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A Novel

Written by Myla GoldbergAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Myla Goldberg

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On Sale: August 13, 2002
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-4000-3276-1
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Eliza Naumann, a seemingly unremarkable nine-year-old, expects never to fit into her gifted family: her autodidact father, Saul, absorbed in his study of Jewish mysticism; her brother, Aaron, the vessel of his father's spiritual ambitions; and her brilliant but distant lawyer-mom, Miriam. But when Eliza sweeps her school and district spelling bees in quick succession, Saul takes it as a sign that she is destined for greatness. In this altered reality, Saul inducts her into his hallowed study and lavishes upon her the attention previously reserved for Aaron, who in his displacement embarks upon a lone quest for spiritual fulfillment. When Miriam's secret life triggers a familial explosion, it is Eliza who must order the chaos.

Myla Goldberg's keen eye for detail brings Eliza's journey to three-dimensional life. As she rises from classroom obscurity to the blinding lights and outsized expectations of the National Bee, Eliza's small pains and large joys are finely wrought and deeply felt.

Not merely a coming-of-age story, Goldberg's first novel delicately examines the unraveling fabric of one family. The outcome of this tale is as startling and unconventional as her prose, which wields its metaphors sharply and rings with maturity. The work of a lyrical and gifted storyteller, Bee Season marks the arrival of an extraordinarily talented new writer.

Excerpt

At precisely 11 a.m. every teacher in every classroom at McKinley Elementary School tells their students to stand. The enthusiasm of the collective chair scrape that follows rates somewhere between mandatory school assembly and head lice inspection. This is especially the case in Ms. Bergermeyer's fourth/fifth combination, which everybody knows is where the unimpressive fifth graders are put. Eliza Naumann certainly knows this. Since being designated three years ago as a student from whom great things should not be expected, she has grown inured to the sun-bleached posters of puppies and kittens hanging from ropes, and trying to climb ladders, and wearing hats that are too big for them above captions like "Hang in there," "If at first you don't succeed . . ." and "There's always time to grow." These baby animals, which have adorned the walls of every one of her classrooms from third grade onward, have watched over untold years of C students who never get picked for Student of the Week, sixth-place winners who never get a ribbon, and short, pigeon-toed girls who never get chased by boys at recess. As Eliza stands with the rest of her class, she has already prepared herself for the inevitable descent back into her chair. She has no reason to expect that the outcome of this, her first spelling bee, will differ from the outcome of any other school event seemingly designed to confirm, display, or amplify her mediocrity.

Ms. Bergermeyer's voice as she offers up spelling words matches the sodden texture of the classroom's cinder block walls. Eliza expects to be able to poke her finger into the walls, is surprised to find she cannot. She can certainly poke her way through and past her teacher's voice, finds this preferable to being dragged down by its waterlogged cadences, the voice of a middle-aged woman who has resigned herself to student rosters filled with America's future insurance salesmen, Amway dealers, and dissatisfied housewives.

Eliza only half listens as Bergermeyer works her way down the rows of seats. In smarter classrooms, chair backs are free from petrified Bubble Yum. Smooth desktops are unmarred by pencil tips, compass points, and scissors blades. Eliza suspects that the school's disfigured desks and chairs are shunted into classrooms like hers at the end of every quarter, seems to remember a smattering of pristine desks disappearing from her classrooms over spring and winter breaks to be replaced by their older, uglier cousins.

Bergermeyer is ten chairs away. Melanie Turpin, who has a brother or sister in every grade in the primary wing, sits down after spelling TOMARROW, which even Eliza knows is spelled with an O. Eliza also knows that LISARD is supposed to have a Z and that PERSONEL needs a second N. And suddenly the bee gets more interesting. Because Eliza is spelling all the words right. So that when Ms. Bergermeyer gives Eliza RASPBERRY, she stands a little straighter, proudly including the P before moving on to the B-E-R-R-Y. By the time Bergermeyer has worked her way through the class to the end of the first round, Eliza is one of the few left standing.

