From the award-winning author of A Complicated
Kindness comes a heart-wrenching yet wryly funny story
about setting out on the road to self-discovery, and finding the
strength to survive in the face of immeasurable loss.
Nineteen-year-old Irma Voth lives in a Mennonite community in
northern Mexico, surrounded by desert and both physically and
culturally isolated from the surrounding towns and cities. It's
been six years since her family up and left Canada to escape the
prying eyes of the government and preserve their religious freedom,
but Irma still misses the minor freedoms she had in their small
town. She even misses the cold. This new life has not been an easy
one, and Irma finds herself deserted by her husband of one year,
who has left to pursue a life of drug-running, instead of working
her family's farm. The most devastating blow for Irma is that he
didn't take her with him, take her away, so now she's left to live
under her father's domineering rule alone.
Things change for Irma when a film crew moves into the empty house
next door. They've come to make a movie about the Mennonite
community, and have made a deal with Irma's father to stay on their
land. The director enlists Irma to work for them as a translator,
as she can speak not only Spanish and English but Plattdeutsch, or
Low German, the language of her people. At first bemused by the
ragged and absurd crewmembers, Irma comes to embrace the passion
and creative freedom of their world - but in doing so brings on the
wrath of her father, who is determined to keep her from it at all
costs. When Irma's thirteen-year-old sister Aggie begins to come by
and spend time with the crew, their father is sent over the edge
with rage, and Irma is forced to make a hard decision to save not
only herself, but her younger sister, and to break the dark chain
of violence holding her family.
The girls flee to the city, not knowing where they'll find food or
shelter, let alone build a life, but knowing for the first time
that they are free to make that choice. And even as they begin to
understand the truth of the tragedy that has their family in its
grip, Irma and Aggie use their love as a source of strength to help
each other move on from their past lives and work toward a future
that can truly become anything they want it to be.
1. What were your first impressions of Irma, at the opening of
the novel? Did they change as the book progressed and you got to
know her character?
2. Talk about what Mennonite life is like for Irma and her
brothers and sisters, growing up under their father's strict
religious rule, in their isolated community. What is life like for
3. Late in the book, Irma allows herself to remember what really
happened to her older sister Katie, and tells Aggie the horrible
truth. Do you think Irma will be able to leave her feelings of
4. Wilson tells Irma that art has the power to save us. Irma's
father tells her that art is a lie. Discuss the role of art in the
novel, and how it relates to life. Why does Aggie react so strongly
to the Diego Rivera mural in the National Palace?
5. Diego gives Irma a blank journal so she can keep notes during
the shoot, so she can sort out what's going on and keep track of
her questions, but she ends up using it for so much more. What does
the notebook become for Irma?
6. Discuss Jorge and Irma's relationship. Why did Jorge leave
Irma? Do you think they were ever happy, living on the farm? Does
Irma really love Jorge?
7. At the end of the novel, Irma returns home to visit her
parents and brothers. What do you think their reaction will be? Do
you think her father is capable of forgiveness?
8. In the words of Wilson, "Our dreams are a thin curtain
between survival and extinction." What does that mean to him, and
for anyone? Discuss the importance of dreams in the novel,
including Irma's dreams of - or hopes for - the future.
9. What does meeting the film crew mean for Irma? Discuss Irma's
relationships with Marijke, Diego and Wilson, and why each of them
is important to her.
10. Talk about the cab ride the girls take to the beach in
Acapulco in between their flights, and the relationship they form
with their driver, Gustavo.
11. How does meeting Noehmi and the other student protesters
affect Aggie and Irma?
12. At the end of the book, Irma changes the words of the
heading in her notebook from Diego's "You have to be prepared to
die" to "You have to be prepared to live." And then plays around
with it more, too. What does this shift in perspective mean for
Irma? Could this idea apply to anyone who has lived through
13. What does the future hold for Irma and her two sisters?