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This reading group guide forSing for Meincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Karen Halvorsen Schreck . 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.
Rose Sorensen is a young woman gifted with a voice to sing and a heart to serve her disabled sister. Raised in the Danish-Baptist Church and by emotionally absent parents, Rose plays the roles expected of her within these spheres of protection. But what happens when a young woman crosses these thresholds and finds that she is fully alive in a jazz club that plays secular music rather than the cathedral halls of her church filled with hymns? And what happens when she is most happy in the presence of an African-American pianist rather than with the Danish man her parents believe she should marry? Rose’s passions clash against the ideals and secure ways of life for a young Danish woman in depression-era Chicago. Tenacity and true faith, amidst great risk, are born out of Rose’s resolute pursuit to discover God’s calling on her life as well as true love.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Rose’s passion for worldly music rather than solely religious music cross the boundaries that her church and family place on her. Her supportive cousin Rob knows this well, claiming “It’s just music, Laerke, music that’s made for you...You’ve just got to get past the past, your fears, your family.”? (p. 14) Have you had a passion or gift that goes against others’ expectations of you or even your own ideology? How have you responded to this tension? Why?
2. Rose’s parents always made sure she and her sister Sophy stayed out of colored neighborhoods. When Rob brings Rose to Calliope’s for the first time, do you think her fears are related most to being caught in a colored neighborhood or more to being at a jazz club that plays secular music? Explain. Do you think her apprehensions are attached more to her parents’ rules for her or her own beliefs? Why?
3. When Rose encounters Theo for the first time, she shares, my “skin prickles with some emotion I can’t put a name to. Fear. I try that on for size, but it doesn’t fit. Embarrassment. Nor that. Recognition is the word that comes to mind, though that’s not a feeling is it? It’s an experience. I’m having an experience of recognition, standing face to face with this man.” (p. 22) Have you ever had an experience, be it circumstantially or an encounter with another, that felt like this? Describe it. Why do you think you felt that way?
4. On one occasion while Rose is bathing Sophy, Sophy has a wild fit. Her fit is“…because in this moment, as in nearly every moment of her life, her desires are frustrated, her wishes out of her reach.” (p. 36) How does Rose’s description of Sophy here parallel her own life? Are there areas of your life that also fit this statement? If so, what are they? Select one to expand upon.
5. Rose’s pastor proclaims, “It is of the utmost importance that we have a call. We were born to serve God in a way that He has ordained for us.” (p. 58) Rose reflects that it is “one thing to dream of singing for provision. It’s another thing altogether to dream of singing for pleasure.” Do you believe God’s callings can combine both provision and pleasure? Or do you see them consistently through the lens of having one but not the other?
6. The tension of the times in which Rose lives is evident in the scenes where she must ride in the backseat of Theo’s car. He plays the role of the chauffeur and she the passenger, to be better “safe than sorry.” (p. 107) Today, there are tensions too: racial, religious, socioeconomic and more. How are you impacted by such tensions, if at all? What is your response?
7. In Chapter 10, the truth of Rob and Rose’s visit to Calliope’s comes out one Sunday at family lunch. Rose’s father bruises her arm in an angry grip and speaks hurtful words to her. This is not the first time she is emotionally hurt by her father, or other family members, so why do you think it is such a significant turning point for Rose? “Far weightier is the truth, which is what I will live for from now on, never mind where it takes me.” (p. 129) Recount a turning point in your life that was facilitated out of pain.
8. Once Rose makes the final leap and officially joins The Chess Men to sing, she feels “better than wonderful” and “whole” for the first time. (p. 158) Even in the secular, Rose experiences and shares the sacred. “Never mind race or creed, status or religion. The strangers in this (Calliope’s) room are not strangers. They are my brothers and sisters. We are children of God.” (p. 183) Do you think all believers are able and meant to experience the sacred in the midst of the secular? Can you identify opportunities for this perspective in your own life?
9. Sophy continuously requests Rose to sing, associates her to The Little Mermaid story and knows what and who makes her happy. How does Sophy influence Roses’ choices?
10. How does the theme of risk in pursuit of love and dreams weave its way throughout the book? Rose claims that the “risks are worth it.” (p. 248) Recount a time in your life when the risks were worth it and another time in your life when the risks did not seem worth it. What would you do differently, if anything?
11. In the opening of Chapter 19, Andreas and Rose’s father rescue she and Theo from Mike and his hoodlum gang. Always feeling so much emotional negligence and hurt by her Dad, how do you think Rose felt after being defended by him in this scene? How did this fight for his daughter change Rose’s father? What evidence of her father’s change is displayed at Sophy’s baptism?
12. Theo flees to New Orleans to find himself as well as to set Rose free. Initially, he cannot bear the thought of keeping them at risk. Was it surprising to you that Rose remains in Chicago, hopeful and patient for his return? Why or why not? Describe a time that you created space between yourself and a loved one in order to protect them.
