The Used World

A Novel

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About The Book

"It was mid-December in Jonah, Indiana, a place where Fate can be decided by the weather, and a storm was gathering overhead." So Haven Kimmel, bestselling author of A Girl Named Zippy, prepares us to enter The Used World -- a world where big hearts are frequently broken and sometimes repaired; where the newfangled and the old-fashioned battle it out in daily encounters both large and small; where wondrous things unfold just beneath the surface of everyday life; and where the weather is certainly biblical and might just be prophetic.

Hazel Hunnicutt's Used World Emporium is a sprawling antique store that is "the station at the end of the line for objects that sometimes appeared tricked into visiting there." Hazel, the proprietor, is in her sixties, and it's a toss-up as to whether she's more attached to her mother or her cats. She's also increasingly attached to her two employees: Claudia Modjeski -- freakishly tall, forty-odd years old -- who might finally be undone by the extreme loneliness that's dogged her all of her life; and Rebekah Shook, pushing thirty, still living in her fervently religious father's home, and carrying the child of the man who recently broke her heart. The three women struggle -- separately and together, through relationships, religion, and work -- to find their place in this world. And it turns out that they are bound to each other not only by the past but also by the future, as not one but two babies enter their lives, turning their formerly used world brand-new again.

Astonishing for what it reveals about the human capacity for both grace and mischief, The Used World forms a loose trilogy with Kimmel's two previous novels, The Solace of Leaving Early and Something Rising (Light and Swift). This is a book about all of America by way of a single midwestern town called Jonah, and the actual breathing histories going on as Indiana's stark landscape is transformed by dying small-town centers and proliferating big-box stores and SUVs. It's about generations of deception, anguish, and love, and the idiosyncratic ways spirituality plays out in individual lives. By turns wise and hilarious, tender and fierce, heartrending and inspiring, The Used World charts the many meanings of the place we call home.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
The Used World
By Haven Kimmel

Discussion Points
1. The preface briefly introduces the three main characters and their triangular connection. What do Hazel, Claudia, and Rebekah have in common? In what ways are they different?
2. On page 8, Amos Townsend tells Claudia, "I see people all the time who say they are lonely but it's a code word for something else." Do you think this is true in Claudia's case? Why or why not? What is loneliness a code word for in the cases of Hazel and Rebekah?
3. Hazel describes vague memories of a world of women, the men all gone off to war. Are the women in this novel different with one another than they are in the presence of men?
4. What is the significance of the flashback to 1950 on page 15, where Hazel has her nighttime encounter with the owl? Where else does this symbol appear in the novel?
5. How do physical descriptions and personality quirks help define the characters in The Used World? Identify these descriptions and explain what they reveal about each character.
6. The women in this novel all struggle with motherhood, either through their relationships to their actual mothers or through becoming mothers themselves. Describe the ways in which motherhood poses challenges and otherwise changes these characters.
7. Claudia laments the demise of the Old Mother -- exemplified by her mother, Ludie -- and the rise of the New Mother, represented by her sister, Millie. What does Claudia mean by these distinctions? How else does this Old/New paradigm work its way into the novel?
8. Because the point of view shifts to let the reader inside the minds of Hazel, Claudia, and Rebekah, we get an opportunity to learn how each woman sees the others. Do you think they have accurate impressions of one another? Why or why not? How does each see herself in comparison to how the others see her?
9. On page 185, Red says, "Children. It don't matter if they're good or bad, they break your heart every time." Compare and contrast the relationships of siblings Hazel and Edie and Claudia and Millie; consider also single children Rebekah and Peter. How have these relationships or lack thereof shaped the adulthoods of these characters? How do you think the presence or absence of siblings changes each character's relationship with his or her parents?
10. The flashback to 1969 on page 210 describes Hazel's attic vision of Marguerite Henrietta Post, the former owner of their house, and her murdered baby. What is the significance of this vision and the information it gives Hazel? How does it influence Hazel's actions as an adult? Why does Hazel return to the attic to uncover the baby's bones near the end of the novel?
11. When did you first guess who Finney's mystery man was? What clues were there leading up to this plot twist? Does this information change your opinion of him? Why or why not?
12. Hazel seems to expect a lot of Claudia. "I thought you were the most courageous person I'd ever known. I trusted you with a baby and a dog and a pregnant woman," she says on page 267. Why do you think she does this? When did you first suspect Claudia was a lesbian? What clued you in to the fact that Hazel was, too? How do you think this commonality influences Hazel's actions with regard to telling "a story called Claudia"?
13. Though The Used World is primarily about women, there is much said about the duties of men as fathers, friends, and lovers. Identify the male characters in this novel and describe how they do or do not successfully fulfill their roles. Discuss the consequences their actions have for the women in their care.
14. In two generations, there are two relationships threatened by the presence of a man: Hazel and Finney struggle with the specter of Vernon, while Peter comes between Claudia and Rebekah. Compare and contrast these two triangles of love and despair.

Enhance Your Book Club
1. Rebekah Shook's family is a member of the Prophetic Mission, a small church subset of the Pentecostal movement. Though each local church has its own evangelical perspective, you can find out more about the basic worldview of this Christian tradition by visiting www.religioustolerance.org/chr_pent.htm.
2. Hazel's Used World Emporium is a wonderland of objects that bring the past to life for its employees and visitors, displaying its wares in arrangements that mimic actual rooms. Try visiting a local antique mall with your fellow book club members for a firsthand experience of being enveloped by the past.
3. Most modern towns have spread and evolved as their populations have expanded, but it's still possible to enjoy "Main Street America" disguised as the newly renovated, hipper downtown areas in many cities across the country. Check out your own city's downtown for historic sites and walking tours you can share with your book club members.
4. The author, Haven Kimmel, has written two memoirs and two other novels. To learn more about her and her work, visit her official website, www.havenkimmel.com and her fan site, www.purityofheart.org.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Haven Kimmel is the author of The Used World, She Got Up Off the Couch, Something Rising (Light and Swift), The Solace of Leaving Early, and A Girl Named Zippy. She studied English and creative writing at Ball State University and North Carolina State University and attended seminary at the Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Durham, N.C.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (June 3, 2008)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743247795

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Raves and Reviews

"No one can evoke a universe with a safety pin holding up its hem in the way Haven Kimmel can. In her third novel, The Used World, she tells a story of an eccentric collective of women with the majesty of a parable and the poignancy of a country song. As Faulkner did before her, Kimmel writes about doing what needs doing."
-- Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean

"The Used World awakens in the used reader the hallelujah impulse, making new all over again the realization that a novel can be honest, stormy, bitterly funny, and not merely worth the time, but necessary."
-- Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Son of a Witch

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