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METROPOLIS by Elizabeth Gaffney

1. The hero of Metropolis remains nameless for the first part of the book, trying on different names that are each rejected in turn. Why are names important, and why do you think Gaffney chose to complicate her main character ’s identity in this way?

2. Beatrice O’Gamhna does not initially appear to be the nicest of heroines. When we first meet her, she is involved in pickpocketing and an abduction. How does this make you feel about her? What is her appeal?

3. Although the main character is a man, the strongest characters in the book are arguably the women — Mother Dolan, Beanie, Fiona. Issues of women’s suffrage, violence against women and women in professions such as medicine also come up in the story. What sort of point is Gaffney making? How much do you think society has changed in its attitudes toward women since the nineteenth century?

4. Harris is dogged by bad luck in the book, but also has his share of very good luck, and there are any number of serendipitous or coincidental events that occur. What role does luck play in the story? Are characters held responsible for their actions?

5. Harris did not commit the particular crime of arson that he is suspected of, but he is not purely innocent either. Is his sense of guilt appropriate? Is he responsible for the things that happen after he is conscripted into the gang? Does old guilt that is unabsolved carry over into his present?

6. Most of the characters have complicated moral situations—they are good people yet they are also criminals, or they are terrible criminals with some partly exculpatory explanation for how they fell into a life of crime, or they appear to be good to the general public but they are in fact deeply corrupt. What sort of moral universe are the characters of Metropolis living in? Are any of the characters purely good or bad?

7. There are two main villains, Dandy Johnny Dolan and Luther “the Undertaker” Undertoe. Why do you think Gaffney wanted two villains in the story, and how do they differ?

8. The Whyo gang has a complicated secret language and uses a profit-sharing scheme whereby funds are collected according to ability and distributed according to need. They treat their women considerably better than other gangs of criminals. It is also extremely violent and corrupt. How do you feel about the gang in the end, and is it possible to imagine a “good” gang?

9. Several of the characters in the story — Harris, Beatrice, John-Henry, and Luther — lost their mothers early in their lives; Johnny grew up without a father. How do these formative events impact them, and how do the different characters each handle the difficulties they face?

10. There is a large cast of secondary characters in Metropolis, and many side narratives and digressions on topics including street paving, sewer building, underwater caisson excavation, womenâ’s health and bacteriology. How did you feel these contributed to the narrative?

11. Is there a sense in which the city of New York itself is more than the setting but a character in the novel?

12. Occasionally, the narrator’s voice intrudes on the story to comment on the action. How does this change the experience of reading the story. Would you say Metropolis is an old-fashioned or a modern novel?

13. Gaffney has said that the literary influences on her novel include the 1927 silent film Metropolis by Fritz Lang, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and the novels of contemporary writers Thomas Pynchon, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood and Andrea Barrett, as well as 19th-century authors Herman Melville, Wilkie Collins, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. If you are familiar with these artists’ works, do you see connections between them and Gaffney's novel in material, form, theme, content or style?

WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG by Elizabeth Gaffney

1. When the World Was Young opens with a celebration—the VJ Day Parade—and a tragedy, the death of Wally Baker’s mother Stella. How do these two events relate to each other and why do you think Gaffney orchestrated them to occur on the same day?

2. Wally Baker has three mother figures: her real mother, Stella; her grandmother, Gigi; and the family’s housekeeper, Loretta. Which of them is she closest to? Why? What are the impediments to her relationships with each of them?

3. Wally also has complicated father relationships. Her own father is absent for most of the book. The border, Mr. Niederman partly fills his shoes. Is Mr. Niederman a good or bad force in her life?

3. Although the novel starts on VJ Day, in 1945, it jumps backward in time, to earlier parts of Wally’s childhood and even to her mother Stella’s past. How does this nonlinear telling of the story work to create suspense or to move the story along? Why do you think it starts where it does?

4. Wally’s friendship with Ham, the African-American son of the housekeeper, is controversial in the book. How do racial politics and personal relationships in the book reflect the period when it is set? Is Wally ahead of her time, in being less of a racist than her elder family members, or is her greater tolerance for diversity simply a function of her youth?

5. Wally and Ham are obsessed with insects, in particular ants. Wally goes on to study them as a scientist when she grows up. Is there a larger idea behind the ant imagery in the novel?

6. The cause of Stella’s death is hidden from Wally by her family and even by Loretta. Why? How does this secret shape Wally? What changes for her when she learns the truth?

7. It seems, at various points, that the men in Stella’s life are the source of her troubles. Is there a villain in this story? If not a human one, a societal one?

8. Would you call this story a tragedy because of the deaths that occur? It ends on an upnote, with a birth. Has Wally learned enough over the course of the book to raise her own child in a healthier way than her mother did her?

9. The book ends with a rather unconventional “family” assembled at the hospital. What does family really mean, and who are the members of Wally’s true family?

10. The Brooklyn neighborhood where the story unfolds is an important element of the story. Would you say that places are as important as characters in When the World Was Young?