and Rebecca Walker. Her other works include the novella Death of a Circus, which Tom Perrotta hails as "narrated with Dickensian verve, a keen eye for historical detail, and lots of heart," and the careers guide Outwitting the Job Market. Prasad is also the author of numerous articles, which have been published by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times Magazine, among others. A graduate of Yale, she lives and works in Connecticut.