This reading group guide for Eye of the Whale includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Carlton Abrams. 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. Introduction
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Elizabeth McKay is a dedicated marine biology student who has traveled the world attempting to crack the seemingly impossible code of humpback whale communication. When an injured humpback swims up the Sacramento River, Elizabeth must decipher his strange and unprecedented song in order to save him. She soon finds herself a media sensation as the world eagerly tunes in to her work with the stranded whale. But as she comes closer to discovering the truth, powerful forces emerge that do not want the whale’s secrets revealed and will do anything it takes to get what they want. With her marriage, career, and life at stake, Elizabeth must make drastic choices that will have greater consequences than she could possibly imagine. Questions for Discussion
1. How does Abrams foreshadow some of the events of the novel? Consider symbols such as Elizabeth’s wedding ring and the behaviors of various characters.
2. Discuss the theme of parent–child relationships in the novel. Consider the various relationships of Lt. James, Gates, Elizabeth, Frank, Sliver the whale, Mother the shark, Skillings, and others.
3. Discuss Teo’s role in the story. How are he, Elizabeth, and Connie able to find a common understanding despite their vast personal and professional differences? What is significant about their relationship in terms of the larger themes of the book?
4. How do Gates and Ito both experience personal loss that is, in a way, directly affected by the companies they work for?
5. When Frank is working a double shift at the hospital he is able to work through his fatigue as he helps alleviate the pain of others. “He was relieved to remember that there was so much greater suffering in the world than his—suffering he knew how to treat.” Why is this section of the book so significant? How does it reflect a common theme in the novel?
6. When Teo arrives in the United States and is helped by Reverend Cissy she tells him, “We all came on a boat, whether we wanted to or not.” What does she mean?
7. Frank feels that Elizabeth has neglected their marriage in favor of her career. How has he contributed to the problems in their marriage?
8. How does Skillings’s past relationship with his father seem to shape his actions? What did you think about his character?
9. What propels Ito, Gates, and Lt. James to disobey authority? How do their decisions reveal what is most important in life?
10. Who are the book’s heroes? How can heroism be displayed in a wide variety of ways?
11. Abrams did extensive research while writing this novel. What fact-based portions were most interesting to you?
12. How did the book affect your opinions about environmental issues? Did you find the book hopeful? Frightening? Enhance Your Book Club
Watch the BBC’s Planet Earth
or an episode of Animal Planet’s Whale Wars
or check out shoppbs.org for a variety of marine life documentaries on DVD.
Host a potluck dinner—perhaps an Italian feast in honor of Frank’s mother. Check out cooks.com and foodnetwork.com for a variety of recipes, including several for Italian cream cake.
Plan an outing at a local aquarium or at a museum with a marine life exhibit. A Conversation with Douglas Carlton Abrams
Q: What prompted your interest in writing about whales and sharks? Did you have a larger desire to write about the environment or had you always had an interest in marine life?
A: I was sitting by the fire reading my twin daughters a children’s story about a trapped whale just after another whale had swum up the Thames. A scientist friend was visiting and started telling me some astonishing facts about new environmental dangers to our children’s and other animals’ health. I asked myself: what if these events were connected? What if whales and humans were threatened by the same dangers? I knew that the answer to this question would result in a thrilling and important story. I had no idea when I started quite how
thrilling and important the story I discovered would be.
Q: How did you go about conducting the research for a book containing such complex issues? How did you know where to begin? Did your research and plot structure inform one another as you went along?
A: I knew that writing this book would require the expertise of many, many people. I worked with many scientists to learn about the facts. I read books by some of the leaders in the world of marine biology and ecotoxicology and, to my amazement, they were willing to talk with me. They even read my novel and made suggestions. I think it was fun for them to see their world dramatized. The research and plot structure evolved together because I constantly was having to ask what was possible, what is known, how can these discoveries turn the story? I do dozens of drafts for my books as I refine both the plot structure and the style.
Q: You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction. Do you enjoy working on one more than the other?
A: Nonfiction is like walking; fiction is like ballet. I love them both, but fiction is so much more demanding. In nonfiction you have to make sure the ideas all stand up straight and smile. In fiction, you have to create whole lives and worlds. It’s a terrifying power and daunting responsibility.
Q: You call your fiction “Wisdom Fiction.” This novel contains elements of suspense, adventure, and romance and sends a great message about our world and what must be done to preserve it. Were you conscious of including all these elements in your work?