Three years before Eliza's first brush with competitive spelling, she is a second-grader in Ms. Lodowski's class, a room that is baby animal poster-free. Eliza's school universe is still an unvariegated whole. The wheat has yet to be culled from the chaff and given nicer desks. There is only one curriculum, one kind of student, one handwriting worksheet occupying every desk in Eliza's class. Though some students finish faster than others, Eliza doesn't notice this, couldn't tell if asked where she falls within the worksheet completion continuum.

Eliza is having a hard time with cursive capital Q, which does not look Q-like at all. She is also distracted by the fact that people have been getting called out of the classroom all morning and that it doesn't seem to be for something bad. For one thing, the list is alphabetical. Jared Montgomery has just been called, which means that if Eliza's name is going to be called, it has got to be soon. The day has become an interminable Duck Duck Goose game in which she has only one chance to be picked. She senses it is very important that this happen, has felt this certainty in her stomach since Lodowski started on K. Eliza assures herself that as soon as she gets called out her stomach will stop churning, she will stop sweating, and cursive capital Q will start looking like a letter instead of like the number 2.

Ms. Lodowski knows that second grade is a very special time. Under her discerning eye, the small lumps of clay that are her students are pressed into the first mold of their young lives. A lapsed classics graduate student, Ms. Lodowski is thrilled that her teaching career has cast her in the role of the Fates. Though she couldn't have known it at the time, her abbreviated classical pursuits equipped her for her life's calling as overseer of McKinley Elementary's Talented and Gifted (TAG) placement program.

Ms. Lodowski's home, shared with a canary named Minerva, is filled with photo albums in which she has tracked her TAG students through high school honors and into college. In a few more years the first of her former charges will fulfill destinies shaped by her guiding hand.

Ms. Lodowski prides herself upon her powers of discernment. She considers class participation, homework, and test performance as well as general personality and behavior in separating superior students from merely satisfactory ones. The night before the big day she goes down her class roster with a red pencil. As she circles each name her voice whispers, "TAG, you're it," with childlike glee.


Steven Sills spells WEIRD with the I before the E. Eliza spells it with the E before the I and is the last left standing. As she surveys the tops of the heads of her seated classmates she thinks, So this is what it's like to be tall.

She gets to miss fifth period math. Under Dr. Morris's watchful eye, she files into the school cafeteria with the winners from the other classes and takes her place in a plastic bucket seat. The seats are shaped in such a way as to promote loss of circulation after more than ten minutes. Two holes in each chair press circles into the flesh of each small backside, leaving marks long after the sitter has risen. Each chair has uneven legs, the row stretching across the stage like a hobbled centipede.

Through the windows on the left wall, buses arrive with p.m. kindergartners. In the kitchen, hundreds of lunch trays are being washed. From behind the closed kitchen comes the soothing sound of summer rain. Eliza feels a sudden pang of guilt for having left a lump of powdered mashed potato in the oval indentation of her tray instead of scraping it into the trash, worries that the water won't be strong enough to overcome her lunchtime inertia.

Dr. Morris is the kind of principal who stands outside his office to say goodbye to students by name as they scramble to their buses. Administering the school spelling bee allows him the great pleasure of observing his best and brightest. The children before him are the ones whose names adorn the honor roll. They are names teachers track long after having taught them in order to say, "This one was my favorite," or "I always knew this one would go far." Eliza is the exception to this rule. When Dr. Morris spots her in the group, he is reminded of something he can't quite place. At his puzzled smile, she blushes and looks away.


The meeting between Dr. Morris and Eliza's father that Dr. Morris can't quite remember occurs on Parents' Night one month after Ms. Lodowski goes from Kathy Myers to John Nervish, skipping Eliza. Saul Naumann only learns of his daughter's exclusion through one of his congregants who, after Shabbat services, announces loudly enough for the people on the other side of the cookie table to overhear that her son has been identified as Talented and Gifted. Saul realizes that the boy is in Eliza's class. Eliza hasn't tendered Saul the congratulatory note Aaron delivered at her age, the one that made Saul feel like a sweepstakes winner.

