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Oh My Stars

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A Novel

Written by Lorna LandvikAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lorna Landvik



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On Sale: April 19, 2005
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

I am convinced that at birth the cake is already baked. Nurture is the nuts or frosting, but if you’re a spice cake, you’re a spice cake, and nothing is going to change you into an angel food.

Tall, slender Violet Mathers is growing up in the Great Depression, which could just as well define her state of mind. Abandoned by her mother as a child, mistreated by her father, and teased by her schoolmates (“Hey, Olive Oyl, where’s Popeye?”), the lonely girl finds solace in artistic pursuits. Only when she’s hired by the town’s sole feminist to work the night shift in the local thread factory does Violet come into her name, and bloom. Accepted by her co-workers, the teenager enters the happiest phase of her life, until a terrible accident causes her to retreat once again into her lonely shell.

Realizing that she has only one clear choice, Violet boards a bus heading west to California. But when the bus crashes in North Dakota, it seems that Fate is having another cruel laugh at Violet’s expense. This time though, Violet laughs back. She and her fellow passengers are rescued by two men: Austin Sykes, whom Violet is certain is the blackest man to ever set foot on the North Dakota prairie, and Kjel Hedstrom, who inspires feelings Violet never before has felt. Kjel and Austin are musicians whose sound is like no other, and with pluck, verve, and wit, Violet becomes part of their quest to make a new kind of music together.

Oh My Stars is Lorna Landvik’s most ambitious novel yet, with a cast of characters whose travails and triumphs you’ll long remember. It is a tale of love and hope, bigotry and betrayal, loss and discovery–as Violet, who’s always considered herself a minor character in her own life story, emerges as a heroine you’ll laugh with, cry with, and, most important, cheer for all the way.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One

On her sixteenth birthday, violet mathers nearly bled to death in a thread factory. The “incident,” as it was referred to in the company’s 1935 logbook, happened on the graveyard shift, just before break time, when the pounding and the whirring and the squeaking of the machines had crescendoed into a percussion concert conducted by the devil himself. Lamont Travers, the foreman, told her later in the hospital that the worst accidents always happen before break; people can’t wait to smoke their cigarettes or drink their coffee and talk about whose man or whose woman had done who the wrongest. Violet hadn’t cared about any of that; she wanted only to cut into the marble cake RaeAnn Puffer had brought, wanted only to hear her co-workers raise their tired, smoky voices in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

Excited and jumpy as a puppy with a full bladder, the birthday girl broke the cardinal rule of the Marcelline Thread factory, the cardinal rule printed in capital letters on at least three signs posted on the dusty brick walls: do not attempt to clear or repair the machinery without first turning machinery off.

She was running the Klayson, a big reliable machine that sweat oil as it wound and cut dozens of spools of thread. There were women who were possessive of their machines (Lula Wendell even named hers and explained that whenever the machine spit out thread or overwound, it was because “Pauletta” was on her monthly). Violet had formed no deep attachments to the masses of metal, preferring the job of “runner” and working whatever machine needed running. When she ran the Klayson, she felt as if she was wrangling a harmless but stubborn old cow, and it was almost with affection that she scolded the machine when it huffed and burped to a stop.

“Now, come on, gal, I ain’t got time for this,” said Violet, and with one hand on the Klayson’s metal flank, she stuck the other up into its privates, feeling for the tangled clot of thread.

There was a yank then and the benign old cow turned into a crazed bull, sucking her arm up between its jaws.

A flash fire of shock and pain exploded at Violet’s elbow joint and in her brain, and just as red hot was her outrage: But it’s my birthday!

RaeAnn, who was next to Violet on the floor, screamed, and Polly Ball, the only woman on the floor to have gone to college (she would have graduated from UNC-Raleigh with a degree in art history had she not been summoned home after her father died), thought: that’s the scream in the Edvard Munch painting.

Violet too heard the scream even as she fainted, even as the weight of her falling body helped further tear skin from skin and bone from bone. When she woke up in the hospital, her stub-arm wrapped and bleeding like a rump roast in butcher’s paper, the screaming was still inside her head—was in her head for more years than she cared to count.

When the morphine curtain lifted on her consciouness, her first thought was: some sweet sixteenth.