13. Immediately before Nils proposes to Rose, he bows his head and says “Save us,” most likely to God. (p. 282) Why do you think Nils desires to marry Rose despite his obvious objections to parts of who she is? How can you see yourself in Nils’ character, loving someone but perhaps not wholly aligning yourself with his or her choices or beliefs?
14. Theo returns home to Rose, surprising her with his presence at the piano while she is in the middle of a song at Calliope’s! How does Rose’s experience at Mahalia Jackson’s church, hand in hand with Theo, encapsulate all of her longings, voicing that this is what she has “wanted from the beginning?” (p. 300) How has Rose changed from her first mention of Mahalia Jackson at the beginning of the novel to who she is in this closing scene?
15. How does the role of music serve as a bridge between racial divides, socioeconomic status and religious differences in the story? What about present day?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research Mahalia Jackson. When did her career officially start and how? Listen online to the liberties she takes with songs and her beautiful voice in her renditions of Amazing Grace, Down by the Riverside and Lord Don’t Move the Mountain. Discuss how the lyrics of the latter parallel Rose’s journey.
2. Identify a calling in your life that you have neglected or left unfulfilled. What factors and risks have kept you from moving forward? Share this with the group and what it would look like if you could move forward in it.
3. Rose’s childhood faith and parental expectations clash against her passion to sing in a jazz club. Share your views on what it means to be a believer in God while truly living in the midst of real life and non-believers. Specifically, what do you base these views on?
4. Rob, Sophy and Theo are all instrumental in lovingly pushing Rose to pursue what she loves. Is there someone in your life you need to be tangibly supportive of in their pursuit of freedom, love or dreams? How can you or the group do so?
5. Attend or volunteer at an event that crosses the groups’ normal racial, social or economic boundaries. Perhaps attend a live performance concert, a theater show or volunteer with a soup kitchen. Perhaps visit a park or serve at a nursing home. Take note of how it makes you feel to be outside of your normal sphere and share these thoughts with the group afterwards.
A Conversation with Karen Halvorsen Schreck
Who or what inspired you to write Sing for Me?
I was originally inspired by the stories my dad told me about growing up as the child of Danish immigrant parents in Chicago during the early part of the twentieth century. My love for music inspired me, too.
You are not only an author but also a teacher of writing and literature. How does this, accompanied with your educational background in English and creative writing, influence your writing and storytelling process?
What doesn’t influence my writing and storytelling process? Maybe that’s more the question. I clean my house, for example; I get down on my knees and scrub the floor. Because I do that work, I’m better able to write about Rose’s experience in Sing for Me. Washing the floor is a creative act that inspires and contributes to my storytelling process. I honestly believe this. In fact, I’ve made a recent resolution to embrace this more unified way of looking at experience. Increasingly, I want to break down the divisions between work and play, between productivity (of a certain nature) and creativity (of a certain nature). Doing so sure makes washing the floor a happier time.
So back to the original question about my teaching and studying literature and writing: as with cleaning the house, my time in academia has absolutely influenced and contributed to my storytelling process. I’ve spent so much joyful, challenging time reading and reflecting actively and deeply on all kinds of writing. Whether the work is traditionally published or that of my students, I learn an immense amount about writing, story-making, life from so much of what I read. Cliché as this may sound, I never stop learning. It’s a gift really, and like cleaning the floor, teaching and studying writing and literature feeds a single fire.
Who is your favorite character? Why?
I’ve heard other writers say this, and I’ll concur: I simply can’t answer this question. If I were to try, it would be a bit like my saying that I favor my daughter over my son, or my son over my daughter. The truth is my children are very different people, and I love them equally. This goes for my characters, too. As I write my way forward in a book, I get to know the people who populate the pages; I enter into their lives, hearts, and minds, and they enter into mine. The more time I spend with them, the more I come to care for them in all their complexity, and this goes for the more “minor” characters, too. In the end, I find myself thinking about each and every character: Oh, you have such a story to tell, too. I want to write your story! Tell me. I’m listening.
A large portion of Sing for Me was written during your Metra train commutes to Chicago for work, along with various other nooks and crannies in the city’s centers. Describe your favorite writing location or room.
I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own at a formative age. I had wonderful teachers and read wonderful writers who said things like: A window works best for me at this level in my writing room, and I make a practice of handwriting my first drafts in pencil on lined paper always, and I keep my desk bare except for my paper and pencil and the coffee I made the night before and put into a thermos because I only write in the morning hours, starting before dawn so that I enter the page in a kind of dream state. I thought that kind of practice was wonderful way back when, when I first read and heard such statements. For years, I tried to emulate them.
Then I had kids.
And then the basement room where I worked in our current house flooded and became unusable as a writing space.
And then I took an extended freelance job that had me commuting regularly.