Saul's is one of many hands Dr. Morris shakes that Parents' Night. Dr. Morris's office contains a desk with a framed picture of his daughter, two squeaky chairs, and a window that looks out onto the school playground. On a small bookshelf, binders of county educational code bookend with instructional paperbacks devoted to several categories of child including "special needs," "precocious," "problem," and "hyperactive." Dr. Morris keeps mimeographed pages from these books on hand to distribute to the parentally challenged.

"Hello, Mr. Naumann. It's a pleasure to see you here tonight." Dr. Morris remembers the son--smart, awkward, too quiet for his own good. While he knows the daughter's face, he can't attach words to the picture. He scans her file, hoping for help and finding nothing. "Eliza is a lovely child."

"Thank you. We think she's pretty special. Which is why I was a little surprised when I learned that she hadn't been TAG-tested with the rest of her class."

Morris manages a polite smile. Every year there is at least one like Mr. Naumann.

"Well, Mr. Naumann, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Only a portion of the second grade is tested, the fraction of the class Ms. Lodowski feels may benefit from an accelerated curriculum."

"The smarter ones."

"There are a lot of different kinds of smarts, Mr. Naumann, a lot of ways for a child to be special."

Dr. Morris addresses that last part to the picture on his desk. It's too bad Saul can't see this picture from where he's standing. If he could see it, he might conclude that this is a somewhat sensitive topic for Dr. Morris. The only people who generally get to see Rebecca Morris's picture are the students Dr. Morris catches using the word "retard." He escorts these students to his office, where they are shown the picture and ordered to repeat the word, this time to his daughter's face.

"Of course there are a lot of ways to be special," Saul continues, no way to know that he really shouldn't. "But my older son was placed in the TAG program, and I just thought that--"

Dr. Morris's face has grown red. "Instead of focusing on what you think you lack, Mr. Naumann, why don't you appreciate what you have? Eliza is a caring, loving child."

"Of course she is. That's not the issue."

Dr. Morris pictures Rebecca walking unsteadily to the van that comes for her each morning, the beatific smile that fills her face at the sight of any animal, and her pleasure at a yellow apple cut into bite-size pieces. He wants Mr. Naumann to get the hell out of his office.

"So sorry, Mr. Naumann, but our time is up. I wouldn't want to keep the other parents waiting."

"But--"

"Goodbye, Mr. Naumann, a pleasure seeing you again."


From third grade onward, Eliza's class is divided into math and reading groups. Eliza's reading group is called the Racecars. She likes it okay until she learns that the other reading group is called the Rockets. The Rockets read from a paperback that has The Great Books printed on its cover in gallant letters. When she asks Jared Mont-gomery what's inside, he tells her that his group is reading excerpts from "the canon" and Eliza feels too stupid to ask if that means something other than a large gun. She can't help but wonder if someone told her which books were great and which ones were just so-so, if she'd like reading more. While she eventually adjusts to the faded motivational posters featuring long-dead baby animals, and the fifties-era reading books whose soporific effects have intensified with each decade of use, she can't get it out of her head that, while she is speeding around in circles waiting to be told when to stop, other kids are flying to the moon.


Within half an hour all the fourth graders have been eliminated except for Li Chan, who never washes his hair and outlasts two fifth graders and a sixth grader from a fifth/sixth combination. When Li finally misspells FOLLICLE, the eliminated fourth graders chant "Stink bomb" until Dr. Morris blinks the lights to quiet things down.

Eliza gets CANARY, SECRETARY, and PLACEBO. By the time CEREMONIAL and PROBABILITY come around, it is down to her, Brad Fry, and Sinna Bhagudori.

Everyone knows that Sinna is the smartest girl in school and that Brad is the smartest boy, but probably not as smart as Sinna. If anyone knows Eliza, it is from breaking the school limbo record, which got her name on the music classroom blackboard for a few weeks but which always goes to the short kids anyway.

Sinna has blue contact lenses and big boobs. Everyone knows her eyes are fake because they were brown the year before, but Sinna insists that a lot of people's eyes change when they go through puberty.