Violet should have known better; in her short history she had learned that expectations only deepened the disappointment that inevitably stained every special occasion—not that many were celebrated. In excavating her mind for memories of parties and presents, she’d only been able to dig up those concerning her sixth birthday, when her mother baked her a yellow cake iced with raspberry jelly and gave her a real present to unwrap. It was a rag doll Violet immediately christened Jellycakes, commemorating what she told her mother was “the best birthday cake and the best birthday doll ever ever ever ever made.”

The remembrance of that lone celebration was ruined by what her mother did three days later, which was to run off with the pharmacist from Henson Drugs. Considering her robust good health, Erlene spent a lot of time at the pharmacy window; every other customer walked away tucking green or brown bottles of tonics and pills and elixirs into their purses or pockets, but all her mama left the drugstore with was a flushed face and a soft dreamy look in her eyes. Violet liked Mr. Gladstone, the pharmacist—he gave her root-beer barrels, and once a Henson’s Drugs (“For All Your Drug & Sundries Needs”) calendar with a picture of a kitten on it—but after he robbed her of her mother, Violet came to think of the druggist as the criminal he was; a man guilty of grand theft. She was a child at the time of the crime, hadn’t even started the first grade yet. Ten years later, when Violet lost her arm, it occurred to her that this was not her first amputation, but her second.

Later, when she came to know how love can slam reason and responsibility to the mat as easily as a heavyweight takes down a bantam, Violet forgave her mother for running off (Yarby Gladstone did have nice clean hands, after all, and an entire set of teeth, or at least all of the ones that showed in a smile), but she never forgave Erlene for forgetting about her, for never sending a letter or postcard, for never sending for her. Mothers who disappear off the face of the earth leave their children feeling as if they’ve disappeared too; disappeared from everything they thought was certain and safe and true. Abandonment can be crueler to a child than death; Violet would rather her mama had died because at least a grave would have given her a place to visit, something to touch, something to talk to.


There were few people in Mount Crawford, Kentucky, surprised by the young Mrs. Mathers taking a permanent leave of absence; it didn’t take any great power of observation to see that Violet’s parents were as mismatched as a crow and a canary. Judd Mathers was Erlene’s senior by fifteen years and had always looked older than his age; he was not yet forty when his wife left, and yet his long thin face was as creased as a bloodhound’s, his black hair leeched to a lusterless gray. He was one of those men hobbled by his inability to exercise his emotions (except for anger), although Violet thought that in his stunted capacity, he really loved his wife. She remembered him smiling at her mama’s jokes, watching Erlene with a shy delight when she put the corn bread on the table, crowing, “Ta-da!” or when she hung the clothes out on the line, grabbing his union suit and pretending to waltz with it.

What registered most on the young Mrs. Mathers’s face when she looked at her husband was disbelief and impatience, as if she were always asking herself, “How did I get here?” and “How soon can I leave?” Had she not gone and got herself pregnant, Erlene would have laughed out loud at Judd’s marriage proposal, would have swatted it away as if it was a black and pesky fly.

There was a certain flightiness to her mama that, even as a child, Violet recognized. The young (she was only eighteen when Violet was born), trim woman could be in the middle of kneading dough when she’d wipe her hands on the dish towel and dash out of the back door, calling out that she was going to town to see what was playing at the picture show, and would Violet mind punching down the bread when it rose? The little girl longed to chase after her but had learned early on that she was usually included in those things from which Erlene needed to escape. When her mother was in an affectionate mood, she might invite Violet onto her lap, but it wasn’t long before the girl would be flung off, as Erlene would be distracted by chores or a sudden need to manicure her nails, to wave-set her hair, or dance to the crystal radio in the boxy little room she called the parlor.

Erlene was full of fun ideas—“Let’s pick raspberries and have a picnic on Mount Crawford!” “Let’s throw a tea party on the porch!”—and once or twice these ideas blossomed into reality, but most always Violet would be left waiting on the crumbling front steps, her eagerness bright as a balloon and just as sure to deflate. The bulk of memories concerning her mother were those in which Erlene stood her up (indoctrinating Violet early on into the sorry club of wallflowerhood), and yet the little girl believed her mama when she called her her “precious flower,” clung to those rare terms of endearment, knowing they were proof of her love.

