Songs of the Humpback Whale
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WSP Readers Guide Introduction
Jodi Picoult's richly literary novel Songs of the Humpback Whale
tells the story of a fragile family and one woman's voyage towards self-discovery. When an explosive argument with her husband prompts Jane and her daughter Rebecca to abruptly leave their California home, the two women head east armed with little other than a few dollars, the clothes on their backs, and their love for one another. Traversing their way across the United States, following the directional clues provided to them by Jane's brother Joley, Jane and Rebecca inch their way toward Massachusetts while Oliver, an expert whale tracker, follows close behind his wife and daughter.
When Jane and Rebecca arrive at a Massachusetts apple orchard, they each meet new people who will challenge them and force them to reconsider their life choices. Sam, a small-town apple farmer, pushes Jane to unveil the secrets of her past, finally enabling her to open her heart in the present. When Rebecca witnesses her mother and Sam's burgeoning love affair, she finds solace in Hadley, who offers her the support and nurturing she has so often yearned for from her own parents. Once Oliver arrives at the orchard to reclaim his family, Jane must finally decide whether or not to abandon her newfound love in order to return to California and fulfill her responsibilities to her husband and her daughter. It is only after a tragic accident that the Jones family can finally return home, together again but forever changed. Questions and Topics for Discussion
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
1. Discuss the novel's structure. How did the alternating voices enhance or detract from the reading experience for you? Did you find that the characters' differing accounts of the events of the novel added to the dramatic tension, and how so? Similarly, Rebecca is the only character to narrate the novel's events backwards chronologically. How does this affect the reading experience?
2. So much of the novel is about voice and people finding themselves through their voices -- Jane is a speech therapist, Oliver tracks whale songs, Joley's words guide Jane and Rebecca across the country. Which relationships in the novel are founded on spoken connections and which are based on something other than language? How are these relationships different? How do these different relationships affect the characters?
3. When mentioning his research, Oliver proposes that the personal histories of whales -- "who the whale is, where he has been sighted, with whom he has been sighted -- tell us something about why he sings the way he does" (9). Discuss how each of the characters in the novel are shaped by their past?
4. The relationship between Jane and Rebecca is one of the most complex in the novel. Although Jane is Rebecca's mother, it often seems that Rebecca is the more mature person -- Hadley even tells Sam that Rebecca takes "better care of her mother than the other way around" (312). Rebecca similarly comments that she and Jane are "more like equals" (107). Discuss their relationship. Why do you think they relate to one another this way?
5. Although it is Rebecca who packs up, gets in the car, and urges her mother to run away from Oliver, she also misses her father and her home while she and her mother are traveling across the country. Speculate on what Rebecca really wants for each of her parents. Do you think she wants to return to California? Why or why not?
6. The relationship between Joley and Jane is one of the most meaningful in the novel. Although Jane spent most of her childhood protecting Joley, it is Joley who cares for Jane in her adult life. Discuss the bond between them. What is it based on? Does Joley's love for Jane seem illicit at times, why or why not?
7. Joley tells Jane and Rebecca that he will write them across the country, sending them "to places he thinks they need to go." Discuss the different geographic locations of their voyage. Why do you think Joley sends them to each place he does? How does each location affect them?
8. Sam comments that "if you leave things to their natural course, they go bad." Discuss Sam and his life choices. In what ways has he struggled against the natural course of his life, and in which ways has he accepted that he is living the life he was destined to?
9. When Sam and Jane first meet, they each assume certain things about one another -- Jane assumes that Sam is a simple farmer, and Sam assumes that Jane is no different from other wealthy Newton girls. In what ways do Sam and Jane live up to one another's assumptions, and in what ways do they each defy the other's preconceived notions?
10. Chapters 39, 40, and 41 offer Rebecca, Jane's, and Oliver's different perspectives of the plane crash. Although these chapters all begin the same way: "Midwest Airlines flight 997 crashed on September 21, 1978, in What Cheer, Iowa -- a farming town sixty miles south east of Des Moines," they each offer three different perspectives of the same event. Discuss these differing perspectives. What do the differences and similarities reveal about each character and the impact that event had on the rest of their lives?
11. At the site of the plane crash, Oliver finally finds Jane and Rebecca. Though he is sitting close enough to touch them, he finds that he cannot bring himself to announce his presence. What is Oliver thinking? How does this moment motivate him to change? By the end of the novel, has he successfully transformed himself?
12. When Oliver goes to save Marble, the whale that is tangled in nets in Gloucester, it seems that he is temporarily calling off his search for his wife and daughter. How did you react to his decision? Do you think that Oliver was motivated only by a desire to get on camera and to make a public plea for Jane and Rebecca, or did you think that he may have been reverting to his old ways?
13. At the end of the novel, Jane abandons her love for Sam, choosing instead to honor her responsibilities to her husband and daughter. How did you react to that choice? Did you find it surprising? Frustrating? What clues did Picoult provide throughout the novel to signal that Jane would eventually make this choice?
14. Jane comments that "you can take dead trees in an orchard and bring them back to life" (346). Discuss the final moments of the novel. In what ways have Jane, Rebecca, and Oliver changed? Do you think that the conclusion of the novel is ultimately hopeful about the family's future? Why or why not?