Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for How it Ends includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Laura Wiess. 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.
Questions for Discussion
1. In the prologue we are introduced to Hanna and Mrs. Schoenmaker and learn about the history of their relationship. How does the prologue foreshadow the events of the novel and emphasize the link between Hanna and the Schoenmakers?
2. When Crystal tells Hanna Jesse’s history, Hanna is shocked at what Jesse has been through: “I never knew anybody with such a sad story before . . . I mean, I had no idea there could be so much to karate guy.” What surprises Hanna about Jesse? How does the way he looks contrast with his personality and background? How does this passage reflect a common theme in the book? How have people surprised you in your life?
3. How are Hanna’s parents a good support system for her? How does their relationship influence Hanna?
4. After the robbery at the sub shop Hanna tells her psychologist that “There’s pre-robbery Hanna and there’s post-robbery Hanna; my life is halved now. Pre-Hanna was so sure of her life, she . . . strode through it like there was nothing she couldn’t find a way around, like there was nothing she couldn’t handle.” How else does the robbery change Hanna’s life? How does it help to prepare her for some of the events that are still to come?
5. Talk about your impressions of Seth. What draws Hanna to him? Have you or anyone you know experienced what Hanna went through with him? Why does she continue to go back to him when he repeatedly makes her feel bad? Discuss the ups and downs of Hanna’s relationship with him.
6. Consider the husband-wife relationships in the book. Think about Hanna’s parents, the Schoenmakers, the Boehms, Seth’s parents and Jesse’s parents. What do these couples demonstrate about the nature of love? What does Hanna learn from these relationships? What does she not understand?
7. Discuss the Schoenmakers’ relationship. What is unusual about their marriage? In what ways is their love story universal? Did their relationship alter your view of what constitutes romantic love? Can you think of other fictional or real life love stories that parallel theirs?
8. When Hanna runs into Jesse over Memorial Day weekend she tells him, “Every time I see you I just . . . I don’t know. You make me smile.” Why does Jesse make Hanna feel good? How is he different from Seth? Why do you think it takes her so long to realize how she feels about him?
9. Discuss the theme of reinvention in the novel. Consider the Schoenmakers, the Boehms, Hanna, Jesse, and others.
10. Louise shares some of Peter’s background in the audiobook but also writes that “he had done some things while trying to stay alive that were best left unclaimed and undisturbed.” Why does Louise choose not to reveal more details about Peter’s history? What do you imagine he might have had to do?
11. What is the significance of the book’s title, How It Ends? Why do you think Wiess gives her book and the audiobook Hanna and Mrs. Schoenmaker listen to the same title?
12. This novel contains some shocking moments, particularly toward the end. What did you think of Lon’s actions at the end of the novel? Were you surprised? Do you think he did the right thing? How does his personal history affect the choices he makes?
13. Discuss the role that animals play in this novel. What do they symbolize? How do they help to drive the story?
14. When Hanna rescues the wren after the hawk attacks, she discovers stray cats have carried away the birds that died. “The relief that comes from this shames me, but I’m still thankful because the birds who died quickly have not only been spared but have spared me the struggles of the mortally wounded, of kneeling helpless beside a body too broken to fly but not broken enough to die . . . ” What does Hanna mean? What is significant about this passage?
15. What does Hanna learn from her relationship with the Schoenmakers? How does it change her? How does it influence her ideas about her own romantic relationships?
16. Did you relate to Hanna? Did you like her? Were any of her experiences similar to yours?
17. Why do you think it takes Hanna such a long time to acknowledge the truth about the audiobook? Why might it be hard for her to face the truth? In what other ways does Hanna have trouble facing reality?
18. Louise writes, “True love is real, and I have loved you since that first day, the best way I knew how. I hope someday you can forgive me.” What does Louise want Hanna to forgive her for? What else does the audiobook show about the nature of true love?
19. What did you think about the book’s ending? How did you feel after finishing the book?
20. Discuss some of your favorite passages or scenes in the novel. What resonated most for you? Are there any other themes or topics that stood out?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Hanna and Mrs. Schoenmaker bond over their love of animals. In one poignant scene they discuss the migration patterns of monarch butterflies after Mrs. Schoenmaker gives Hanna a book on the subject. Find out more about monarch butterflies at http://www.monarchwatch.org/.
2. Give some of your time to someone who needs companionship. Sign up to help out at a nursing home or hospital or make cookies and have tea with a favorite neighbor.
3. Arrange a volunteer outing at an animal shelter or find out how you can help animals in need at http://www.charityguide.org/volunteer/animal-protection.htm or http://www.hsus.org/pets/animal_shelters/how_to_volunteer_at_your_local_animal_shelter.html, http://www.aspca.org/.
