1. One of the central themes in Belonging is
the act of homemaking. How does Isabel Huggan go about "feeling at
home" in the various countries in which she lives? How do
you make yourself (and/or your family) feel "at home"?
What exactly is the sensation that you -- and the author
-- are attempting to create? She raises several questions about the
underlying meaning of home: Is it a physical place? Family?
Friends? What (for you) constitutes "home" in its most ideal
2. Are there definable/noticeable differences between those of
us who stay in one place and those of us who move from house to
house, city to city, or country to country? If there are
differences, what are they? A discussion might circle around
personal experience or anecdotal evidence. In
Belonging, you can see that the author's life
changes after she leaves Canada: How do her attitudes change, from
the chapter "Graceland" to the end of chapter "Fast Water, Slow
Love"? What images does she give us to illuminate those
3. In the story "Scenes" (in her collection Various
Miracles), Carol Shields wrote that the individual moments
of our lives "fit together like English paving stones". She does
not suggest that the stones make a path, only that they "fit". This
raises some interesting questions: Do you believe that everything
you have ever done has been heading you to where you are today OR
do you think that you have arrived somewhere you could never have
anticipated, after many surprises, alterations and interruptions?
What do you imagine is Isabel Huggan's view? What do you think she
intends in the final sentence of the final short story?
4. One reviewer of Belonging commented that the
author tells us much more about her marriage in her three short
stories than in the memoir itself. Do you agree, or not? Do you see
other "cross-over connections" between her personal essays and her
fiction in Belonging? Is the "writing style" the
same or different in the short stories as it is in the nonfiction
section? What about the author's "voice"? What is the difference,
as far as you are concerned, between the two sections of this book?
Which do you prefer, and why?
5. In many ways, Belonging is about "making
choices". What are the choices the author makes that propel her
forward in her life? Might you have acted differently in her place?
If one partner has the chance to develop (further a career or learn
a new skill) by taking a job in another country, what is the
obligation of the other partner: to self, or to the relationship?
In a two-career family/relationship, how can this matter be
resolved? What indications do you have that the author (finally)
feels she "made the right choice"?
6. Friendship is another essential theme in this memoir, as the
author describes her relationships with people met in her travels,
and people she chooses to "keep" in her life. Perhaps a discussion
about the instances of friendship in Belonging
could turn to a more personal conversation about the value of
friendship. Do you believe that women are better at maintaining
friendships than men are? Is it true, do you think, that friendship
is a skill? The author says she has lost friends over time, but
those absences have been filled with new friends: Has this happened
7. Isabel Huggan uses her two meetings with the Frenchman named
Antoine as a "literary device" -- a method of connecting two
different parts of her life in the book, and as a means of putting
forward an idea she holds to be important, and worth sharing with
her readers. Discuss. The book contains many ideas about how best
to lead one's life: what other techniques doe the author use to
express these notions?
8. In the chapter "Saving Stones", the author says that she
writes because she likes using language to make a physical object
("stone, word, book") and wants to create a tangible reality from
her own experience. Discussion about this chapter could focus on
the importance of "mnemonic objects that tell our stories". How
does this chapter relate to the rest of Belonging?
Where and when do you note the author's use of "physical things" as
story-telling devices? If you were to make a list of objects that
best reflect your life -- because of memories attached to
them -- what would they be?
9. Memory plays an enormously important role in both nonfiction
and fiction sections of Belonging. Discuss, with
reference to "Making Up Mother" in which the author explains that
she and her sister have variant stories about their deceased
mother. She says that differences in recollections within a family
simply add to the richness of mutual memory, and include all the
possibilities. Do you agree? How does this idea relate to your
experience in your family? Does an individual's age/ placement in a
family increase the likelihood of being seen as "right" or "wrong"
(regarding versions of remembered events)?
10. Hoping to show the close relationship between the material
of experience and its transformation into fiction, Isabel Huggan
closes the memoir section with a chapter called S.E.M.A.P.H.O.R.E.
that she says "lies between true and not-true". In it, she recalls
an event from her childhood, but in order to intensify the
long-lasting guilt she and her peers feel about an accident, she
invents a character. What do you think about this kind of "fiddling
with the truth"? Have you ever told a personal anecdote and changed
details in order to get a certain reaction or to make a point?
11. Supplementary Questions, for an additional RG
meeting or for personal enrichment.
In the chapter "Someday You'll Be Sorry", the author remembers her
parents and their friends gathered round a piano for informal
singsongs. Many of the songs had "home" as their central idea. Add
to her list with songs or music "about home". Are there songs you
associate with your home, or childhood, or with the sensation of
"feeling at home"? To the musical references to home one could
easily add any number of visual references -- photographs,
paintings, or graphic illustrations (advertising, in particular)
which make vivid the sentiments we associate with the idea of
"home". It would certainly provoke a lively group discussion about
cultural values if members were to share their findings.
12. Expand this search to include other books -- both fiction
and nonfiction -- which focus on the idea of, or the search for,
"home". This list could include everything from "Exodus" (the
Bible) to Gone With The Wind to
the PEN anthology Writing Home (McClelland &
Stewart) to Passages: Coming Home to Canada
13. Throughout Belonging, the author refers to
several other writers of poetry and prose. Make a list of these
references, and read works by these authors, so that the quoted
phrases you've encountered in Belonging are now
understood in a larger context.
14. The author often uses bits of poetry she memorized earlier
in her life, and it is clear that these have great significance for
her. Did you memorize poetry as a child in school? Perhaps an
exchange of "favorites" would be a wonderful way for a Reading
Group to begin a discussion about the value of memorizing, and/or
which of these remembered lines has meaning and value as the years
pass by. Or on a strictly personal note, it might be fun to put
together a small collection of your own favorite poems and
15. Belonging is meant to be a conversation
between the author and the reader but it is, of course, one-sided.
If you were able to conduct a real conversation with Isabel Huggan,
what would you want to ask her? What would you want to tell her
about yourself as your part of the dialogue? Are there aspects of
her book with which you take exception or with which you would like
to argue? Write a letter to the author, as if you were having a
discussion with her.