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Plain Language

A Novel


Virginia Mendenhall, a Quaker from North Carolina, is thirty-three years old when she travels to the arid plains of eastern Colorado in the mid-1930s to marry Alfred Bowen, ten years her senior. They have met only twice and have come to love each other through letters. Now, on an isolated ranch in the Dust Bowl, they must adjust to the harsh ranching life and the dangers of an untamed landscape, as well as the differences between them.
With an extended drought worsening the impact of the Depression in the West, neighbors turn against neighbors, and secrets from Alfred and Virginia's pasts come back to haunt them. But it is the arrival of Virginia's troubled brother on the ranch that sets off a chain of events with life-and-death consequences for them all.
Plain Language is a beautifully told tale of a man and woman fighting against tremendous odds for their land -- and their love.

A Touchstone Reading Group Guide
Plain Language: Discussion Points
1. What does the title, Plain Language, refer to? Which characters speak in "plain language," and why? Besides an actual speaking style, what is the language of the plains that Wright refers to? Discuss whose story this is, and how you arrived at your answer.
2. At the beginning of Chapter 1, Alfred knows that, "had he been more prudent, he would have waited to see if he could make a success of ranching before bringing Virginia out." Share whether or not you think he could have made it through the first year without Virginia, and why. What did she contribute?
3. Describe Alfred's relationship with his father. What was Alfred's relationship with his brother? Why didn't Alfred's father ask him to stay at the family ranch? In Chapter 4, what did Alfred's mother mean that "by holding on, you'll do yourself more harm" by remaining angry with his brother?
4. Explore whether or not you were surprised at Alfred's reticence about asking his father for help, and why. In Chapter 17, Alfred finally admits to himself that he had carried a lifelong grudge against his father. How did this affect his life? What is the significance of Alfred's going to his father and asking for help. What enabled him to do so? What did it cost him, and what did he gain?
5. How unusual was it for a woman to go to college and graduate school in the 1920s? What does Virginia's education tell the reader about her? What do her accomplishments tell us about Alfred?
6. Discuss the living conditions on the plains. How would you deal with them? How difficult would it be to live without an abundance of water? How did the water situation, and chronic dust, affect Alfred and Virginia's ranch and their lives in general?
7. What does the author reveal to the reader with some of the character names in Plain Language, especially those of Shrine and Virginia? What is the symbolism of Shrine's accident and ensuing injury?
8. In Chapter 6, Alfred asks himself whether he "dragged Virginia into his private need to prove himself to his father." Share whether or not you agree, and why.
9. Why does Virginia think she could handle having Jonathan live with her and Alfred? What makes Jonathan and Ida fit together as a couple?
10. What is the roll of religion in Virginia's life? Discuss her musing that "the trouble with Quakerism was that it didn't tell you what to do, other than follow your conscience." How does this differ from other religions?
11. How does pregnancy affect Virginia? How does it affect Alfred? How does the author reveal Virginia's state of mind about it (Chapter 12)? How does Virginia's outlook change because of her pregnancy? Discuss how "the life growing inside her made her see dangers where, before, she had seen none." Is this a common change wrought by pregnancy?
12. In Chapter 13, what did Virginia think she could accomplish by going to see Dalton on her own? When he breaks down in front of her, does Dalton's personality soften or harden? Discuss what happens just after he breaks down, and why.
13. Why did Virginia feel she had to tell her husband about her past relationship with a married man? What did she expect to hear? What actually happened between Alfred and her after she confessed?
14. What is Ida's role in the story? What about in Virginia's life? How does Jonathan and Ida's baby save Virginia's life (Chapter 17)? How did calving affect Virginia? Trace the other steps that Virginia took to eventually love working outdoors, developing "a kinship with the land."
15. How does Wright reveal the isolation of ranch life in Plain Language? Were you aware that families mingled so little?

Ursula Hegi author of Stones from the River An exceptional novel about the power of memory and desire.

Robert Morgan Gap Creek and This Rock Barbara Wright's novel is vivid, intense, memorable, told with Quaker plainness and depth, a story of courage, passion for the land, fierce loyalties and growth, enduring. It is an authentic addition to the literature, the poetry, of our West.

Art Corriveau author of Housewrights The West brought hauntingly to life. This human-scale love story of an unlikely family's struggle with love, loyalty, and loss seems all the more epic when set against the immense backdrop of Colorado prairie and sky.