Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Book Club: Fireworks Over Toccoa

I have the pleasure of working with a great group of women over at 5 Minutes for Books. Jennifer and the rest of the team are always cooking up something new and fun for us, be it the new and improved Classics Book Club, the Children's Mystery Challenge, or an online discussion group of a newly released novel. All this in addition to the wide array of reviews we post! Like I said, we have fun.

Currently we're reading and discussing Fireworks Over Toccoa by Jeffrey Stepakoff. Since it's via the internet, our book club discussion consists of us posting our responses to the novel and to some of the questions Jennifer has posed. Before you read any further, know that my post contains SPOILERS! If you don't want to know what happens in the novel, don't read any more of this post!! I will also say up front that this novel isn't among my favorites but that my opinion is just that: mine. In fact, my opinion differs with other members of our team. If you think you might be interested in reading the book, be sure to visit the reviews posted here to see what other readers thought. And, if you read along with us, we'd love for you to join the discussion!

Remember: my answers contain plot spoilers! Here's my thoughts in response to Jennifer's questions...

  • Many of the characters in the novel deal with regret and/or loss. How did these themes affect the characters? How did it affect their decisions? With whom could you relate as they struggled through these emotions?

  • Honey, Lily's mom, represents a clear picture of how many deal with loss in her refusal to even speak the name of her son that she lost in the war. One element I found interesting in the novel is the theme of loss. We see how the war touched nearly the lives of nearly everyone, from Lily's childhood sweetheart who will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair to those like Lily's family and Jake whose loved ones were killed.
  • *Do you think duty is ever more important than love?

  • If you mean love as in a sentimental, sappy, passionate emotion then yes, I think commitment and duty is more important. If you mean love in terms of a promise to remain true and steadfast until death do us part and duty as a mechanical, empty fulfillment of an obligation, then no I would say love is more important. In fact, one of my frustrations with the novel is not only all the melodrama but that Lily would so freely abandon all sense of commitment. Sure, she was lonely. Loneliness is understandable and certainly sympathetic. I disliked the sense of inevitability surrounding Jake and Lily's relationship.
  • How would you describe the love between Jake and Lily? Was it genuine? Born of fear or loneliness? Could it have survived the intricacies of "real life," or could it only have existed in the tiny pocket of time outside of reality that they had?

  • I think it was born of loneliness (see my answer above). As for whether or not it was genuine and would have lasted, I want to say no, mainly because I disagree with the premise of unexpectedly finding one's "true love" that renders the commitment to marriage as irrelevant and constraining. Also, their "love" really only lasted a couple of days, a tiny pocket of time indeed--how then could they "know" each other so well and so thoroughly? I have to admit, I chuckled a little at Jake's surprise at Lily's art. "Until now, he thought he knew her entirely." After only a day?
  • How much of this story is a wartime story? Would Jake and Lily and her father and mother have reacted differently had they not been in the midst of a war? How has your family been affected by war?

  • It is a war story and interestingly enough that is what I liked most about the story. My generation and those after me are largely untouched by war, at least not to the extent of my grandparents' generation, the "greatest generation" of World War II.
  • *What was your response to Lily’s decision to offer a thirsty African-American soldier a rare ice cold Coca-Cola in the middle of busy downtown 1945 Toccoa, Georgia? Do you think she should have been more direct in her action to help him, or stayed out of it entirely?

  • I liked her boldness in doing so in full view and I also liked how she sought to protect the reputation of both herself and the soldier.
  • *Honey speaks the name of her son, Jonathan, only once in the story after he is killed in the war. Do you think the way she deals with his death is understandable? Do you think it’s healthy? What effect do you think it has on Lily?

  • Denial is an emotion I understand, particularly in view of such a tragic loss. Healthy, not so much. I think being able to commiserate in their grief would have strengthened the relationship between Lily and Honey and would have helped Lily understand her own loneliness during Paul's deployment.
  • *Lily’s father Walter is very clear with her about what he expects her to do when he speaks to her the morning after she has been out all night with Jake. What was your response to how Walter handled this situation? In his place, in what ways would you have reacted similarly or differently?

  • I could sense his mixture of patriotism and grief when he reminded Lily of the great sacrifice so many had made. "Not because it was easy or because it felt right, not because of love. They did it out of a sense of selflessness, out of a sense of duty." Though I would argue that genuine love is selflessness, I appreciate his point and his plea with Lily to honor her commitment to Paul though I probably would have been a little less dismissive of the affair and the fact that she had spent the night with Jake.
  • Though not a typical Young Adult coming-of-age novel, how is Fireworks Over Toccoa the story of Lily's coming of age?

  • We see that her relationship with Jake and the loss of Paul motivates Lily to move beyond her life in Toccoa, going to art school for example, traveling the world, meeting and marrying a wonderful man, raising a daughter. One wonders if she would have discovered such a life if the events of that summer in 1945 hadn't occurred.
  • What personal connection, if any, did you have with this novel?: the place (Toccoa, Georgia), the World War II setting, influential families in small towns, military deployment, the loss of a child or sibling, temptation in marriage?

  • While I found the novel's sweet sentimentality a little frustrating (what can I say, I'm a curmudgeon I suppose!), Lily and Jake's affair irresponsible, and the intimate scene wholly unnecessary, I did think its picture of small town life in the South to be spot on and exactly how I picture my grandparents and parents' lives during that time.

    Click here to see reviews of Fireworks Over Toccoa and here to see what others thought in response to these same questions.

    4 comments:

    1. Oh, I think I'm going to be all alone in my opinion of this book! I can respect what you're saying here, even if I took it in a different way.

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    2. You get an A+ -- answering ALL the questions -- wow!! I like your observation about the African American soldier -- she did protect both of them, while still doing the right thing.

      I think that the response about the love has to do to some part with our own nature. I am NOT a romantic, so I am too practical to buy into all of that (even in my own life!). I still enjoy a good love story novel or movie, but I'm more skeptical like you. I like you pointing out "Until now he thought he totally knew her." HA!

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    3. I haven't posted my discussion questions yet, but I agree with your answers wholeheartedly!

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    4. You handled this so well. I haven't written mine up yet, because I'm trying to be as tactful as you were ;-)

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