Brad plays soccer at recess and has a lot of moles. There are rumors that he spends his summers at a camp for kids who take math and science classes because they want to, but Brad tells everyone he goes to soccer camp. No one believes him either.

A couple times when it's Eliza's turn, Sinna starts toward the podium and Dr. Morris has to remind her to wait. Waiting for Sinna to return to her seat, Eliza pretends she is a TV star during opening credits, her face caught in freeze-frame. She imagines her name appearing below her face in bold white letters.

Sinna spells IMMANENT without the second M. She is already walking back to her seat when Dr. Morris says, "I'm afraid that's incorrect." It gets very quiet, like at the beginning of a blackout before anyone has thought to fetch a flashlight. Sinna walks offstage biting her lower lip.

Brad is next, but he is so surprised by Sinna getting out that he has to ask for POSSIBILITY three times before he spells it with one S. Despite his assertions to the contrary, he also believes that Sinna is the smarter one. Which just leaves Eliza, who spells CORRESPONDENCE with her eyes closed to avoid looking at three rows of students staring at her in disbelief.

In Eliza's fantasy she walks to the podium, which she is suddenly tall enough to see over, and begins speaking to a cafeteria suddenly filled to capacity.

A few of you might know my name, but most of you don't even recognize me. I know you, though. And what I'm about to say is as important to you as it is to me.

It's the lead-in to a speech from a particularly powerful after-school special. Eliza's always thought it made a great beginning. No actual words come after that, but Eliza's mouth keeps moving and the music swells. By the end, all the students are smiling with little tears in their eyes and Lindsay Halpern makes a place for Eliza at her table between her and Roger Pond.
Myla Goldberg|Author Q&A

About Myla Goldberg

Myla Goldberg - Bee Season

Photo © Jason Little

Myla Goldberg is the author of several books, including The False Friend, Wickett’s Remedy, and the bestselling, critically acclaimed Bee Season, which was widely translated and adapted to film. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Myla Goldberg is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).

Author Q&A

Q: How did you become interested in spelling bees? What, if anything, do they reveal about American identity?

A: I became interested in spelling bees in 1997, after reading an essay in which they were described in the context of generating lots of losers rather than a single winner. I'd had several friends who had been involved in spelling bees as children and had related various awful anecdotes about their experiences; these two things combined to convince me to visit the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. that year to see the thing myself.

Spelling bees were invented in the United States and to this day the United States is the only country which has spelling bees: how that reflects upon American identity depends on your mood when you think about it. A kind conclusion one could draw is that spelling bees are an indicator of the importance language plays in national pride and identity. The prevalence of competitions in general shows the American need to be better than anyone else at something, whether it is selling cars or memorizing state capitals or knowing how to spell dvandva. A less kind conclusion can be drawn if you consider the fact that the spelling bee was invented as a gimmick to sell newspapers. To this day the spelling bee is sponsored by Scripps Howard, a large newspaper syndicate; a child can not participate in the spelling bee circuit unless they attend a school with an approved newspaper sponsor. From that angle, spelling bees can be seen as evidence that Americans will stop at nothing to make a buck, even if that involves subjecting children to a high-pressure competition involving obscure words they will never again have the need to use and whose definitions most of them never learn.

Q: Talk about how your experiences observing the national spelling bee, as well as getting to know the contestants and their families, help shape the characters in Bee Season.

A: I spent two days at the national competition watching the bee, interviewing contestants, and eavesdropping on parents. The character of Eliza began to take form while I was watching the final rounds, as did several of the supporting characters within the book's spelling bee scenes. The general intensity of the environment there helped build my confidence that there was, in fact, a novel to be written here. Being at the hotel among the contestants and their parents felt very much like inhabiting a secret alternate universe that few people knew about--as if I had undertaken some kind of National Geographic-type excursion.

Q: Why did you set this novel in the early 1980s? What makes that particular period of American history vital to the Naumann family's story?

A: I set the story in the early 1980s because that was when I was the approximate age of Eliza and Aaron, so it allowed me to draw upon my own memories of childhood. I'm not sure the time the novel takes place is essential to the story. If I could have written the book without setting it specifically in space or time I think I would have--the larger issues of the book (identity, the search for meaning in life, the quest for community) transcend those details.