A: My novels are both wisdom fiction and fact-based fiction, which is a challenging balance. I want my novels to ring with authenticity and accuracy and also to linger in the hearts and minds of readers as wisdom—more than mere information—can. This is what is so extraordinary about fiction: it allows us to have a powerful intellectual experience at the same time that we have a profoundly emotional experience. This is what it means to truly be moved by a work of art. I definitely was conscious of trying to include suspense, adventure, romance in the novel, because to me it is all simply the nature of life. Life does not divide neatly into genres.
Q: Have you changed your habits or lifestyle since researching and writing this book? For example, do you use different household products, eat differently, etc.? Are you more worried about the state of the world?
A: Absolutely, my life and lifestyle have been changed profoundly by what I have learned. Certainly I try to avoid toxic chemicals in my household products and food, but even more importantly I have an entirely new relationship to the natural world. I am both more worried and more hopeful about the planet. I wrote the novel because, like so many, I had a vague sense of the environmental dangers we face. Now I know how worrisome they are, but at the same time this is a very hopeful book. What we discover—what I discovered—is that so much human disease and suffering is actually man-made. If it’s man-made, it’s not inevitable. We can turn around a great deal of this suffering. People alive today face perhaps the greatest challenges to our survival that any generation has ever faced—climate change and chemical pollution being perhaps the two most severe. If we meet these threats, these forces of opposition, we will be the most heroic generations of humans to have ever lived.
Q: Are you active in environmental or animal causes? How can we, in our everyday lives, make even small changes that will help to alter the destructive course our planet appears to be on?
A: On my website (www.DouglasCarltonAbrams.com) I suggest to people the ten most important things that they can do to protect themselves and their families. But in the end, as Dr. Ginsburg says, making lifestyle changes alone is not enough. While avoiding pesticides in food is important; we have to make sure that they are not being sprayed at our schools and on our streets, since our body doesn’t know if we chose to put the chemical in our body or not. Writing the novel has definitely allowed me to become more engaged with the environmental, animal, and health issues that it raises, and has convinced me of the need for collective action—like the passage of the Kid Safe Chemical Act—and generally adopting the precautionary principle. In other words, being cautious about what we introduce into the environment and into our bodies.
Q: What are some of your favorite books? What do you appreciate about them?A: Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez)
for the surprises of his sentences, the severing honesty of his eye, and one of the greatest first sentences in literature (“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”)The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway)
for its simplicity and clarity of emotion. I read this with my ten-year-old son, and we were both very moved by its story and its silences.Siddhartha (Herman Hesse)
for its ability to reveal the wisdom learned in life and in the way we choose to live.
Q: Are you working on a new novel?
A: Honestly, I write books not because I want to tell a particular story or even because I have something to say, but because I have a question that I desperately need to know the answer to. I’m not sure what the next question will be, but I have no doubt it will lead me to write a fact-based fiction that also explores our lives and the wisdom we can learn from our world.
Q: In your acknowledgments you write that you had the opportunity to swim with and record humpback whales in Tonga. Can you tell us what that was like?
A: It was amazing. A half hour after getting off a tiny airplane, I was in the water watching the first chapter of my novel unfold in front of my eyes: a mother humpback, her newborn calf draped across her back, and a male escort whale swimming beneath. The adults can weigh as much as 50,000 pounds, and the babies merely a cuddly 2,000 pounds. I’ll never forget when the male escort came over to check me out. I looked into his eye, and then watched as he gracefully lifted his several-thousand-pound pectoral fin over my head to avoid hitting me. He could have killed me with that fin, but he carefully avoided hurting me.
Q: What were the most fun parts of your research? Which parts were the toughest? What surprised you most?
A: I think swimming with the whales certainly was the most fun part of writing the novel, but working with the scientists and colleagues was also wonderful. Getting into the shark cage was certainly one of the toughest, but gaining enough knowledge to write such a complex story—and keeping the facts straight—was tough in its own way. I think I was surprised at how much hope there is in the story. How much there is that we can change.
Q: What is the single most important thing you hope that readers take from Eye of the Whale
A: I think what I learned most profoundly—scientifically, not just spiritually—is the interconnection of all life and the deep interdependence that we have with one another. What affects the whales affects us. What we do to the smallest of creatures—the frogs, the fish, even the insects—ultimately we do to ourselves.