4. Learn more about the author at www.laurawiess.com and www.myspace.com/gypsyrobin.
A Conversation with the Author, Laura Wiess
1. How It Ends is extremely inventive and touches on a wide range of topics, from love and family to taxidermy, animal rescue and women’s reproductive rights. What inspired you to write this book? What kind of research did you have to do to incorporate so many topics in this novel?
How It Ends began when I was wondering about the experiences people keep hidden in their hearts, thinking about how there’s always so much more to people than we see, and what a huge mistake it is to believe we know everything there is to know about a person, whether it be a stranger, family member, or friend. It shifted into higher gear when two of the images I’ve been carrying around in my mind for years surfaced and wove themselves into the mix.
The first image came from one of the stories my mother used to tell me, about how it was back when she was a little girl in the 1940s. She lived in a neighborhood where all the kids used to play out in the street, and although no one talked much about the kinds of men who offered candy to children, all the kids were warned by their parents not to go near this one house on the block where an old man and his invalid wife lived, especially if it was dusk or he called you into his garage for any reason.
The local kids ran away from this guy whenever he beckoned but one day there was a new girl of about fifteen living there, a state kid, an orphan, placed with them to live and work. She had no one, and so was trapped: on the surface the old man and his wife looked harmless but behind closed doors, it must have been an unimaginable hell. She was rarely allowed to come out and play with the other kids and did not even go to school. I asked my mother—who had been maybe 9 or 10 back then—what happened to the girl and it turns out she got pregnant, and was sent away in shame for getting herself into trouble. Can you even imagine? She—an orphaned child—was an unpaid servant, denied an education, sexually molested, impregnated by her foster father, and then punished for it, whisked away as if it were all her fault. How convenient.
The image of this faceless, anonymous girl trapped in a house of horrors, has haunted me for years.
The second image was from a story I read years ago about a man who was supposedly a deer rehabber and an amateur taxidermist. (Anybody else see a conflict, here?) Wildlife rehab is a wonderful, difficult, heart-and-soul endeavor if it’s done correctly and with the best interest of the animal in mind, but supposedly this guy had been taking in orphaned fawns and shoving them into a dark, dank outbuilding along with deer corpses in various stages of decomposition, dissection, taxidermy experiments, chemical treatment, etc., and basically leaving them there to die of starvation.
It was not a stretch for me to imagine the imprisoned fawns confused, hungry, scared, and locked into what could only be a living hell with no food or water, with the thick, unrelenting scent of terror, death, and rot all around them, no sun, no breeze, no grass, no freedom, laying in chemicals that burned through them, blood, feces, mud . . . I couldn’t get such selfserving cruelty out of my mind and wanted to know why? Why would someone do this? So I began to imagine an answer.
Somehow the anonymous orphan girl and the fawns wove together, along with the idea that no one is ever all they appear to be, a fascination with the imprints we leave on each other throughout our lives, and wanting to explore how love is born and how it dies. These threads became the fictional How It Ends.
As far as research goes, I explored taxidermy, the old mandatory sterilization laws for the unfit, medical pieces regarding the treatment of women and the maladies supposedly born of their reproductive organs, the Hunger Winter, mandatory community service, Parkinson’s disease, physician-assisted suicide, and the right to die.
2. How do you capture the lives and emotions of teenagers so realistically? Do you spend time around teenagers? Or do you just have a great memory of what it’s like to be that age?
Both, I think. What intrigues me most about the teen years—besides the fact that you’re coming up and everything is new, you’re jockeying for position and trying to feel your way through an unfamiliar world filled with hazards, pitfalls, excitement, and experiments—is “kid logic.” I love kid logic even when it completely unnerves me. I remember it very clearly because my own kid logic sprung from wanting to get out there and live my life, and not get caught or get in trouble for doing whatever it was I was doing.
3. Some of your interests show up in this novel—you’re an animal lover and rescuer and, like your characters, live in the country. Was this a conscious decision or did it happen as you went along?
I think it happened as the characters became known to me, and their concerns placed them in an environment where the dreams they had left had room to grow. Helen and Lon, going through what they had in the past, needed space to live their own way. Helen was attuned to the suffering of those who couldn’t speak for themselves and so she tried to find an active and ongoing way to help by providing food and shelter, spaying/neutering for the cats and a home base. Hanna grew up seeing this behavior as normal but when she had to fill in for Helen, she thought it was a pain. Then she looked harder, saw the need, stepped up of her own free will, and chose to help, too.
I see the place where Helen and Hanna live as the far, wooded outskirts of town—a small town—with the inevitable development creeping toward them but not quite there yet. There are still woods to support the wildlife, and it’s still a place where people can live privately and have room to stretch out.