Q: Much of the novel centers on the coming of age of the Naumann children, Eliza and Aaron. How much of Eliza and Aaron do you see in your own experiences growing up?

A: Anyone who survives past the age of 13 would have experiences in common with Eliza and Aaron; though they face the challenges of growing up differently, both are yearning for acceptance while trying to figure out exactly what acceptance means, what sacrifices it requires, and what sacrifices they are willing or able to make to attain it.

Q: At one point, Eliza thinks that the dictionary has made the spelling bee superfluous. How has the art of spelling changed today, especially in light of computers? Do spelling bees mean the same thing today?

A: One thing spelling bees have the potential to do, and will always have the potential to do, is provide a unique vantage point from which to understand language as a whole. There are kids who study for the bee by learning word roots and derivations, and these kids get a pretty cool history lesson along with a skill that can actually help them later on in life. For the majority who approach spelling bees through rote memorization, the spelling bee has been and will always be pretty much useless.

The significant change that computers have wrought upon the culture of spelling has come not via the spell-check function of word processing programs but through the insidious automatization of that function: your computer can now correct you as you type. In the past, people were at least made aware of their errors and exposed to the proper spellings of the words they had flubbed; the computer alerted you to the error but it was up to you to make the proper correction. With the automated function, people are not necessarily even aware of the fact they have misspelled a word; mistakes are passively reinforced with the eventual result that people will become increasingly dependent upon their machines to help them simulate competency.

Q: How did you get interested in Jewish mysticism? Talk about how you researched some of the religious texts that the father, Saul Naumann, studies and translates.

A: I took a class in Jewish mysticism in college and some of the stranger aspects of it--especially the beliefs and methods of Abraham Abulafia--stuck with me. It was only after I returned from the national bee that I realized its uncanny resemblance to Abulafia's techniques. It was at that moment Jewish mysticism entered the story, as well as the character of Saul. For research, I re-read some of the stuff I'd read in that class six years before, particularly the work of Gershom Scholem. I also found a book in which some of Abulafia's texts had been translated into English.

Q: What is your background in non-Western religions? What research did you do in order to write about Aaron's explorations of other faiths?

A: My background in non-Western religions was and remains fairly minimal. In a way that made it easier to write Aaron's character since I was pretty much starting out from the same place he did. I did some minimal reading about Buddhism and nothing at all about Catholicism--a result of that was that I got a letter from a reader informing me that the kind of Catholic service I describe in the book doesn't really happen anymore. The biggest part of my research involved learning about Hare Krishnas. I read a few books about them but, more importantly, I visited a Krishna temple posing as someone interested in joining. I spent the afternoon being led around by a really nice female devotee who answered my questions and gave me free stuff.

Q: What do you see as the parallels between religious and personal faith and something like a spelling bee?

A: Faith of some sort (in oneself, in someone else, or in something larger) generally comes into play when undertaking an action that involves risk. The higher the level of risk involved, the stronger chance that faith is also involved. In the case of the National Spelling Bee--in which 150 kids have survived a nationwide winnowing and now very publicly attempt to be the one remaining speller in a contest that initially involved over 9,000,000--I would say that those kids probably have faith in a combination of things, ranging from their personal abilities (augmented by hours and hours and hours of studying) to various higher powers. The winner of the 2000 bee, for example, was a born-again Christian who, whenever he was asked for his autograph, preceded his name with the words "Jesus Lives."

Q: How did your own sense of yourself as Jewish play into your development of the Naumann family, and the different members' approaches to Jewishness?

A: Having been raised in an observant Jewish household, making the family in Bee Season Jewish was a matter of convenience along the lines of choosing to set the story in the early 1980s. For the purposes of the story's larger concepts, the family could have just as easily been Hindu or Catholic. Making the family Jewish allowed me to rely upon my own memories of observance, including attending services.

Q: As Eliza becomes more proficient at spelling and "opens herself up to the letters," she seems to evolve into a different person. What do you see as the relationship between coming of age and mastering language?

