Discussion Questions for Reading the Knots
1. At the age of ten, Noemi is given major responsibility for taking care of her family, due in part to her mother's death. This is hard on her, but it should be noted that many Native American groups trust children to take on what we might see as adult responsibilities, such as fishing, trapping, food preparation, or child care. Young people may also be given more freedom to make their own decisions. Can you see any advantages or disadvantages to this? Are there children in this country who take on adult responsibilities?
2. Meg is upset to realize that she can't take her son J.J. out of Guatemala without her husband Pablo's legal consent, so in a sense, she is trapped there. Can you think of other circumstances in which an individual may be unable to leave an unhappy marriage?
3. Guatemala in the 1950s had a virtual caste system, with Indians (primarily Mayas) at the bottom and descendants of Europeans (Ladinos) at the top. In the story, wealthy, privileged Patricia is able to overcome some of her group's prejudice against Indians. What happened in her life that made it possible? Did this seem realistic to you?
4. Meg is lonely living on a plantation in a foreign country, and she becomes involved with Sergio at a time when she feels emotionally abandoned by Pablo. What if she had had friends and family nearby? Do you think that she might not have turned to Sergio?
5. Demetrio is repeatedly forced to choose between the wishes of the Chayakan elders and his own desire to be an archaeologist and advance himself. He consistently chooses to follow the elders' wishes. Do you agree with his decisions?
6. In the 1950s, Guatemalan President Arbenz initiated a land reform program designed to provide poor communities with land. This was accomplished by taking land from large landholders, including the United Fruit Company, which had extensive plantations on the coast. In response, the CIA launched a campaign that was instrumental in bringing down the Arbenz regime. Was the U.S. justified in these actions? Do you see any long-term repercussions for U.S. actions?
7. Che Guevara was a young doctor traveling through Latin America when he witnessed the final days of the Arbenz regime. In the book, he tells Patricia the lessons he has learned from the overthrow. In real life, do you think Che's experiences in Guatemala probably influenced his later actions in Cuba? If so, in what ways?
Discussion Questions for Unraveling the Threads
1. Patricia fears that if she marries Hank, she will always be an outsider in his family, not fully accepted by his daughters. Is she being realistic? Hank is a fine and caring man. Does Patricia make the right decision in leaving him?
2. Noemi chooses loyalty to her difficult father over loyalty to her husband. Does she make the right decision? In the U.S., have our ideas about responsibility to parents changed over time?
3. For Patricia, everything feels more intense and compelling in Guatemala than in Iowa. Have you noticed that life feels more intense in some places than others? Do you prefer a life that's quiet and undramatic or one with high stakes and drama? Has that changed over time for you?
4. Patricia tells her brother that they can start again and be the family they were always meant to be. Carlos rejects the idea, but Patricia and her mother are able to come together as a small family. How realistic is this? Can dysfunctional families build healthy relationships in later years? If so, what is necessary to achieve it?
5. In Unraveling the Threads, many of the characters maneuver between different cultures. Fiona is a nurse from Scotland who chooses the life of an expatriate, living on her own in a foreign country. What are the rewards and challenges she faces as a woman living far from her family in an unfamiliar place? (Remember, this story takes place in 1978, before Skype and cell phones.)
6. At the end of the book, as Guatemala is descending into violence, Patricia thinks about all the people in her life for whom she's grateful. When you find yourself in a time of difficulty, is it helpful to cultivate gratitude? Or other states of mind?
7. Patricia, Sergio, and Arturo all refer to a 1954 coup d'état in which the U.S. was instrumental in crushing a land reform program that was giving land to poor communities. Today, as impoverished Guatemalans come to the U.S., should Americans be aware of their country's past actions and take some responsibility for them?