A riveting, old-fashioned story with a modern spirit, Mary Sharratt's The Real Minerva is the tale of three women forging their own paths in the midwestern farming community of Minerva, Minnesota.
In 1923, as book-loving Penny enters adolescence, her mother pulls her out of school to go to work. Penny, the only child of Barbara, an embittered single mother who works as a cleaning woman for a wealthy family, sees no escape from her bleak existence until a scandalous figure arrives in town and sets tongues wagging. Cora, very alone, very headstrong, and very pregnant, has fled the city and her secrets to make a new home on her grandfather's farm. Intrigued by this curious and rebellious woman, Penny dares to work for her.
Like Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, The Real Minerva is a suspenseful, moving novel about the strength of women and the unexpected bonds that form between them. As Sharratt's characters assert their dignity and independence against all odds, her novel explores what it takes to reinvent the self and to claim one's true identity.
A Book Sense Recommended Title
"Evocative and mythic, with a sublime sense of good old-fashioned storytelling." Caroline Leavitt
"Sharratt celebrates female grit as her three spirited protagonists challenge with courage and a little firepower the men and the society that wronged them . . . a story about survival." Kirkus Reviews
"Lively . . . memorable . . . entertaining." Washington Post Book World
Mary Sharratt is the author of the novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point (forthcoming in spring 2006). A born and bred Minnesotan, she drew on her mother's and grandmother's stories of Minnesota farm life in the early twentieth century for The Real Minerva, which was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and a winner of the Willa Literary Award. Sharratt now lives in Manchester, England.
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of The Real Minerva for every reader.
1. What do you make of the title The Real Minerva? The novel suggests that a perceived identity often differs from the underlying truth and the truth can often be painful, complicated, and defy expectations and stereotypes. What do you think is the real Minerva? Is there one?
2. Although both Cora and Barbara serve as Penny's mentors, her relationship with her employer is much different than that with her mother. What lessons does each woman teach her? How do the women play a valuable role in Penny's life?
3. What roles do the prologue and epilogue serve, especially since they are told from Phoebe's point of view?
4. At one point in the novel, Cora and Penny discuss sex. Penny asks about love, and Cora replies, "Love . . . Don't believe any of that romantic gibberish you see in the picture shows. I only found out what real love is when I became a mother" (127).
What do you think the novel ultimately says about love both between mothers and daughters and between men and women? Which love creates a stronger bond?
5. Cora says, "Sometimes it isn't easy being a mother . . . One day Phoebe will want to know about her father. And I won't know what to tell her." Barbara and Cora, for different reasons, decide not to tell their daughters about their fathers. Do you agree with this decision? How does it affect the communication between Barbara and Penny?
6. Penny, Cora, and Barbara all embody a source of strength that is unique to each woman. Discuss the strengths present in each. How do they come into conflict with each other? Which do you think are most admirable?
7. Penny, Cora, and Barbara all show courage at pivotal moments in the novel: Penny leaves the Hamilton household, Cora leaves Chicago to run a ranch, and Barbara shows grace and pride when Mr. Hamilton dies. Discuss these and other moments of courage in the novel. What personal and social battles did these women have to overcome in order to act? Which acts do you think are most admirable?
8. Much of the tension between Penny and her mother results from their class status and the way that it is perceived in Minerva. How is Barbara's relationship with Mr. Hamilton affected by class? Could things have ended differently if they were considered equals? How does Penny's class threaten her desire to continue with her education and become a doctor?
9. Minerva is a small town where gossip is common. Gossip and the social constraints of the era affect Penny, Cora, Irene, and Barbara eventually with fatal consequences. Discuss how gossip and stereotypes negatively impact these women. To what extent does it drive them to some of their actions? Does society bear some of the blame for the hurt and violence that results?
10. During one of their visits to the lake, Cora and Penny discuss shape-shifters. At some point in the novel, each of the three women becomes a shape-shifter or reinventor of sorts. When does this occur and why? What impact do Minerva and the time period have on the women and their ability to express themselves?
11. Several key moments of violence drive the novel. What contributes to these violent episodes and are any of them justifiable? What do you think about the fact that each act of violence has life-altering and lasting implications for the characters?
12. Despite their class differences, Irene and Penny share many similarities. They are the same age, have some toughness, and similar views on their parents' relationship. But, despite these facts, they end up in vastly different places by the end of the novel. Why does Irenes suffer a downfall, but Penny manages survival? What role do the women play in Penny's survival?
13. In an attempt to comfort her daughter after the shooting, Barbara says to her, "Always remember that you stood by your friend . . . You saved her . . . And now she wants to save you." Cora also says that Penny saved her and Phoebe. Discuss the ways in which Cora, Barbara, and Penny save each other, and some of the consequences. How far would you go to save someone you love?
14. What is the significance of The Odyssey in the novel? What parallels does it have to the lives of Penny, Cora, and Barbara?
15. Near the end of the novel, as Cora leaves Penny, she tells her to "be a heroine for both of us." Throughout the novel, Penny has romantic and heroic visions for herself. How do her visions of a hero change over time? Do you consider Barbara and Cora heroes? If so, why?
The following books may be of interest to readers of The Real Minerva
The Vanishing Point
by Mary Sharratt
(forthcoming, spring 2006)
by Willa Cather
by Molly Gloss
Last Year's River
by Allen Morris Jones