Violet made all sorts of excuses for her, but in her deep heart she knew that mothers who loved their precious flowers didn’t leave them to grow up in a musty old house on the edge of town with a father whose personality vacillated between melancholia and meanness; surely Erlene knew how that would make a precious flower wither up and die?

Violet. It didn’t take long for everyone to see that the child had been misnamed.

“Gawd Almighty,” Uncle Maynard said the first time he saw her, “she’s homelier than Tate Seevers!”

(Tate Seevers was the one-eyed World War I vet who lived in a shack outside the junkyard with his half-wolf dog.)

Uncle Clyde nodded. “Yuh, I reckon you’ll see prettier faces in a horse barn.”

These stories were gleefully told to Violet by her cousin Byron, who seemed to have an endless collection.

“My mama says only people with hexes on ’em got faces like yours.”

“I heard your daddy says the only way you’re ever gonna get a boyfriend is if he sends you to a school for the blind.”

“Sit up, Violet, speak! Good dog.”

The Matherses’ back porch was the local speakeasy for Judd and his brothers-in-law, who’d congregate there to drink the corn liquor Uncle Maynard showed some talent at making; but after Erlene left, her brothers never came around. It wasn’t shame over their sister’s transgressions (Violet doubted they had shame, over their transgressions or anyone else’s) that kept them away; but their abandonment was double the hurt for her father, who not only lost his wife, but his drinking buddies. Violet didn’t miss them at all—they were loud and crude, like most drunks—and she could easily live the rest of her life without her cousin Byron and the two gifts he so conscientiously gave her during each and every visit: the “Indian burns” that cuffed the girl’s arms in welts and the constant taunts about her looks.


“Why does everyone think I’m so ugly, Mama?”

A giggle erupted from Erlene’s throat; she had an odd sense of what was funny and what wasn’t.

“Violet, now put that away,” she said, recovering her composure. “It’s time for bed.”

Erlene’s interest in things domestic was minimal, but occasionally she’d bring out her sewing basket (made of willow, it was the sort of crafted object that would be sold years later as folk art for the kind of money its creator, a mountain woman named Gimpy Mary, never saw in her lifetime), and wanting to share something—anything—with her mother, Violet was determined to sew too. Like her father, she was good with her hands; they were quick and deft and seemed able to figure out things with little guidance from her brain.

Jabbing the needle in the handkerchief she was hemming for her father, Violet set it on the upended flour can that was her nightstand.

“And everyone does not think you’re ugly,” said Erlene, bringing the faded patchwork quilt up to her daughter’s neck and crimping its edges. “It’s just that, well, I suppose it’s because you’ve got a chin that looks like it wants to pick a fight.” She smiled, fondling the jaw that would have fit a man’s face better than a little girl’s. “You’ll just have to work on your other attributes.”

“What are ‘attributes,’ Mama?” asked Violet, liking Erlene’s hand on her face, even as she disparaged it.

“Well, look at me: I’m pretty, but I don’t stop there. I work on things, things like being smart and clever—who can tell a joke as good as your mama?”

“No one,” whispered Violet.

“That’s right. Plus, I’m a good dancer and have excellent grammar. Those are all attributes, just to name a few.”

“Erlene,” shouted Judd from the kitchen, “ain’t we got more biscuits than these?”

The young woman sighed and got up as if she were an old lady whose bones hurt. She stood at the side of the bed for a moment, the light from the kerosene lamp throbbing like an ache against the wall.

“Don’t say ‘ain’t,’ Violet,” she said finally. “ ‘Ain’t’ is a word that makes you sound like you don’t care.”

“Okay, Mama,” whispered Violet, willing to do anything asked of her. “I won’t ever say ‘ain’t.’ ”

She didn’t either, until her mother left, until Violet realized that every time she disobeyed her absent mother, she felt a tiny jolt of power that let her forget, for a breath, how much she missed her. So she said “ain’t” and did all the other things Erlene had told her not to: she chewed her fingernails and burped and didn’t brush her hair and slept in her clothes. She became a dirty, tangle-haired, wild-looking thing; the kind of girl the school nurse always suspected as ground zero for lice and impetigo infestations; the kind of girl who found notes like “You stink!” and “Take a bath!” scattered like land mines inside her desk.