So no, I’m not surprised that living in the country has sort of bled over into this book. After growing up in central Jersey, living up in the mountains now is an ongoing adventure. Kind of a culture shock—no pizza delivery here—but it’s worth it. I learn something new every single day—which of course means that I get to feel stupid every single day, too, because I don’t know what I’m doing—and it’s tickling me to death. I love it.
4. What else in your life informs your writing? How do you think you work best? Tell us about your writing style.
Lots of things become fictionalized and feed in: moments, issues or causes I find intriguing or am passionate about, things I learn along the way, emotions I wonder about and more. I have to feel what the characters feel as we go along, especially when I’m sitting firmly on one side of the fence and the challenge is to try and see a situation or a belief from the opposing side. Doing that opens new doors in my mind, helps me to understand different points of view and respect other sides, even if I still don’t like or agree with them. It creates a wonderful chaotic jumble of thoughts. I work best when I’m not interrupted, alone in my studio, sometimes with silence, sometimes with specific music playing low in the background. I do a lot of research in every direction that seems interesting, exploring whatever strikes my fancy, and let it all simmer together until something sparks and a character with a question is born. I never know what that character is going to be made of until they show up.
5. The reason for Hanna’s parents’ brief split is not revealed. Did you have an idea in mind of what they went through?
I don’t have an absolute, but I know it wasn’t any one big thing that split them up, more like they came together with two separate, naive fantasy ideas of what their young, happy lives together would be—eternal romance, eternal hot sex, no fuzzy slippers or baggy sweats or overdue bills, no zoning out in front of the TV or the dreaded, frustrated Um, honey? We have to talk moments—and were not prepared for the ups and downs of reality or the warring expectations, which bred discontent and disappointment, resentment and the pain of watching love founder and almost die.
I’m glad they found their way back to each other, though.
6. Did you do a lot of research while writing the story-within-a-story audiobook How It Ends?
Here’s where growing up in a family of storytellers came in handy, as the old days—in glorious, vivid detail—were always offered up as a companion to progress. The stories were bizarre, funny and interesting, and I must have absorbed far more than I thought I did, because they’re definitely coming in handy now.
There was serious research too, of course, especially when it came to things like mandatory sterilization for whoever was deemed unfit (want to chill your blood? It was still happening in the 1970s), the Hunger Winter, Parkinson’s disease, the right to die and more.
7. What are you currently working on?
I have several stories in the works but there’s a certain romantic comedy that seems to be a little more irresistible than the rest. . . .
8. Who are some of your favorite writers? Did any particular works inspire How It Ends? What did you most enjoy reading when you were Hanna’s age?
I’m bad at pinpointing favorites—they shift along with my moods—but at Hanna’s age I liked funny, heartwarming family stories like Cheaper by the Dozen (the original book by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, not the movie), thrillers, Gothic mysteries, horror (Stephen King), drama, love stories, and nonfiction back-to-the-land books. Animal stories, too. Stories with characters that made me invest everything I had in their happiness, fret over them, and get really depressed when the book was over and I could no longer walk with them.
Hmm, come to think of it, these are still pretty much the books I reach for. Give me a character to love and I’ll follow her or him anywhere.
9. There are some pretty devastating scenes in this book, particularly as we near the end. Were any of these scenes painful for you to write? Do you get emotionally attached to your characters?
Yes, the scenes you refer to were very hurtful to write. Being trapped with absolutely no escape, being inside the minds’ of Helen and Lon, feeling the pain, desperation, and helplessness they felt, running panicked and terrified with Hanna . . . none of it was good. I cried a lot, because yes, I do get emotionally attached to my characters.
10. Even though this book is categorized as a young adult novel it is also appropriate for older readers. Do you consider yourself a YA writer? Do you write with any particular audience in mind?
Based on the reader e-mail I’ve received so far, Such a Pretty Girl and Leftovers both have a pretty wide audience, ranging from about fourteen years old to readers in their seventies. Those books are about teens but maybe not necessarily only for teens.
But yes, I do consider myself a YA writer.
11. Was there a message for young people you were trying to convey? Does writing for a YA audience lend itself to lessons?
No, I hope no messages but rather questions asked, and for these characters, hopefully answered. How does love begin? Is any love good love? What do you bring to the partnership? What do you allow in the name of love, behavior-wise, and what do you reject? Is there sacrifice, and if so, why? How does love end? What about perfect, fairy-tale love? If we believe in that, are we doomed to disappointment or can it possibly survive reality? What if no one is ever really who you think they are? What then?
I love questions, and I love them best when I can find some answers.