Discussion topics and questions for reading
If Wishes Were Horses
1) For Star Hennessey, becoming a poet isn’t simply a matter of liking
poetry and wanting to emulate poets. What else prompts this journey, then
this career choice, for her? What role has art (books, films, paintings,
etc.) played in your life? Has it ever helped you overcome an obstacle?
At the book’s end, Mildred takes credit for having made Star a poet; to what
extent, if any, is this true? Why does Star leave Athens, and what does her
leaving Athens have to do with her pursuit of poetry, of art? Why does she
2) In this story, escape and freedom are inextricably bound. Discuss how
they occur in the context of Mildred’s arrest and removal to prison, and
Star and Lucky’s being taken from Mildred’s house and brought first, to
House of Providence, then to Lily and Kap’s. In what other contexts do these
themes occur in tandem? How do they connect with Star’s love of poetry?
3) Mildred is a teller of wild tales–for example, she relates many stories
of Johnny or Harry. To what extent does Star believe them? What does she
learn from them? What purpose do Mildred’s stories serve? Is Star’s poetry
story-telling of this sort?
4) Several symbols serve as motifs throughout the book: horses, the
dragonfly, and the bird. Look at the different contexts in which they occur.
How do these symbols express Star’s aspirations? What else do they
5) Early in the book, we learn that Star has saved up her money for a red
Japanese lantern. Why does this lantern mean so much to her? What does it
symbolize? Does the lantern’s being red have any special significance? Why
doesn’t Star take the lantern with her at the end? (Is it simply the fact
that the lantern was torn?)
6) Who is Klari Kahn? What importance did she have in Star’s childhood?
Discuss the ways in which she might (and might not) seem to be a product of
Star’s imagination. Which others characters in the book are like her in
7) Wishing occurs throughout the book. Discuss the ways each of the
characters wishes for things (people, events, situations) that aren’t
actual. How do these characters come to terms with their longings? What role
does Mr. Wunsche play with regard to the residents’ wishes?
1) Trisha’s eight-greats aunt, Sara Wilde, was “hung as witch” in
seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. Now, as her descendants grapple
with new demons, Trisha comes to believe that her family has a trait that
they pass along from generation to generation, like a birth defect. What
trait could she have in mind? Discuss ways in which families might pass
along behavioral traits. Can you see it your own family?
2) What parallels can be drawn between Sara Wilde’s life and Trisha’s life?
Between 17th-century Salem and the 1968 world in which Trisha lives? Is
there any kind of hysteria and deception in 1968–in the world at large or in
Trisha’s world–that can match that of 1692 Salem? In what ways does Trisha
seem to be like her “eight-greats” aunt?
3) Discuss the various ways in which Trisha experiences isolation in this
book. What solutions or remedies does she find? Why is it that she feels
most at home outside her home, most alone with her family?
4) Trisha’s Gramma Hattie claimed that the world is divided into two kinds
of people, cat people and dog people. Why is “Dog People” the title of this
book? Who are the dog people in the story? Do you think there is a
legitimate distinction between these two types of people? Can the people in
your life be divided into these two groups?
5) Much of Dog People concerns perception and deception. Discuss. Trisha is
often questioning whether she perceives events correctly, whether things are
as they seem. What contributes to her doubt? Is her perception skewed? Is
our experience of the same event or thing actually different? In what ways?
How do we know when our perceptions actually reflect reality?
6) From the time we first meet Trisha’s father, David Dalton, until the end
of the book, he seems to undergo some drastic, and increasingly aberrant
behavioral changes. Does he seem like an average father early on? Is there
anything in his behavior or circumstances that could predict his later
violent actions? Does he murder his daughter? Could he, in fact, be called a
Burning Down the
1) Why does Toby fall for Blase, despite her initial impression? Should
people trust their first instincts? Did Toby love Blase? Did he love her?
What is evidence that one person loves another?
2) In chapter 3, Toby ponders questions of personal identity. She considers
whether an abrupt change in someone’s personality is sufficient for saying,
here is a different person:
Suppose there’s this guy, call him Fred, who’s a real sports fanatic–devours
all the sports magazines, is glued to the TV every night, you know. S’pose
Fred is also something of a genius . . . and let’s say he’s also enormously
kind and gentle. Now, imagine one morning Fred wakes and he’s totally
changed–he has no interest in sports, he’s a complete dunce–he can’t
understand the most basic things–and moreover, he’s cruel and violent. I’m
imagining we have here the same body, the same human being, but the question
is, Is it the same person? Is it Fred?
How would you answer Toby’s question? Could someone “become” someone else?
What about Blase? Does he undergo an abrupt personality change, or does he
remain the same throughout the book?
3) At the end of chapter 5, after the wedding, Toby recounts the tragic
bedtime story her mother told her. Why does Toby think the story “explained
some things”? What things does the story explain? And why does Toby remember
the story then, on the way to her honeymoon?
Copyright 2003 Merry Whiteford