As the years passed, Violet became less a stranger to soap and water, but her improved hygiene couldn’t deflect attention from her freakish growth surge: by age thirteen she was five feet eleven, and it didn’t take Violet long to realize that height does a homely girl no favors.

“Hey, Stretch!”

“Look, a giraffe escaped from the zoo!”

“Hey, Olive Oyl!”

Puberty was not done playing dirty tricks either, deepening Violet’s voice like a boy’s and inspiring her tormenters to add the name “Froggy” to the many in their arsenal, or to ask why Olive Oyl had a voice like Popeye.

Every inch she grew on the outside, every bass note her voice registered, made her smaller on the inside. There were a few kindhearted children who tried to befriend the odd Mathers girl, but her mother’s abandonment, her father’s neglect and cruelty, and her own shame had worked like rust on Violet, corroding her ability to accept amity and eating away the belief that she deserved to have friends.

School was her one respite; Lord, to draw maps of places like Burma and Ceylon and write reports on their major exports! (Rice! Rubber! Hemp!) To listen to Miss Mertz recite (in a practiced British accent) “The Raven” with the window shades pulled! To figure out how many apples Farmer Brown harvested if he had an orchard of 350 trees and each tree yielded approximately 3.8 bushels!

She loved each and every subject, as was evidenced by her report card, on which without fail marched a straight row of A’s.


From the Hardcover edition.
Lorna Landvik|Author Q&A

About Lorna Landvik

Lorna Landvik - Oh My Stars

Photo © Brian Velenchenko

Lorna Landvik is the author of the bestselling novels Patty Jane's House of Curl, Your Oasis on Flame Lake, and The Tall Pine Polka. She is also an actor, playwright, and proud hockey mom.

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH LORNA LANDVIK

Alex Schemmer is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Alex Schemmer: Can you describe your writing process?

Lorna Landvik: A book usually starts with the appearance of the main character(s) in my head. I don’t know much about them, but am given enough of a glimpse (as well as their name; they always come named) to begin writing about them. The more I write, the more I learn the story. When the characters de­cide they don’t want to do what I have them doing, they rebel, and they almost always win in determining their fate. I write forward; I learn something that I didn’t know and then I go back and change things. My writing process is always a little dance– forward, then back, forward two steps, back one. I don’t write from an outline and while I sometimes get an inkling of what the ending is going to be midway through the book, often as not, the ending surprises me.

AS: How did the idea for this book come to you? Was the genesis a specific character, a place, an image?

LL: Violet came into my head while I was sitting on my porch and she immediately let me know she was from Kentucky, she had suffered a terrible accident, and the bulk of her story would be told in the Great Depression.

AS: How did you create and develop the character of Violet? Do you base your characters on real people, or are they entirely imagined?

LL: I don’t consciously base my characters on any living people but I can’t say they’re fully imagined. I think that everyone I’ve met in my life makes some sort of impression on my subconscious and it’s from that stew that I create my characters. My mother, who died shortly after I delivered the book to my editor, does seem to infuse this story, however. Like Violet, she grew up in the Depression and was an excellent seamstress and clothes designer, and like Kjel, music was a big part of her life. Something I recently learned was that when she played House with some of her sisters, they had names they called themselves–hers was Violet Robinson. That was a strange coincidence.

AS: What did you do as research to create the world of the Great Depression?

LL: I’ve always been interested in the Great Depression and throughout my life have read books about this time. I’ve always been fascinated by the New Deal and the programs that were initiated to put people back to work. I also heard stories of my par­ents and relatives who went through it.

AS: How about the music industry of the 1930s? Did you use any historical groups as models for the Pearltones?

LL: I’m a big fan of all kinds of music–about twenty-five years ago I stumbled upon a Stanley Brothers album and was immediately captivated by their harmonies. Their music drew me into bluegrass. That’s how it’s often been for me–one great song or one great album can make me want to explore not only that particular musician or group’s music, but the genre in which they’re playing as well.

AS: You are also an actress and a comedian. Do you find that your experience as a performer aids you as a writer?

