The Plain Sense of Things
|Things, like unexpected guests who are invited to stay for dinner. From this intimate
place at the table, we bear witness to fleeting moments in the fifty-year history of the
the people who live with hardship and dignity all across America, and we come away
richer for having known them.
1. Joern’s stories are set against a backdrop of historical happenings: the Great
Depression, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, World War II, the killing spree of
Charles Starkweather, the resignation of Nixon. How does Joern use these large events
to illuminate the lives of her characters? What does Joern suggest about the role of
history in our lives?
2. Did you have a favorite story? A favorite character? Why?
3. The first story, in which a grandfather goes to retrieve his grandson when his
estranged daughter dies, sets a tone for the following stories. What do we learn about
Gramp? How does his temperament and way of dealing with his family influence future
4. Several of these stories touch on abuse in the lives of women: the battered woman
befriended by Mary, the woman who seeks an illegal abortion, hints of Grace’s
troubles, the eruption of violence between Jake and Alice. What do these situations have
to say about place and time? What is the role of isolation? Do you think these situations
might be handled differently today? If so, how?
5. When Alice and Jake have problems, Stevie, Frank and Molly are scared and
bewildered. What “saves” each of them, and how does that coping mechanism play into
the adults they become?
6. Jake’s medical problems weave throughout several of the stories. What issues arise
for his family from living with undiagnosed disease or illness they do not understand?
Do you think we still struggle with illnesses we don’t understand? What modern
illnesses result in social isolation?
7. The characters of these stories place a high value on family, even though there are
problems and separations. How is this family devotion demonstrated? What is the
relationship of this family to the local community? The larger world?
8. The stories begin with Jake and Alice’s families of origin, merged through the
marriage of Alice’s father and Jake’s sister. Eventually, the focus shifts to Alice and
Jake’s immediate family. Why does Joern start with their families of origin? What does
providing this context say about the texture of life? Some of the early characters fade
into the background. What does this suggest about the continuity of this American
9. After the farm sale, Jake tries to follow a dream of becoming a songwriter. What
does this pursuit reveal about Jake’s character? Are you sympathetic to his plight?
10. Besides the marriage of Jake and Alice, Joern explores other familial relationships:
siblings, parent-child, stepparents and grandparents to children, aunts and uncles and
cousins. How do these relationships deepen the stories?
11. How do these characters—with limited resources—cope with difficulty? Where
does their resilience arise from? Are there different sources of strength for different
12. Alice and Jake are faced with unforeseen challenges. Do you think their difficulties
are due to fate, chance, or regrettable choices? What does Joern seem to be saying
about the role of personal responsibility?
13. At the heart of these stories is the relationship between Jake and Alice. What holds
these two people together? Do you think they understand each other?
14. Alice’s children grow up to move far away from her, in distance, as well as in
education and experience. Do you think this is typical of families from rural America?
What holds these generations together? What’s lost, for both Alice and her children, by
their upward mobility?
15. What signs of hope are given in the last chapter? What do you think will happen to
Alice and these grown children’s families? If you were going to write the next story—
after another 5 years—what might happen?