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Name All the Animals

A Memoir

Read by Alison Smith

The critically acclaimed, heartbreaking memoir that is at once a gorgeous, profound, and redemptive story of a family holding desperately to the memory of a lost child; and a touching, intelligent, and inspiring coming-out story.

A luminous, true story, Name All the Animals is an unparalleled account of grief and secret love: the tale of a family clinging to the memory of a lost child, and of a young woman struggling to define herself in the wake of his loss. As children, siblings Alison and Roy Smith were so close that their mother called them by one name, Alroy. But when Alison was fifteen, she woke one day to learn that Roy, eighteen, was dead.

Heartbreaking but hopeful, this extraordinary memoir explores the aftermath of Roy’s death: his parents’ enduring romance, the faith of a deeply religious community, and the excitement and anguish of Alison's first love—a taboo relationship that opens up a world beyond the death of her brother.

Reading Group Guide for Alison Smith's Name All the Animals
1. Prologues are often used as a way of setting the tone or focusing the reader's attention on an event that may symbolically resonate throughout the book. In Name All the Animals, what is the intention of the prologue? What does it illuminate? What do you find symbolic about the halved, abandoned house?
2. "Alroy" is the nickname that the author, Alison Smith, shared with her brother Roy. To be sure, she states, "It's not my name. It's ours, my brother's and mine"(page 6). How does this merging of names affect Alison and Roy's identity?
3. As a child, Roy tells Alison that their father's blessing of his children each morning is similar to Adam's naming all the animals in Eden, recognizing and protecting them. As the story progresses, Alison realizes she cannot even find a name for some of the feelings she experiences. On page 61, she writes, "These phrases rattled around inside me. I had no name for the feelings they conjured up. Like captions for a set of lost photographs, I knew what the individual words meant but I didn't know what to attach them to. And my parents didn't know how to tell me." Examine the idea of naming as a theme, especially with regard to the title. What is the title's significance?
4. The Smith's are a staunchly Catholic, working-class family who "had one talent: faith"(page 18). Discuss the family's notion of faith. In particular, discuss Alison's faithfulness after Roy's death. In what ways is it increased and/or diminished?
5. After Roy's death, Alison finds herself intrigued by the "Before-People" because "In that innocence, that powerful ignorance, Roy lived"(page 25). Explain how Alison, in her own ignorance of the details surrounding Roy's death, is similar to the Before-People.
6. Alison's parents become understandably overprotective of her; she is, after all, their surviving child. Her father laments, "You're all I have left"(page 16). In fact, they are all each of them has. How does Roy's death strengthen familial ties? In what ways does it serve to create a chasm between Alison and her parents?
7. Speaking of her family's coping skills, Alison states, "We remained removed, one foot in this world, one foot in the next with Roy"(page 74). Is Alison able to successfully navigate between the two worlds? What coping mechanisms does she employ to deal with the loss?
8. Beyond being a story about loss, Name All the Animals is about a young woman coming of age. Discuss the challenges she encounters as a teenager.
9. Alison has a few close friends: Mary Elizabeth, the girl next door, Susanna Spindale, the eccentric drama queen, and Terry, the disheveled artist. Compare these friendships. What does Alison learn about herself through these friendships?
10. At a Halloween party, Susanna Spindale is the only one brave enough to ask Alison about Roy. Alison admits, "A part of me was glad for the question. I felt relieved that somebody was finally asking"(page114). Discuss the communal silence that surrounds Roy's death. Do you think this silence helps or hinders the healing process?
11. Overprotective and cautious, Alison's parents "waited for the Next Terrible Thing"(page 74). How did this constant fear of impending doom affect the Smiths? Particularly, discuss how fear manifests as self-doubt in Alison.
12. Alison talks about how her mother revered "goodness" as a virtue. Later, she realizes "that sometimes you have to step outside of goodness to discover who you are"(page 224). What do you think she eventually discovers?
13. When an insurance company wants to investigate Roy's death, Alison's father stresses, "You must not tell anyone"(page 71). Discuss the many secrets that are harbored by the Smiths as a family and by Alison independently. Why do you think the keeping of appearances is so important to them?
14. Alison's debate topic on gay and lesbian rights stirs up a tremendous amount of controversy, publicly as well as personally. How does she deal with the upheaval? What personal revelations occur as a result?
15. Traumatized by Roy's accident, Alison and her father are reluctant about her learning to drive. Despite failing the driving test twice, she claims, "I wanted to drive"(page 292). What is Alison's motivation for wanting to drive? By trying to lose her life the same way Roy did, at the same time, on the same road, three years later, what does she gain?
Photo Credit:

Alison Smith has been a resident at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's and various anthologies. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Please visit www.namealltheanimals.com.

Photo Credit:

Alison Smith has been a resident at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's and various anthologies. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Please visit www.namealltheanimals.com.