Reading Group Guide
The Storyteller By Jodi Picoult Reading Group Discussion Guide This reading group guide for The Storyteller includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
When Sage Singer learns that the elderly widower she befriends in her grief group is a regular customer at Our Daily Bread, where she is the baker extraordinaire, it is not all that remarkable. In their tight-knit community of Westerbrook, New Hampshire, Josef Weber is widely known and beloved as the retired German teacher and a little league coach. But when Josef unexpectedly implores Sage to kill him, she could not be more surprised. Josef confesses to Sage his darkest secret: that he deserves to die at her hands because he was a member of the SS guard in Nazi Germany a lifetime ago, and because she is a Jew. As Sage considers Josef’s request, she reflects on the sacrifices made by her grandmother, Minka, a Holocaust survivor, and on the millions of other victims of the Nazi genocide. Confused, Sage seeks help from Leo Stein, a Justice Department attorney tasked with bringing war criminals to international tribunals. When Leo encourages Sage to connect the dots between her grandmother’s experiences at Auschwitz and those in Josef Weber’s story, she must first face her own moral failings and confront her own beliefs about the true meaning of justice.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Storyteller opens with a story within a story: the gripping narrative that Minka Singer composes: first as a young student in Lodz, then from the ghetto where her family finds itself exiled, and finally, during her imprisonment at Auschwitz. How does the tale of Ania and Aleksander and Casmir Lubov intersect with the plot of the larger novel? In what ways does this fantastical tale of two brothers and the myth of the upior connect with the brutality of the Holocaust and the ongoing hunt for Nazi war criminals?
2. “Josef Weber is as close as you can get to being canonized while you’re still alive. Everyone in Westerbrook knows him…[h]e’s everyone’s adoptive cuddly grandfather.” (p. 22) How does Mary’s estimation of Josef Weber square with what Sage learns of him? How is Josef Weber’s public persona incompatible with the truths that he reveals to Sage? To what extent is it possible for someone who hides a terrible secret to be so seemingly good?
3. By way of explaining her self-imposed solitude, Sage reveals her dramatic facial scar to Josef Weber, in spite of her general embarrassment about her disfigurement. What is it about Josef Weber that Sage finds herself drawn to? To what extent does the genesis of their friendship seem entirely coincidental? At what point in the novel does Sage start being his friend and at what point does she stop?
4. “One of the first things Adam told me was that I was pretty, which should have been my first clue that he was a liar.” (p. 25) Is Sage’s extramarital relationship with Adam consistent with her character’s values? What does their affair offer her? To what extent does Adam’s love for Sage seem genuine? How does he seem to embody the qualities of the “liar” that Sage calls him?
5. “The reason that we go to meet the people who bring us tips about potential Nazis is so that we can make sure they aren’t nuts.” (p. 213) How does Leo Stein’s personality come across in the chapters in the book that he narrates? Why does Leo Stein find Sage Singer irresistible when he first meets her? How does Sage’s on again/off again relationship with Adam complicate her feelings for Leo?
6. “And why does it make me sick to hear him label me; to think that, after all this time, Josef would still feel that one Jew is interchangeable for another?” (p. 61) How do you interpret Josef’s interest in Sage’s Jewish heritage? Given that Sage does not self-identify as a Jew, and does not even believe in God, is she any less qualified to help Josef carry out his death? To what degree does the logic of Josef’s plan hinge on Sage’s being a Jew?
7. “I knew that what the Hauptscharführer saw in my book was…an allegory, a way to understand the complicated relationship between himself and his brother…[i]f one brother was a monster, did it follow that the other had to be one too?” (p. 382) What do Franz and Reiner Hartmann’s gestures toward Minka reveal about their true characters as individuals? Why does Josef Weber choose to lie about his identity (twice) to Sage? To what extent does Josef’s decision mirror that of Aleks Lubov, who chooses to protect the identity of his brother, Casmir, as the monster who terrorizes the village in Minka’s upior story?
8. How do Josef Weber’s recollections of life during the war compare to the memories of Sage’s grandmother, Minka? How did their witnessing so much death up close impact them, respectively, as perpetrator and survivor of the Holocaust? Why did both of them choose to keep details of this period of their life a secret from those closest to them for so long? How did their stories impact you as a reader?
9. “I started to pull the hem of the sweater, so that the weave unraveled. I rolled the yarn up around my arm like a bandage, a tourniquet for a soul that was bleeding out.” (p. 339) How does Minka react when she discovers her father’s bag among the cast-off belongings of Jews condemned to the gas chambers? What does this moment mark in her young life? How does her knowledge of German save her from a worse punishment for wanton destruction of property?
