This reading group guide for Women of the Dunes 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.Introduction
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Libby Snow has always felt the pull of Ullaness, a headland on Scotland’s sea-lashed western coast where a legend has taken root. At its center is Ulla, an eighth-century Norsewoman whose uncertain fate was entangled with two warring brothers and a man who sought to save her. Libby first heard the stories from her grandmother, who had learned it from her own forebear, Ellen, a maid at Sturrock House.
The Sturrocks have owned the land where Ulla dwelled for generations, and now Libby, an archaeologist, has their permission to excavate a mysterious mound, which she hopes will cast light on the legend’s truth. But before she can begin, storms reveal the unexpected: the century-old bones of an unidentified man. The discovery triggers Libby’s memories of family stories about Ellen, of her strange obsession with Ulla, and of her violent past at Sturrock House.
As Libby digs deeper, she unravels a recurring story of love, tragedy, and threads that bind the past to the present. And as she learns more of Rodri Sturrock, the landowner’s brother, she realizes these forces are still at work, and that she has her own role to play in Ulla’s dark legend.Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. How does the prologue draw you in?
2. Why is it initially difficult for Libby and Declan to get access to Sturrock House and its property? What is Libby’s relationship with Declan like?
3. Why does Odrhan hesitate to help the fugitives who arrived at the headland? What do his actions say of his character?
4. Describe Libby and Rodri’s meeting on the Sturrocks’ estate.
5. How does Libby react as she examines the bones from the headland more closely?
6. Why does Libby withhold the information about the gold cross from Rodri? If you were in her place, what would you do?
7. How would you describe Ellen and why? How is she different from Libby? What’s the difference between her interaction with Alick versus how she behaves around Mungo?
8. What is unconventional about Ellen’s upbringing and living circumstances?
9. Oliver says to Ellen, “Perhaps that’s what a legend is, a memory preserved over many generations” (p. 107). How would you describe a legend and do you think they are reliable?
10. Discuss Rodri and Libby’s meeting with Declan and Caro. How does Rodri behave? Are his actions in line with what you know about him so far?
11. How would you describe Oliver’s dinner with the Sturrocks? How do the Sturrock brothers treat Oliver? What speculations arise from their conversation?
12. Why do Oliver and Alick decide to examine the headland, or Odrhan’s chapel? What is Ellen’s reaction when she discovers what they are doing, and how does Oliver respond?
13. Dissect Alick and Oliver’s conversation about religion. Do you agree with either man’s points?
14. How do Laila’s last actions tie back to the beginning of the legend, and how will they be remembered?
15. How do you interpret the epilogue? Why do you think the author ends the novel this way?Enhance Your Book Club
1. For Libby, Ullaness “was etched so deeply into her psyche it was almost part of her being” (p. 4). Share a place that you’re connected to, and explain why.
2. What story from your childhood do you still remember today? Do you think you have remembered accurately?
3. The act of passing down stories through generations is often described as building a chain: “And [Oliver] had an image of the chain forged by the retelling reaching back into a lost past, preserving precious pieces of knowledge” (p. 136). How do you feel about this metaphor? What other metaphors would you use?
4. Libby notes the unconventional domestic arrangements with Alice, Maddy, and the boys, and sees that it works. Discuss what being a family means. Do “families” have to be blood-related to feel close?
5. Read Sarah Maine’s first novel, The House Between Tides
, also set in Scotland.