LL: I think performing has given me more of an ear for the rhythm of the language–how, by the mere placement of one word, you can get a laugh or you can get dead silence. I think I’m also more aware of the importance of dialogue and will often say dialogue out loud after I’ve written it to make sure it flows right and that it’s in character.

AS: Each chapter begins with the elderly Violet addressing the reader in the first person, while the action is recorded in the third person. Was this always the plan? What made you decide on this format?

LL: This format wasn’t always the plan–I rarely have a plan. I began writing Violet’s story and bam-bam-bam–I realized all sorts of bad things happened to her and that her early life was pretty grim. Maybe to let the reader know that things worked out for her, I decided to have her looking back at her life from the per­spective of old age.

AS: Music and laughter seem to be saving graces that propel your characters through adversity. Is this informed by your own life experiences? Are laughter and music restorative?

LL: I’m a big fan of music and a big fan of humor. I love to sing (I’d like to think my limited range is off-set by my ear for harmonization) and play a few instruments with varying degrees of skill. I don’t intentionally look for the humor in life but can’t seem to escape it (nor would I want to). And yes; laughter is restorative– there’s no way you can feel bad after a good laugh. Music can play to all your emotions but I guess anything that helps you feel more is a good thing.

AS: In the book, the elderly Violet claims that she is in the nature camp of the nature-vs.-nurture debate; upbringing can refine but not reshape a personality. Where do you stand on this issue?

LL: I have to say Violet and I are like minds on this subject. I really do believe that we enter the world with a certain personal­ity and while nurturing can make its mark, the basic personality is already there.

AS: In the same vein, certain events and adversities change the course of Violet’s life. Do these events shape her personality, or does her personality influence how she reacts to them?

LL: I’m sure it’s a combination. She remarks on her upbringing, saying that she feels she was born with a sense of humor but that her mother’s abandonment and her father’s meanness sharpened her humor and made her use it more as a weapon. But when she is invited into Kjel and Austin’s world, her tight heart opens again, but only because she’s willing to let it flower. Austin and Dallas had the same background and faced the same prejudice, yet Austin wasn’t bullied by his pain; he didn’t submit to it, while Austin did, burying his real self.

AS: If Violet had reached San Francisco, do you think she would have committed suicide? Do you consider Violet a born "survivor"?

LL: I’m assuming she would have killed herself had she gotten there; that’s why I’m so glad she didn’t. Initially, it took a person like Kjel–big-hearted, his arms wide-open to the world–to get her to see the value of life, and then it was others–Austin, Leola, Esben, et cetera–who showed her the value of her own life. I don’t know that she was a "born" survivor–I think she survived the way all of us do–with the help and love of others.

AS: The natural world (Violet’s name, her paternal affiliation with a tree, Kjel’s fascination with the heavens) registers strongly as a motif throughout the book. As an author, do you consciously think about themes or motifs when writing? Or do they spring up organically?

LL: I try to tell a good story with engaging characters and what­ever themes my readers find in my writing is okay by me.

AS: Dallas and Selma French seem like an unlikely pair, yet they fall in love. Is love blind? Do you believe in soulmates?

LL: I believe love is blind, deaf, and dumb; I also believe love is all-seeing, all-hearing, and all-knowing. Why a person falls in love with another is beyond easy analysis. I believe that we have many soulmates, and are lucky if we find just one of them.

AS: What are your thoughts on beauty? Violet starts out as a homely, awkward girl, but becomes, in her own way, a beautiful woman; do you think beauty is dependent on bone structure? On attitude and confidence? Or is it purely subjective?

LL: Oh man, there isn’t time or space to answer these questions! I certainly appreciate the kind of beauty that comes with good bone structure and fine features but I know that lasting beauty has much more to do with the things unseen than seen. (Guess I’m channeling The Little Prince here . . .) I’m disgusted by the culture that thinks beauty cannot exist without youth, or at least without the appearance of youth. In the end, it’s not how the world sees you, but how you see yourself.

AS: Will we see Violet again in any of your work?

LL: I doubt it; I think Violet’s story has been told.

AS: When you’re not writing yourself, whom do you read? Do films and music inspire you as well?