A: I relate Eliza's growing proficiency with spelling to the general childhood and adolescent experience of growing to appreciate one's strengths and becoming more self-confident as a result of this knowledge. I've never really thought much about the mastery of language in relation to coming of age, though it sounds like a great thesis topic.

Q: Where do you see each of these characters in ten years?

A: Where these characters are in ten years depends a lot upon how Saul reacts to the actions Eliza takes at the story's end. Ten years from now, the family could be in a much better place than they are at the story's end, or the story's end could have marked the beginning of a downward spiral; it all depends upon whether or not Saul interprets his daughter's actions as a wake-up call to what's been happening to the family.

Q: Bee Season is written in a quirky third-person voice and the world of the Naumanns is permeated by popular culture references that bristle against the spiritual longings of each character. What writers and books have influenced you in the development of this style?

A: David Foster Wallace was both a structural and narrative influence; I was just finishing Infinite Jest as I began Bee Season and I pretty much stole his structural use of small sections of text that carry the reader from one place to another as the story proceeds. Other influences are less direct but would probably include Donald Barthleme, and J.D. Salinger and a whole slew of other writers I admire and consciously or unconsciously attempt to emulate in one way or another. I'm a huge admirer of Nabokov, for example, and I can only hope that some of him has rubbed of on me.

Q: Your next book deals with a particularly virulent early twentieth century flu epidemic. How did you come to this topic?

A: I don't feel that I come to topics; it's more the other way around. I feel like spelling bees found me, as did the 1918 influenza epidemic. I first read about the 1918 epidemic in a newspaper article about two years ago and I've been pretty much obsessed ever since. Because novels take so long to write, a degree of obsession is an essential guard against boredom.

Praise | Awards

Praise

"Bee Season is a profound delight, an amazement, a beauty, and is, I hope, a book of the longest of seasons."
—Jane Hamilton, author of A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth

"Myla Goldberg's Bee Season is a bittersweet coming-of-age in which wise little Eliza Naumann's quirky passion for spelling bees unites and divides her family while revealing universal truths about the often crippling pain of love."
—Martha McPhee, author of Bright Angel Time

"There is such joy and pain thrumming inside Myla Goldberg's spelling bees! She delicately captures one family's spinning out by concentrating equally on the beauty and the despair. Bee Season is a heartbreaking first novel."
—Aimee Bender, author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

"In a story told with unique delicacy and brave inventiveness, a young girl, innocent and all-knowing, learns how much there is to lose, and what it takes to win."
—Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle

Awards

WINNER 2001 Harold U. Ribalow Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The discussion topics, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Myla Goldberg's Bee Season, a beautifully crafted portrait of an American family torn asunder when eleven-year-old Eliza defies everyone's expectations by blossoming into a championship speller.

About the Guide

Like most families, the Naumanns have settled comfortably into a routine, each member playing an accepted role in the day-to-day family drama. Saul, a cantor who devotes himself to the study of Jewish mysticism, is the family anchor, preparing the meals, running the household, and nurturing his son Aaron's interest in Judaism. Miriam, a brilliant and compulsive high-powered lawyer, slips easily into the role of wage-earner, happy to leave the emotional demands of family life and parenting to her husband. Smart, socially isolated, and physically awkward, teenager Aaron thrives under his father's attention, relishing their shared scholarly pursuits and secure in the knowledge that he will become an eminent rabbi. Amid this dazzling display of intellectual power and intensity, Eliza, an unremarkable fourth-grade student, is resigned to remaining in the shadows. But her surprising triumph in a classroom spelling bee and her ascent to the national championships launch Eliza into the spotlight, radically altering the family dynamics.

Saul is soon lavishing time and affection on Eliza, leaving Aaron desperate to find something to replace the connections--to his father and his faith--that have sustained him. For Miriam, the sudden emergence of her daughter's ability to apply the concentration and the desire for perfection that define her own self-image triggers a flood of contradictory emotions and sends her life spiraling out of control. And, as her studies with her father escalate beyond simple word drills to explorations of the writings of one of history's greatest kabbalists, Eliza discovers that her talent for spelling opens the door to far more mysterious gifts.