10. As she sorts and separates the belongings of the murdered victims of Auschwitz, Minka secretly collects the cast-off photographs of people who have been condemned to die. What does her risking severe punishment and the possibility of death in order to keep other people’s memories intact, reveal about her need to salvage and preserve something from destruction? Were you surprised when these photographs reappeared in the novel at the book’s conclusion?
11. Why does Sage decide to take justice into her own hands and grant Josef Weber his dying wish? How did you feel upon discovering that Sage was misled by Weber about his true identity? To what extent does Sage seem to forgive Weber for his actions? Why does Sage conceal her behavior from Leo Stein, and to what extent does her behavior seem rational and understandable, given all that she has endured—and lost—herself?
12. There are many storytellers complicit in the creation of this novel—the author, Jodi Picoult; Sage’s grandmother, Minka; Josef Weber, a.k.a. Franz Hartmann; Sage Singer, the protagonist who shapes the narrative through her actions; the many nameless victims of the Holocaust; even the reader, who constructs his or her own interpretation of these multiple narratives. Why do you think Jodi Picoult chose this title for her novel? How does the novel’s conclusion allow the reader to participate actively in the process of storytelling?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In The Storyteller, Minka Singer’s fictional character, Ania, enjoys a special treat prepared by her father, the baker, just for her—a sweet pastry with cinnamon and chocolate that he fashions into a little puff. When Sage fashions a similar treat for her grandmother, Minka reveals that it tastes just as good as the ones her actual father used to bake for her. How does food connect families across generations? How does food retain memories? What are some of the special foods you enjoy that connect you back in time to relatives or the past? Members of your book group may want to bring their special foods to share at your next gathering.
2. When the Nazi soldiers force Minka’s family to leave their home and relocate to the Lodz ghetto, they give them just five minutes to clear out and take anything of value. If you were forced to evacuate your home in five minutes, would you know what items to bring with you and what to leave behind? What would be on your very short list of essentials? Your book group members may want to share what precious things they would choose to bring with them in such an unlikely event.
3. Josef Weber provides Sage Singer with a distinctly moral dilemma when he asks her to kill him to avenge the thousands of Jews who perished at his hands during the Holocaust. How, if at all, might the story be different if Mary DeAngelis, the owner of Our Daily Bread and a former nun, had received the same request? What roles do our personal attachments and beliefs play in the significant moral decisions we make every day? What are some of the philosophical, religious, and moral beliefs that you carry with you and that consciously or unconsciously inform your decision-making? How would you have responded to Josef Weber’s request?
4. Cook up a batch of Mink’s Rolls!
• 1/2 cup warm milk, 110 degrees
• 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
• 1/2 cup sugar, plus a pinch
• 1 large egg, room temperature
• 1 large egg yolk
• 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for bowl and muffin tin
• ¼ pound bittersweet chocolate, very finely chopped or shaved
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Butter a large non-reactive bowl for dough and set aside. 2. Butter a 12-cup muffin tin and set aside.
3. Pour warm milk into a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast and pinch of sugar over milk; let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
4. In a bowl, whisk together ¼ cup sugar, 1 egg, and 1 egg yolk. Add egg mixture to yeast mixture, and whisk to combine.
5. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flour and salt. Add egg mixture, and beat on low speed until almost all the flour is incorporated.
6. Change to the dough hook. Add 3 tablespoons butter, and knead on low speed until flour mixture and butter are completely incorporated, about 10 minutes. Dough will be sticky.
7. Butter a large bowl. Place dough in bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a dish towel. Set aside in a warm place to rise until dough doubles in size, about 1 hour.
8. If dough is not in a warm area it may take longer to rise. A simple trick to help warm your dough – place a large pan of boiling water on the lowest rack in your oven and place bowl of dough on the next highest rack. This should help the dough rise.
9. Prepare filling: Place chocolate, remaining ¼ cup sugar, and cinnamon in a large bowl, and stir to combine. Add 3 tablespoons butter and toss to combine. Alternately, place chocolate, cinnamon and butter in food processor and pulse to combine. Set aside.
10. Once dough has doubled, turn onto a well-floured surface and deflate. Let dough rest for 5 minutes.
11. With rolling pin, roll dough into large rectangle shape. Sprinkle filling over dough; roll the dough into a log and slice into 2” pieces. Place each slice in muffin cup. Cover muffin tin with plastic and let sit for 15-20 minutes or until dough rises slightly.
12. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
13. Bake for approximately 12-15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack.