Reading Questions for On the Outskirts of Normal
2. How did Debra's mother, and even grandmothers, help and hurt Debra's chances for a successful life? In what ways is Debra like and unlike them? What learned or inherited mothering skills—good and bad—helped make Debra into the mother she became?
3. How did Debra's father influence her choices in male partners? She says, with regard to self-esteem: "just because you know you don't have enough doesn't mean you get some." It seems clear that she knows all along that she should avoid unstable men but doesn't. Why? In the end, when she makes a better choice for a life partner, why has her judgment improved?
4. How did Debra come to terms with the "race" issue she and Marie constantly faced in small town Texas? She says she never saw her motherhood as political, "but it has its political moments, and I can't back down." Should she have been more activist? Why or why not?
5. Strangers comment on the fact that Debra has no extended family. Who plays the role of extended family for Debra? Also, Debra regrets chances not taken to mend her relationship with her own mother and, at the end, worries if she's repeating this mistake with her father. What determines how much contact we have with our family of origin?
6. Debra seems to see this adoption as her last great chance to enter the ranks of the "normal." Is she naïve about this? Does she ignore the possibility that the way she sets out to make a home and family, and where, will increase her isolation? How does the ending speak to her sense of identity? Has she made peace with this longing for normalcy?
7. How do Debra's travails with Marie's hair teach her about an unfamiliar culture and, consequently, about herself? Why does Marie's hair care seem so symbolic to Debra?
8. Debra continually finds herself as the solo female in groups of men: the workers on her house, the workers on her yard and fence, and her graduate school friends. How did her interactions with each group help or hinder her growth toward greater strength and stability?
9. Debra is both a single mother and a mother in an interracial family. Which circumstance seems most challenging?
10. How much does the sense of place inform this book? If she'd bought a house in the college town where she teaches, or one of the neighboring cities, in what ways would the story change?
11. The book uses a quote from Iris Murdoch as an epigraph: "Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top. In the middle they are acted." This quote suggests that we make compromises as we try to be true to ourselves and yet also belong to a community. To be true to ourselves can feel right but isolating. Living in communities can feel cozy, but it requires white lies and self-effacement, too. What does the book say about finding the balance between living alone and living with others? How do we find this balance?
12. Debra's aunt says at the end of the first chapter, "The meaning of life is children and old people. And death." Has Debra discovered this meaning for herself by the end of the book? Do you agree with the aunt's statement?
13. Debra writes: "The sprawling mess of life is why we need stories, a fleeting sense of order so we return to life with the unproven but irresistible conviction our mistakes and emergencies matter, so life might make sense too." Do you see your own life as a story that makes sense? How do specific emergencies in the book create a greater meaning and in the end seem to impart a message? What message?
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