Myla Goldberg chronicles the details of the Naumanns' suddenly unsettled world--the subtle interplay between an estranged husband and wife, the love-hate relationship of two siblings, the shifting loyalties of parent and child--with a wonderful mixture of humor and compassion. In disclosing the joys, confusions, and pain of a young girl's coming-of-age, she uncovers the hidden longings that shape--and sometimes destroy--the delicate fabric of family life.

About the Author

Shortly after reading about spelling bees in an essay in Granta, a friend of mine told me of a fairly traumatic spelling bee experience. I became obsessed with spelling bees and how they can take on such great significance to the children and the parents involved in them. My feelings were confirmed when I traveled to Washington, D.C., for the 1997 National Spelling Bee. In the two days I spent there watching the bee, interviewing some of the contestants and eavesdropping, I felt I had entered an alternate universe of anxiety and expectation ruled by one of the most arbitrary of systems: the English language. While some of the kids were actually having fun, it became quickly apparent that the spelling bee was pathologically important to a tangible percentage of contestants and parents. Though I was never an active spelling bee participant myself, I recognized in these kids my own childhood imperative to fulfill expectations and live up to my potential. I realized that part of my own fascination with the spelling bee--and part of the reason I think it makes the national news and is televised on ESPN every year--lies in the fact that it is so easy to recognize ourselves in these kids and in this ridiculous contest. We have all felt the desire to please or to succeed against irrational odds. We have all felt what it is like to fail. The universals, underlying what at first sight seemed like such an odd niche of humanity, were a large part of what powered the 18 months it took to write Bee Season.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Myla Goldberg on Myla Goldberg
I grew up in Laurel, Maryland, where, in fifth grade, I lost my first and only spelling bee with the word "tomorrow." After graduating from Oberlin College, I spent a year living and writing in Prague, where I taught English to psychotherapists, insurance salesmen, and former Communist officials. Upon returning to the U.S., I moved to New York City. My complete inability to hold down a regular job led me to a freelance career as a reader for television movies. I now write full-time in Brooklyn, where I live with my husband.

Discussion Guides

1. Eliza Naumann has "been designated . . . as a student from whom great things should not be expected" [p. 1]. How does Myla Goldberg use both humor and poignancy to bring home the impact of this judgment on a child? Does Eliza accept her "mediocrity" without question? What evidence is there that she resents (or is frustrated by) the way the teachers and other students, as well as her own family, perceive her?

2. Why does Eliza slip the information about the district spelling bee under Saul's door, rather than telling him about it in person? Is her behavior unusual for an eleven-year-old? How do Aaron's and Saul's reactions to Eliza's winning the district bee and moving on to the regional finals [p. 43] shed light on Eliza's own feelings about the significance of her newly discovered talent?

3. Initially, Saul is portrayed as an involved and caring father. What hints are there that his interest in his children's lives masks a need to satisfy his own ego? How does his relationship with Miriam enhance the image he has created for himself? Is Miriam in some ways a victim of Saul's determination to take the primary role in the family or is she equally responsible for the pattern they have established? In what ways do the dynamics of the Naumanns' marriage reflect the times in which they live?

4. Before the depth of Miriam's problem is revealed, how do you respond to her as a character? Do her ostensible involvement with work and her treatment of her children make her a "bad" mother? What incidents, if any, demonstrate that at some level she wants to express her love for Eliza and Aaron?

5. Are the interactions between Aaron and Eliza typical of sibling relationships, or are they closer than most brothers and sisters? If so, what contributes to their closeness? At what point does the pattern they have established begin to change?

6. "Saul Naumann spends the first portion of his life as Sal Newman, son of Henry and Lisa Newman, decorator of Christmas trees and Easter eggs" [p. 10]. When he embraces Judaism as a teenager under his mother's guidance, Saul becomes estranged from his father. What effect does Saul's childhood have on how he approaches parenting and the goals he sets for Aaron? As the only child of a wealthy couple who wanted a large family, Miriam is raised to fulfill all her parents' expectations. What does Saul offer her that her own parents were unable to provide? Goldberg writes, "The two bond over their mutual lack of family ties" [p. 22]. How do their assumptions about marriage and, later, their behavior with Eliza and Aaron belie the notion that they are free of the legacies of their own parents?

