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Readers' Group Companion to Shelter by Jayne Anne Phillips

Delta Trade Paperback, ISBN 0-385-31389-6, $11.95 (US)


1. About the Author
2. About the Novel
3. Questions for Discussion

Readers' Group Companion to Shelter ©1995 by Dell Publishing.

About the Author:

Jayne Anne Phillips was born and raised in West Virginia. She is the author of Black Tickets and Fast Lanes, two books of stories that have been widely anthologized, and Machine Dreams, a novel nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has been translated into fourteen languages. She is a recipient of the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Bunting Institute fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in fiction.

Jayne Anne Phillips describes Shelter as "a book I have wanted to write for fifteen years. The opening paragraph, which forms a sort of prefacing image, is set apart from the narrative because it existed for so many years before the novel was written. I think I wrote Shelter in order to understand that paragraph."

About the Novel:

Shelter, the long-awaited second novel from Jayne Anne Phillips, explores the dark, beautiful, and haunting world of childhood as never before--transcendent, visceral, and filled with surprise and suspense.

In a rural girls' camp in 1963, three children are thrust into an unexpected rite of passage that will forever alter their worlds. Two young sisters, Lenny and Alma, along with Buddy, a wide-eyed, feral young boy, are transported from a place of childhood innocence into a premature adulthood by violence, family secrets, and surprising turns of love. What they experience within the leafy wilderness of the camp grounds--and what they choose to remember--will never be far from consciousness for the rest of their lives.

Praise for Shelter:

"A beautiful, intricate, abundantly mature new novel...mysterious, full of dark dreams, menace and the blind tug of sex."

"Mesmerizing...the physical world is so thoroughly and beautifully evoked that within pages we're completely drawn in."
--The Washington Post

"Powerful...brilliant...a legendary quest; a passage of exploits through dragons, demons and dangerous enchantments, both within and without."
--Los Angeles Times Book Review

Questions for Discussion:

1. In what ways does the imagery and mood of the opening paragraph set the tone for the novel? How does it serve as the essence of the novel?

2. Jayne Anne Phillips once said in an interview, "I'm drawn to that angelic aspect, and to the fact that children are the ultimate outsiders; they peer in at things and see things differently." Discuss the significance of children's perspectives in the novel. In what way do they create a more objective portrait?

3. The four central characters--Lenny, Cap, Alma and Delia--are linked by tenuous relationships between their parents. How do these adult circumstances affect the relationships and power structures among the children?

4. The action takes place in a single twenty-four hour period at a girls' camp in rural West Virginia in 1963. How does the time and setting create a timelessness and a dreamlike quality to the novel? In what ways is memory used to create depth in the time progression of the novel, a depth that serves to support the characters developments within this one day?

5. Sexuality is seen as an integral part of almost every relationship in the novel. How does this view of sexuality aid or disturb the reader's understanding of the characters, and how does it extend the reader's view of the primal landscape? What does the audience begin to understand through this sensual connection to the physical world?

6. Parson is a frightening character, all the more so because he proceeds within his own logic, according to a complex system of apprehended images and beliefs. Is Parson a kind savior, a twisted angel, or a madman?

7. There are disturbing scenes in Shelter between Buddy and Carmody, his stepfather. Discuss the relationship between them, and the ways in which Buddy's inner strengths and intuitive resourcefulness influence the novel. Why might Buddy be seen as the moral fulcrum of the novel?

8. Carmody could be viewed as a monster created by a distorted world. Yet Parson has been a victim of the same distorted world. They went to the same reform school and were together in prison. Why does Parson, at least in his own perception, become a force for good while Carmody simply grows more dangerous?

9. Despite Shelter's rich language, a prose almost Faulknerian in its intensity, particularly in Parson's section, there is real suspense. The suspense arises from the reader's sense that the children are imminently threatened. Parson seems to be part of that threat but also struggles with the violence within himself. In what ways is he part of the adult world, a world already tainted, and in what ways is he still a victim, a child?

10. The town of Bellington, West Virginia, the setting of Machine Dreams, is mentioned as not being so far from Gaither, the fictional town near Camp Shelter. How does the isolated setting in Shelter work to intensify the characters and the world in which they live?

11. The author has described this novel as "a passion play in which children bear witness" and "a journey of souls" in which the characters undertake a quest in the mythic sense, descending into an underworld and emerging, having taken into themselves the power they confronted. They redeem a darkness, and so free themselves, but they must also accept the burden of what they know." How is the theme of redemption played out in Shelter?

12. It has been said of Phillips, "At her best, no one writing fiction in the U.S. today comes near her for linguistic beauty and an atavistic, almost reluctant wisdom." (New Statesman & Society) Discuss.