Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Sinners and the Sea includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Rebecca Kanner. 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.
Sinners and the Sea recounts the familiar biblical story of Noah and his ark—but this time, the story is told from the perspective of his often forgotten wife. The narrator, who remains nameless until the last page of the novel, struggles to understand her purpose and worth in a world that condemns her because of a prominent birthmark on her forehead. After years of misery and hardship, her father is finally able to marry her off to Noah, a 600-year-old prophet who praises only one God and who has foretold the imminent end of the world. Poignantly written, Sinners and the Sea examines the complexities between right and wrong and calls into question the very idea of righteousness.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel opens with the narrator describing her birthmark: “they say it is the mark of a demon…it looks as if a large man dipped his palm in wine and pressed it to my forehead above my left eye” (10). In what way or ways does this description immediately characterize the narrator and her situation? As a reader, are you immediately sympathetic to the narrator and her plight? Why or why not?
2. Discuss the narrator’s father. Would you describe him as a “good” man? Does he love his daughter, or is he burdened by his daughter’s mark? Do you think his decision to marry her off to Noah is in her best interest? Why or why not?
3. Noah’s extreme old age contributes to the mythical quality of the novel. What are other moments in the novel that you would characterize as mythic? As biblical?
4. Consider the relationship between the narrator and Javan. Would you consider their relationship a friendship? Why or why not? In your opinion, what do the two women have in common? In what ways are they different? Do you think that one woman is more dependent on the other, or do you think the two rely on each other equally?
5. Until the very end of the story, the narrator remains nameless. “It is not because you are unworthy that I have kept you hidden and not given you a name” (38), the narrator’s father assures her, and yet later, when the narrator asks her husband to bestow a name on her he replies: “I already have. Come now, Wife, onwards to Sorum” (50). Discuss the importance of naming in the novel. Why is it significant that the narrator remains nameless? What power does naming have?
6. Is there a hero of this story? If so, which character would you call the hero and why?
7. Is the figure of Noah in the story similar to the prophet in the Bible, or is he different? Do you agree with the narrator’s assessment that Noah cast a “spell of gloom” (104) over the family, or do you think he had other intentions?
8. “But Ham at least would one day have his own family, and then he would make decrees instead of following them. It seemed I never would. I wondered who had more control over her life—one of Javan’s prostitutes, or me” (140). Consider this quote in light of the entire novel. Do the women have as much power as the men in the novel? Do they have more in some cases? Consider the narrator, Javan, and Zilpha in your response.
9. Discuss the narrator’s three sons. Are they a blessing or a burden, or both? Why do you think there is so much competition between the three sons? In your opinion, for whose attention are they vying—Noah’s or the narrator’s?
10. A theme of the novel emerges on page 233 when the narrator says: “If Noah and my sons die when we meet the other ship, who I will be?” Discuss the importance of identity in the novel. Do you think the narrator views herself as anonymous without her family?
11. Can you glean any symbolism from the narrator’s birthmark? In her opinion, the mark brought “shame, humiliation, hatred, and…life” (272). Do you agree with this assessment? How did the mark contribute to the narrator’s “salvation” (272)?
12. Discuss the events that transpired on the ark during the flood. Did the characters change their behavior when they were the only people left on earth, or did they stay the same?
13. Characterize the relationship between the narrator and her three daughters-in-law. Does she favor one over the other? Does she like—or even love—all three? Is there one that she does not seem care for? Did you like one more than the others? Why?
14. Revisit the ending of the story. Did it surprise you that Noah gave his wife the gift of a name?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Sinners and the Sea lets readers explore a different version of the familiar story of Noah and his ark. Reread the story of Noah from the Book of Genesis 6-9. Compare and contrast the two stories, paying special attention to the character of Noah’s wife. In what ways is she similar to our narrator? In what ways is she different? After reading the two, would you consider Sinners and the Seaa feminist text? Why or why not?
2. Much of the novel is about righteousness and the divide between sinners and saints. But such divides are never clear-cut, and are very often contradictory. For example, the narrator surmises that Noah “liked living among sinners” and that “he did not care for anyone’s righteousness but his own” (149). Discuss the narrator’s position with your book club during a show-and-tell. Define what “righteousness” means to you. Have each member bring in photos, keepsakes, books, or any other objects associated with their definition. Is it easy to define such a complex term? Do you think it is true that often we do not care for anyone’s righteousness but our own?
3. Have a movie night with your book club and rent Evan Almighty (2007). Discuss how the characters in the movie are similar to and different from the characters in the novel. What parallels can you find between the two stories? What are the differences between the book and the film?
4. Following the theme of biblical women, have your book club read The Red Tent (2007) by Anita Diamant. Explore with your group what it might have meant to be a woman living during biblical times. Has society changed its treatment of women? Based on the novels, do you think it is easier for women today than it was then?
