WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG by Elizabeth Gaffney

reading group guide

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?