This reading group guide for The Language of Silence includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
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When Peggy Webb, writing as Anna Michaels, published her debut novel, The Tender Mercy of Roses
, she won raves, including one from novelist Pat Conroy, who called her “a truly gifted writer.” Now Webb has crafted a poignant portrayal of a woman on the edge seeking solace in the past.
Nobody in the family talks about Ellen’s grandmother Lola, who was swallowed up by the circus and emerged as a woman who tamed tigers and got away scot-free for killing her husband. When Ellen’s husband, Wayne, beats her nearly to death, she runs to the only place she knows where a woman can completely disappear—the same Big Top that once sheltered her grandmother. Though the circus moves from one town to the next, Wayne tracks it, and Ellen, relentlessly. At the same time, Ellen learns more about her feisty, fiery relative, and the heritage that is hers for the taking—if she dares. With her violent husband hot on her trail, Ellen must learn to stand up and fight for herself, to break the cycle of abuse, and pass down a story of love and redemption to her children. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Part One of The Language of Silence
begins with an epigraph from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
that reads “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” (p. 1) Why do you think Webb chose to begin her novel with this epigraph? Does it help you to better understand Ellen’s and Lola’s stories? If so, how?
2. Ruth’s gift is described as “the reason [Josie] called Ruth crazy and one of the many reasons Ellen loved her.” (p. 21) What is Ruth’s gift? Why do you think Josie is dismissive of it? Why does Ruth feel that this gift is both “her blessing and her curse”? (p. 290) Do you think that Ruth was right to share her visions with Lola? Explain your reasoning.
3. When Josie tells Ellen that she should learn how to get along with a man better and should “Take a lesson from [Josie’s] book,” (p. 72) the narrator says “Ellen already knew that lesson. . . . It’s the art of silence, and Ellen had learned it all too well.” (p. 72) What is the “art of silence” and how does Ellen employ it? Describe Josie’s relationship with Sim. What does Ellen find problematic about it? Do you agree? Do you think that the “art of silence” differs from the “language of silence” in the book’s title? In what ways? Does Ellen learn to speak the “language of silence”? How?
4. The shelter director tells Ellen, “Shelters are not merely a place to hide. They are a place to heal.” (p. 38) How does the circus help Ellen both hide and heal? Describe what circus life is like for her. Was there anything about Ellen’s life there that surprised you?
5. Ruth is described as “the one true thing in Ellen’s life, the compass she would use to steer herself . . . to freedom.” (p. 104) Describe Ellen and Ruth’s relationship. Were you surprised by the lengths that Ruth would go to in order to protect Ellen? Why or why not? Josie is very resentful of Ruth. Why is that the case? Do you think that Josie’s feelings are warranted?
6. Razz tells Al that Ellen is “like Lola in more ways than one.” (p. 273) In what ways are the two women alike? As you learned more about Lola’s story, was there anything that surprised you? If so, what?
7. Different types of abuse occur in Ellen’s family. When Ellen visits Josie and Sim, her parents, she sees “it all so clearly . . . Her father didn’t have to lay a hand on Josie.” (p. 71) How does Sim control Josie? Wayne employs other methods to control Ellen. What are they? What prompts Ellen to finally leave Wayne? How does Ellen’s family react? Describe the ways that Ellen’s mother and grandmother handle being victims of abuse.
8. Ellen gets a job at the circus as the teacher and is tasked with getting Nicky, the grandson of one of the circus owners, to speak. Why has Nicky become mute? How does Ellen attempt to get him to speak again? Do you think Ellen is a good teacher? How do the other circus children respond to her?
9. Ruth calls Razz “the man my sister considered a hero.” (p. 303) Why did Lola think that Razz was a hero? Do you agree? What were your initial impressions of Razz? Does your opinion of him change during the course of the story? If so, how? Why do you think that Razz was so reluctant to get involved with Ruth and Ellen?
10. Razz says “unlike man, who will socialize himself so completely he’s indistinguishable, a tiger never forgets who he is.” (p. 26) How is Razz like the tigers in his care? Are there any other characters who are also like tigers? Who are they?
11. When Ellen and Ruth end up at the circus, they have to make many adjustments, and “one of the scariest things about leaving behind the life [they have] always known and becoming someone entirely different was deciding whom to trust.” (p. 174) How do Ellen and Ruth decide who they can trust? In what ways do the circus performers and staff prove themselves trustworthy?
12. Luca is described as “a river, deep and cool and soothing.” (p. 163) What effect does he have on the others in the circus, particularly Ellen? Has Luca had any experiences that might make him more empathetic to others? What are they?
13. When Ellen reads Josie’s letter to Ruth, her aunt comments that “Josie never did know how to get to the point.” (p. 250) What is the point of Josie’s letter? Do you think that Josie really is trying to help Ellen, as she claims? How is Josie able to find Ellen?
14. Clarice is described as trying hard to keep “both her intelligence and her compassion . . . under wraps.” (p. 261) Why does she try to keep these traits hidden? Do you agree with Ruth that Clarice “says what she means and means what she says.” (p.262) In what ways are Ruth and Clarice alike? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Razz believes in the “red and gold magic of the circus.” (p. 29) Do you think that the circus is magical? Find more about the history of the circus and life for the performers by reading the books that Webb used to conduct her research, including Mud Show: A Circus Season
by Fred Powledge and Behind the Big Top
by David Lewis Hammarstrom.
2. On her website, Webb says that writing literary fiction like The Language of Silence
allows her to “create complex stories that dig deep into the heart and soul of my characters.” Talk about the structure of The Language of Silence
. Does knowing Lola’s story help you to better understand Ruth’s actions?
3. Peggy Webb has written almost seventy books under various pseudonyms throughout her career. Read some of her other works and discuss them with your book club. Which is your favorite and why?
4. To learn more about Peggy Webb, read her blog and find out more about her other books. To invite her to your book club, visit her official site at http://peggywebb.com/