LL: Some of my favorite writers are Anne Tyler, Michael Malone, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Robert Girardi, Kaye Gib­bons . . . I could go on and on. I see a lot of movies–we’ve got a great big palace of a movie theater near us that still serves real butter on its popcorn and my husband and I are regulars there (sometimes more for the popcorn than for the movies). Some of my favorite movies were made decades ago–I love Preston Sturges; his movie Mad Wednesday is a comedy classic. As in books, I prefer character-driven movies above all. And music– who isn’t inspired by music?

AS: In the book, one character claims that the Pearltones helped change the world. Do you think art (big "A" or little) has this power?

LL: I do. Its effect may take years; but a good painting, a good song, can inspire someone else to do something even greater that in turn inspires someone else. I think the world is saved by people trying to reach out, trying to inspire.

AS: Their enjoyment aside, do you want your readers to take away anything with them after this book?

LL: I spoke to a reader who asked me about "Tree Pa." She wondered if I knew a person who actually sought out a tree to hug and hold as Violet did, or if I just made the situation up. I told her I just made it up; she then told me she knew a man who had no family and few friends and had his own tree he went to for solace, to hold when no one else would hold him. She said she got goosebumps reading about Violet and Tree Pa because it reminded her so much of her friend and how he didn’t seem to need the tree as much the more their friendship grew. I would love readers to close my books thinking that as long as we all are in this world together, we might as well do all we can to help one another out; to stand in and substitute for that tree. And then of course, I’d like them to think, "Hmmm, I wonder if the bookstore is open so I can buy some more Lorna Landvik books."

Praise | Awards

Praise

Praise for Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons

“Highly entertaining . . . almost as hard to put down [as] Mary McCarthy’s The Group.”
–The Seattle Times

“A lively story as delectable as a five-pound box of chocolates . . . a thoroughly engaging chronicle of friendship and the substantive place it holds in women’s lives.”
–Anne LeClaire, author of Leaving Eden

“It is impossible not to get caught up in the lives of the book group members. . . . Landvik’s gift lies in bringing these familiar women to life with insight and humor.”
–The Denver Post

“A guilty pleasure . . . This light, snappy read may be [Landvik’s] best yet.”
–Midwest Living magazine

"The Minneapolis author plunges fearlessly into sticky situations and uncomfortable truths in this atmospheric tale of a wounded soul on a journey of self-discovery in 1930s North Dakota."
-Minneapolis Star Tribune


From the Hardcover edition.

Awards

WINNER 2006 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Oh My Stars begins in highly unusual fashion, describing Violet’s horrible accident in the opening passages. Why might an author introduce a character this way? What sort of tone does it establish for the novel?

2. Consider the book’s portrayal of Depression-era America. Why has the author selected this particular time and place for her story? How does the setting complement the action?

3. Music-making is one of the central dramatic tropes in Oh My Stars. What is the thematic significance of music for these characters? How, if at all, is musical expression preferable to the spoken or written word?

4. Violet longs for recognition: Even when jerking her arm from industrial equipment, she thinks of the birthday party she ought to be enjoying instead. What different kinds of attention does she seek from others? How are her expectations fulfilled or disappointed? Ultimately, does anyone "see the whole Violet"?

5. Violet explicitly weighs in on the nature-vs.-nurture debate in chapter 5. What are your views on this issue? Is the cake in fact already baked at birth?

6. Various sorts of families appear throughout the story: the Hedstrom clan, Violet and her father, the band. What defines a family? What are its obligations, and what determines its success?

7. Despite its subject matter and the bleak circumstances of its setting, Oh My Stars maintains a relatively upbeat tone. Would you describe the book as funny? How does the author use humor? How do the characters use it? Does humor represent a solution to problems, or merely a diversion from them?

8. The narrative employs a flashback structure, braiding the events of the Depression with more recent commentary. Why did the author choose this technique? How do you think it contributes to the story? Do you feel Violet’s perspective (as pre­sented in the italicized paragraphs that introduce each chapter) enhances your own understanding of the events she describes?

9. Throughout the book, certain events and adversities change the course of Violet’s life. Do these events shape her personality, or does her personality influence how she reacts to them? What about Kjel? Austin? Which characters are the most impressionable? Which are the most indomitable?

10. The characters in Oh My Stars are, by and large, a celebratory group. What does the book celebrate? Does the author, in her narrative, impart any lessons distinct from the messages Violet shares?

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