Book Discussion Guide: Small Ceremonies

Our Boxed Lunch Book Club meets tomorrow from 12-1.  This month we are discussing Carol Shields novel, Small Ceremonies (1976), which is about a biographer named Judith who collects details about people and events.  Interestingly, in the novel, Judith is writing a biography about Canadian pioneer Susanna Moodie and in the same year that this novel was published, Carol Shields also published a biography of Susanna Moodie.  That detail was so fascinating to me, especially since we are discussing a book that is largely about making story from minutiae.

So here are the questions:

Opening Questions: (These are for everyone to discuss as while coming in, finding a spot, eating…before the more formal discussion begins.)

At the end of the book (p. 181), Judith declares herself what we now know her to be: a watcher.  She says that watching events as an outsider enlarges her.  Do you consider yourself to be a watcher?  If so, describe this characteristic in yourself.  If not, what opposite or contrary word would you use to describe yourself?

What are your small ceremonies?  What are the things that you do every day (every week, every month) that might only be noticeable to someone like Judith?  Which ones are intentional?  Which are mindlessly routine?

Questions for Discussion:

On p. 3, Judith says that September is the real beginning of the year. Why do you agree or disagree with this statement?

Stories (p.52): It’s the arrangement of events which makes the stories.  It’s throwing away, compressing, underlining.  Hindsight can give structure to anything, but you have to be able to see it. Breathing, waking, sleeping; our lives are steamed and shaped into stories.

Susanna Moodie (p.53) and a red hard-covered book by Kipling that Richard is reading are two things mentioned by Judith that make up the landscape of the Gill home, at least in this particular season.  What objects or topics are part of the current fabric of your home right now?

Why then can’t I shut out the wool? Let’s talk about the incident of the wool.  Can you relate to Judith’s response  to Martin’s project? …he’s developed a soft spot on the brain.  …but what can be done with a man who makes a fool of himself? (p.89)  What does the development of this project tell you about Judith and Martin’s relationship?  How does it play itself out throughout the novel?

Judith and her friend, Nancy Krantz, discuss occasional little surprises on p.116-7.  Nancy tells her peach story, which reminds Judith of some stationary given to her by a stranger.  Can you think of a similar surprising incident in which you have been in just a few minutes blessed with a gracious detail that was…so completely unasked for (Nancy’s words)?

Salutations:  Judith concentrates on what people call one another, both in her writing (Could anyone love a man she called by his surname? p.54) and in her life (Is he caught in that slot of growth where Mommy is too childish, Mother too severe and foreign? p.94)  What do the people in your house call you?  Do you think much about these names?  What might a biographer like Judith say about the names you call one another?

The power of the casual curse (p.49): Judith talks about how a person takes on a characteristic simply because we say they have it.  She several examples: They call their daughter Meredith a geologist because she collects rocks as a young child.  She, herself, has become wry because Furlong called her so.  Where in your life do you see this occur?

When Judith reads her completed novel manuscript with the stolen plot, she says that she understands why artists sometimes destroy their work, an act she had until now thought inexcusably theatrical.  Can you remember a time when you had the desire to obliterate something that was shameful, infantile, degrading (p.74)?  Have you ever shredded a canvas or destroyed a manuscript?

Judith’s illness in January:  She states (p.93): I have never in my life been so ill.  I can hardly believe I am suffering from something as ubiquitous as flu, and it seems preposterous that I can be this ill and still not require hospitalization. Have you ever felt this way?  Was your experience of a long or debilitating illness similar to Judith’s?  Describe.

Always the biographer, Judith manages to describe characters’ personalities for us in one succinct paragraph.  She does this with Furlong (p.19), Meredith’s friend Gwendolyn (p.41) and Polly Stanley (p.129).  Do you tend to sum people up in this way?  Are these accurate or fair portrayals?  Why or why not?  How might Judith sum you up?

Judith finds one of Susanna Moodie’s novels to be very helpful in her research because Susanna wrote her own story in the fictional character Flora. (p.155) Since Carol Shields was also a biographer of Susanna Moodie, one might wonder if this is a clue to the reader that she is doing the same thing.  Writing her own story in this novel.  A story within a story within a story.  If you were to write a fictional version of yourself, what would you look like?  How might you improve yourself?

Toward the end of the book (pp.110-111 and pp.124-125), Judith describes her disappointment with Susanna in her later life.  She says that she has lost her visionNo longer destitute, she has grown cranky. Why do you think Judith feels let down by Susanna?

In this novel of details, were there descriptions of people, places or events that stood out to in particular that you can share?  (Feel free to read a portion you marked.)  Her mother’s letter and unsympathetic impulses made me laugh because they might have been describing me exactly: Even our childhood illness were begrudged us. (p. 95)  To what character did you relate most?

Next month we will meet on May 28th for lunch and discuss Secret Language by Monica Wood.  We welcome anyone to join us!

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