A Conversation with Rebecca Kanner
1. This is your debut novel. Describe what this story means to you and why you chose to retell the story of Noah from his unnamed wife’s point of view. What inspired the creation of this story?
As a child I had a storybook about the flood. Noah, his family, and all of the animals walked happily into the ark. The darkness and the rains came. The sea tossed the ark, there were a few pages of rough sailing. Then the sun came out. The giraffes’ heads poked up out of a window. They seemed to be smiling. Everyone piled out of the ark and God put a rainbow in the sky. Noah’s wife didn’t get even one line of dialogue. I wanted to write an adult version of the flood which took into account the hardships of building the ark, the horror of watching hundreds of people die, the fear that God has deserted you, and the guilt and sadness the survivors might have felt. With a woman’s sensitivity, Noah’s wife is able to tell us about all of this, and about her own struggle as the wife of a man tortured by the terrible task he must carry out.
2. Who is your favorite character and why?
I love Javan, the town’s most notorious madam. For the reader she might not be immediately likable. She’s crude and often violent. But she’s also a caring mother who is willing to sacrifice herself for her daughter. There’s something deeply satisfying and life-affirming about finding the good in people, especially when it’s well hidden.
3. Your novel depicts a part of the Bible that we don’t often see; that is, a story told from the point of view of a woman. Was it important to you to present an alternative point of view?
Certainly. I don’t want to look at biblical stories where women don’t get much air time, so to speak, and say, “This is sexist, I wash my hands of it.” I can’t do that. The men and women of the Old Testament were the teachers and friends of my youth. Because the bible often tells huge stories in only a few pages, there’s plenty of room between the lines for us to imagine the lives of biblical women.
4. Would you consider this a feminist text?
The word feminist seems to have gotten a bad rap lately. To me, being a feminist doesn’t mean that I think men and women are the same. It means that women’s voices are as important as men’s. I do consider this a feminist text.
5. Describe the research that went into the making of this novel. Was it a lot or a little?
Initially I was concerned with how much truth there was in the biblical story. I did some research into the plausibility of building such a large ark and taking one or seven pairs of each animal onboard. There was a great flood several thousand years ago. What some scientists will allow is that a smaller ark with all the animals in a local area could have survived the flood. I don’t know what happened, and I’ve come to be okay with that. Dwelling in possibility, being uncertain, is a spiritual position. One of trust and humility and openness. I like that there are things beyond human comprehension. Life is a mystery, and my own life is better if I treat it that way. If I wake up in the morning and say, “Surprise me.”
6. Do you hope to break any stereotypes with this novel?
There are many good, strong women in the bible. I’m thinking specifically of the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. So I wasn’t concerned with the stereotypes of women someone might take from the bible. But there are current cultural stereotypes that I was hoping to challenge in Sinners and the Sea. When I began the book I didn’t know that Herai was going to be a character. Once she emerged she became very important to me. As a society we tend to value people with certain traits less than others. Herai’s mother, Javan, has insight that the people around her don’t have. With regard to Herai’s “slowness” she says, “What is so good about being quick?”
7. How did you come to be a writer? What is your background and who are your influences?
I became a writer by being shy and loving books. The shyness has faded a bit but the love of books remains. I’ve always been a fan of short stories. In a really good story it feels as though a whole soul has been stuffed into just a few pages. Short stories are haunting as you read them because even at the beginning they’re nearly gone. And because they’re almost always about a sense of loss.
I love the stories of Lorrie Moore. There is a great sense of loss but the writing is so smart and so compelling that the sadness doesn’t overwhelm the story.
Sinners and the Sea is full of loss—the loss of the whole world, the only one Noah and his family have known. But unlike many short stories, I don’t think it’s ultimately a sad story, at least not for most of the survivors. Noah’s wife loses people, loses some innocence, but she also sees that the new world is a gift.
8. Discuss the significance of the birthmark. Is being ‘marked’ symbolic for some greater issue in the novel?
There is some symbolism. I will leave it up to the reader to find it for herself.
9. What would you name as the major theme(s) of this story?
The theme that was most important to me in writing Sinners and the Sea is that the things we dislike about ourselves—our struggles, our mistakes and imperfections, our burdens, our “marks”—can sometimes save us.
10. Who are you reading now? Who is your favorite author?
I’m reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. It’s a biographical novel which, as you can imagine, is of interest to me. Who my favorite author is usually depends upon who I’m reading at the time. I just finished the wonderful book, The Round House by Minnesota native Louise Erdrich. The most humbling experience I’ve had in the last couple of years was reading Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel will go down in history as one of the greatest writers of our time.
11. What is next for you as a writer?
I’m working on a novel about the biblical Queen Esther, an orphan who was taken into the harem of the king of Persia, and went on to become queen. She must stand up to the most powerful advisor in the empire and sway the king if she wants to save her people from genocide. This book is a sort of biblical The Other Boleyn Girl with a touch of Game of Thrones.