Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel begins during the Great Depression. How has the economic downturn affected Molly, Hannah, and others in their neighbourhood?
2. Max describes Kensington as a patchwork of different communities. Using the Ryan and Dreyfus families as examples, discuss how Canada is a country of immigrants. What did they leave behind? And what problems do they still face?
3. Molly says that the Orangemen nicknamed the city “Toronto the Good,” but in the opening of the novel, we see a place teeming with unemployment, protests, and civil unrest. What people and behaviours are considered “good”? What happens to those who are thought of as second-class citizens or outsiders?
4. Did you know about the rise of anti-Semitism in Toronto before reading this book? Were you surprised to learn about the Swastika Clubs and signs banning Jews from businesses and beaches? What does the novel suggest might be some of the causes of this racial prejudice? Consider the characters of Mr. Ryan, Richie, and Phil.
5. Molly wants to become a journalist, but she drops out of school and puts her dream on hold to help her family make ends meet. Discuss the expectations of women during this time period. What opportunities are available to them? How do Molly’s and Hannah’s paths differ? How are they the same?
6. During the scene at the beach, Molly, Max, and Arnie talk about the Star
and the Telegram
, and the difference between bias and censorship. In light of our current media landscape, what did you make of this discussion? Do you think we can ever know the truth?
7. Even though Molly and Max grew up together as friends, there is still a line between them that they are forbidden from crossing. What does this suggest about the bonds of family? As second-generation Canadians, do Molly and Max view community and tradition in a different light? If so, how?
8. On page 96, Mr. Ryan tells Molly that “there will come a time when it’s us versus them” and that she’ll “not be able to walk away from that.” How is this borne out in the novel? When is it not?
9. During the riot, Mr. Ryan goes after Max, thinking that he’s protecting his daughter. What does this say about the power of love, both parental and romantic? And given what we later learn about Richie, what does this scene say about the power of friendship?
10. How does the riot at Christie Pits forever change the Ryan and Dreyfus families? How does this event shape your own understanding of race relations in Canada?
11. When Molly goes to work at the Star
, she is one of the few women in the newsroom. How is she treated by her colleagues? Despite trailblazers like Rhea Clyman, what stereotypes still exist?
12. When Max enlists in the army, he tells his family that “as a Canadian, it’s my duty to volunteer . . . As a Jew, I have a personal score to settle.” Discuss Max’s obligation as a Jewish Canadian. How have the events of 1933 impacted his decision so many years later?
13. In Hong Kong, Max expresses frustration about not yet seeing action. Why does Max feel so restless as opposed to someone like Richie? Does it have to do with who they are fighting for and what they left behind?
14. What are the central friendships in the novel and how are they tested? What seems to unite friends again? And what new friendships are forged?
15. Did you know about the fate of Canadian troops in the Pacific Theatre during World War II before reading about the Battle of Hong Kong? Do you agree that they shouldn’t have been sent there to begin with? How were they unprepared for the conflict they faced?
16. When Max becomes a prisoner of war, his voice drops out of the narrative. Did you think he had died in Stanley Village along with David?
17. For a long time, Molly puts her career before romance. Why does she decide to give Ian a chance? How did you feel about their blossoming relationship?
18. After the Battle of Hong Kong, Molly throws herself into researching German and Japanese POW camps and she even visits the camp in Bowmanville. What are some of the differences between the prisons? Molly says, “I don’t think anyone, in war or not, has the right to become monsters.” What do you make of her statement?
19. Discuss the theme of storytelling in the novel. Consider Molly’s and Max’s grandparents, Mr. Rabinowitz, and the many veterans from both world wars. What is accomplished when the characters share their stories with one another? What happens when they don’t?
20. Consider the portrayal of PTSD in the characters of Max, Jimmy, Liam, and Mark. In what ways do they struggle to adapt to life after witnessing the horrors of war? What scars do they have? And what helps them heal?
21. When Molly interviews Max about his experience as a prisoner of war, he describes the moment they saw the American planes flying overhead and says, “after four years of surviving, we were finally getting the chance to live again.” What’s the difference between surviving and living?
22. Max returns from war guilty that he survived when so many others did not. What makes him tell his story to Molly and Ian? What did you make of his decision to remain anonymous?
23. What role do letters play in the novel?
24. Discuss the importance of forgiveness. What other characters redeem themselves by the end of the novel? How do the losses of war soften their hearts?
25. Were you surprised by Richie’s revelation? What reasons does he give for his actions the day of the riot, and after?
26. In many ways, the novel is an epic love story. What do you think drew Molly and Max together in the first place? And what continues to bind them to one another after so many years?
27. Consider the title of the novel. What does Letters Across the Sea
symbolize? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Walk the streets of Toronto with Giles Hodge as he takes viewers through the night of the Christie Pits Riot in “History Happens Here: The Riot at Christie Pits.” https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/video/history-happens-here-riot-christie-pits
2. Hear from firsthand survivors of the Battle of Hong Kong by watching The Fence
, a documentary written and directed by Viveka Melki. In this film, she interviews two POW survivors as well as a young girl who was trapped in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. http://thefencedoc.ca/
Or check out Brian McKenna’s 1991 film, Savage Christmas: Hong Kong 1941
, on the National Film Board website for a critique of Canada’s involvement in the Pacific Theatre. https://www.nfb.ca/film/savage_christmas_hong_kong_1941/
3. In chapter 18, Molly mentions the internment camps where more than 90 per cent of Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia were detained and dispossessed under the War Measures Act. Joy Kogawa was one such girl. Read her award-winning novel, Obasan
, to find out more about this dark chapter in Canadian history.