Luckily, at some point, I also read the amazing poet Lucille Clifton, who said, “The best conditions for me to write poetry are at the kitchen table, one kid’s got the measles, another two kids are smacking each other. You know, life is going on around me.”
I found the essence of Lucille Clifton’s statement both convicting and liberating. Never mind the ideal scenario, I needed to get the work done, and I could and would find a way. Look at Lucille Clifton. She did.
Thus, writing on the train, where every morning and evening (if possible) I’d alight on one of my two favorite perches: an upper seat by the window at the back of the blessed quiet car, or a lower level seat by the window at the back of the blessed quiet car. I loved (and still love) writing on a train, the miles rolling by beneath me. I think it helps me with things like pacing and plot—all that momentum and motion I’m feeling in my body get carried over onto the page.
I also love the Silent Reading Room in the Wheaton Public Library; my kitchen table; my couch, especially if it’s winter and there’s a fire in the fireplace; my son’s bedroom, because the WiFi’s best there; and a particular friend’s third-floor upstairs’ study, where I did a fair portion of solid revision over the course of a week. Cafés, not so much anymore. The music. The noise. I drink too much coffee and then I can’t focus, and then I smell like coffee for far too long after. But most any other place: give me a quiet place and I’ll do my best to get the work done.
By the way, Lucille Clifton also said this: “Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”
This novel is steeped in historic detail of Depression-era Chicago. What was your research process like?
With his stories, my father gave me an incredible understanding of Depression-era Chicago—an understanding that became so much a part of me at an early age that I almost felt it was my history, too. But in addition, I did research by reading a lot of books—nonfiction and fiction—about Chicago, the Depression, jazz, the African American experience, and the immigrant experience.(In fact, two of my areas of study for my doctoral exams were literature of the immigrant experience and African American women writers.) I interviewed journalists who write about the Chicago jazz and blues scene. I listened to the music that I included in the novel (such a pleasure). Watched movies made during that time or set in that time, and other people’s very old home movies from the 1930s, which, God bless them, they’d posted on YouTube. I also explored historically focused websites and, yes, Facebook groups—you’d be amazed at how much I got out of one particular website that was completely devoted to antique postcards.
What would you describe as the main theme(s) in Sing for Me?
This is what I believe about theme, and because I can’t say it any better than Flannery O’Connor, I’ll let her say it for me:
I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction. When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.
What do you want readers to experience or take away from this novel?
Hope, in spite of, because of.
This story, or at least a version of it, has been on your heart since 1996. Though likely different from Rose’s factors and risks in pursuing her dream, what factors prolonged your completing this novel?
I couldn’t get the words right. Really. I tried many different times and ways to write this book, but I just couldn’t get the words right. Or the characters and plot (especially the plot). Also, other stories possessed me, and I felt called to tell those stories, too. “Write where the pressure is,” the great writer Larry Woiwode once said to me, and the pressure was with those stories in those seasons. And then there were seasons when life, for better and worse, simply demanded all of my attention.
A line from your blog reads, “Sometimes writing feels that way to me, a journey from empty to full, from loss to reconciliation, from mystery to simply story, which doesn’t answer the unanswerable questions, perhaps, but makes them bearable.” How has your own journey of making the unanswerable questions bearable played out in this story?
The act of imagining, of laying down words and then revising those words—revisioning—is healing for me. Writing stills my soul as prayer does. There’s a kind of emptying process that goes on, a kind of release, that leads yields not just fullness but fulfillment. Plus, writing keeps my head clear. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” E. M. Forster wrote, and for me that’s true, too.
Specifically with Sing for Me, I was emptying out a bucketful of questions about discrimination and equality, ability and disability, community and calling, among other things. There were all those questions before me, made flesh in character, infused in setting, played out in scene. What a relief to give shape and make meaning from the mess of questions in my mind.
An excerpt from one of Theo’s letters reads, “None of us are so different from the other in our searching.” Is this an idea that you would like your readers to grasp? Why?
I work to grasp Theo’s statement every day myself. Often I fail. But when I remember what I believe is a fact—that we have so much more in common with each other than we have with what divides us—when I live like this, then I am more reconciled with the world and the world is more reconciled with me. Bridges get built, chasms crossed.
Can you envision a sequel to Sing for Me?
Yes, I can. But I will carry these thoughts quietly in my heart (thank you, dear Gospel writer). If I was able to wait for the right time to write this book, surely I will be able to wait for the right time to write the next one.
Karen Halvorsen Schreck is the author of three previous novels, Sing for Me, Dream Journal, and While He Was Away. She received her doctorate in English and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short stories and articles have appeared in Literal Latté, Other Voices, Image, as well as other literary journals and magazines, and have received various awards, including a Pushcart Prize, an Illinois State Arts Council Grant, and in 2009, first prize awards for memoir and devotional magazine writing from the Evangelical Press Association. A freelance writer and frequent visiting professor of English at Wheaton College, Karen lives with her husband and two children in Wheaton, Illinois.