7. In addition to his desire to achieve a higher level of spirituality, why does Saul devote so much time to his studies of Jewish mysticism? Do his retreats into his study serve another purpose, either conscious or subconscious, in his life? Is the time he spends with Aaron early in the book and later with Eliza compensation for--or relief from--his self-imposed isolation?

8. Discuss the development of Eliza's enchantment with spelling. Is she driven by more than just the desire to please her father? How does the author use metaphors and other literary devices to extend the meaning of what is happening to Eliza at each stage? For example, what does Goldberg mean by the sentence, "When Eliza studies, it is like discovering her own anatomy" [p. 44] and her descriptions of Eliza's delightful characterizations of each letter [p. 49]?

9. When Eliza triumphs at the Greater Philadelphia Metro Area Spelling Bee, Miriam is struck with a sense of pain as she "realizes too late that she has made her daughter more like her than she ever intended" [p. 59]. Saul, in contrast, feels gratitude and humility; he "would like to think he has kept his distance in order to protect his daughter from his unfulfilled hopes" [p. 61]. Is this self-deception on Saul's part? How do you think Eliza would respond to her parents' feelings?

10. Why is Eliza's failure to appreciate Miriam's gift of the kaleidoscope so devastating to Miriam [p. 67]? Would the situation have been different if Miriam had explained its importance to her? Why doesn't she?

11. Eliza's transformation from ordinary student into nationally recognized spelling prodigy undermines the roles Aaron and Miriam have always assumed in the family and sets in motion events that destroy the Naumanns' fa?ade of contentment and normalcy. Is there a common thread that links Aaron's experiments with different religions, Miriam's secret excursions, and Eliza's plunge into Jewish mysticism? In what ways do each of their quests embody the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam, "the fixing of the world" [p. 87]? What parallels are there between the rituals they perform, the risks they take--and the revelations they receive?

12. What does Miriam's sudden sexual aggressiveness symbolize? What does it represent in terms of her feelings about Saul and their marriage? How is it related to the other signs of her increasing recklessness? Despite his discomfort and shock, why is Saul reluctant to discuss it, choosing instead to sleep in his study? Why does he convince himself "that he is there for Eliza's sake" [p. 186]? What are other examples of his unwillingness to face the profound changes occurring in the family?

13. Eliza masters arcane skills and grasps mysteries that few people in history have even dared to examine, yet she remains a typical little girl in many ways. How does Goldberg bring this to life in her descriptions of Eliza's thoughts and actions? She writes, "Abulafia's words speak to Eliza like a promise" [p. 195]. How do Eliza's studies, of both spelling and mysticism, relate to the concrete facts of her life and the promises she hopes will be fulfilled?

14. Describing Saul's reaction to the room Miriam has constructed, Goldberg writes, "Saul starts finding it difficult to breathe. . . . When Saul starts to cry, it is out of this sense of supersaturation as well as having arrived at a new level of understanding" [p. 225]. Does Saul live up to this "new level of understanding" when he sees Miriam at the hospital [pp. 235- 236]? When he discusses the situation with Eliza and Aaron?

15. How does Eliza's final act shed light on her character and the changes she has undergone in the course of the novel? Is it an act of defiance or of resolution?

16. Bee Season presents the narrative viewpoints of all the family members. How does this technique add depth and nuance to our understanding of each character? How do the self-portraits differ from the portraits, implicit or explicit, sketched by the other members of the family? Which characters become more sympathetic or appealing through this juxtaposition of perspectives and which ones become less so?

17. The book opens with quotations from the mystic Abulafia and spelling champion Rebecca Sealfon. It is clear how they relate to Eliza's life; in what ways are they relevant to the other characters in the novel and the themes Goldberg explores?


  • Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
  • May 15, 2001
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $13.95
  • 9780385498807

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