Plain Truth By Jodi Picoult: Online Book Club Discussion

Posted at 02:16am on 10th May 2010
This Online Book Club discussion is intended to be just what it says it is, as well as a resource for real-time Readers’ Groups. Whether you’ve read the book, or not, you may have very different views to those expressed here, or you may agree with them. Please leave your comments at the end so that we can all benefit from a broader perspective.

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

Despite a degree of reluctance in some of us to be reading another Jodi Picoult book so soon (bit samey; all legal stuff) we agreed, when we met as a group last week, that we had found Plain Truth an enjoyable and compelling read. There were aspects of plot and characterisation which, as the evening’s discussion unfolded, some of us admitted to having found weak, but that, we felt, did not detract from the author’s ability to draw us into the story and make us want to read on.

On this occasion, I did not compile a list of questions because we used those at the back of the book to prompt our discussion. And, as usual, the issues that these raised were applied to our own lives in a thought-provoking and, we hope, life-changing manner.

PLOT SUMMARY & THEME

The plot, according to the back-cover blurb, centres on a young, unmarried, Amish girl, Katie, who secretly gives birth to a baby, risking estrangement from her strictly religious family. The child is later found dead and, as a result, the girl is put on trial for murder. The description finishes: “but faith alone cannot help . . .”

This would put:

  • Katie as the protagonist;
  • the plot as overcoming the monster, (as defined by the seven plot lines, the monster would be both the murder trial that hangs over her, and the spectre of her sister who died, as a child, in her care);
  • and the theme as ‘faith conquers all.’

However, as one member pointed out, if Ellie, the Defence Lawyer who reluctantly takes on Katie’s case, were seen as the protagonist, both plot and theme would take on a different hue. Given the ghosts of the past that Ellie has to overcome (see penultimate paragraph below) the plot might still be seen as ‘overcoming the monster’. However, given Ellie’s evolving personal circumstances – when, as Katie’s warden, she is ordered to move in with the Amish family, and later when she becomes pregnant - it might equally be considered to be ‘Rebirth’ (no pun intended!). With the twist at the end, the theme might also be revised as: ‘winning means sometimes losing.’

RELIGION v FAITH

Broadly speaking, this would tie in with the religious theme of the book. The author, Jodi Picoult is said to be a ‘non-practising Jew’ but one of the questions raised by my real-time Readers’ Group, was why she chose the Amish community as the means of conveying her story, as opposed to any other Christian denomination or, indeed, any other faith?

We agreed that for the story to work there has to be a strong belief system. For instance, had Katie’s brother, Jacob, not been ‘shunned’ by his family, Katie would not have had the opportunity to form a relationship with a non-Amish boy during secret visits to see him. Neither would certain aspects of Katie’s defence have held water. (Shunned, in Amish terms, is similar to excommunication in other Christian denominations, though rather more severe in that the culprit is sent to Coventry by the family as well as the church.)

The belief system of the Amish community - as interpreted by the author of the book - prompted some discussion about religion versus faith. The Amish are portrayed in the story as holding to a very strict code of conduct:

  • mode of attire;
  • manner of travel (horse-drawn buggies);
  • adherence to what many would consider an old-fashioned and labour intensive way of farming;
  • a rejection of modern life (electricity, except where strictly necessary, mobile phones and other technology);
  • and, most significantly (because it was for this reason that Katie’s brother was ‘shunned’ by her father) a ban on education beyond eighth grade.

As a group of Christians who have, in the past, observed and/or adhered to unwritten ‘rules’ (avoidance of alcohol; keeping Sunday special by covering the TV; not going to the beach or gardening on a Sunday) we saw this as un-Biblical, and felt that we had moved on. Abiding by rules for the sake of doing so was certainly something which Jesus appeared to fight against, especially when he healed the sick on the Sabbath, against all the teachings of the Pharisees.

That said, however, when scripture tells us that ‘it is for freedom that Christ has set us free’ (Galatians 5:1), that must mean that those of us who do not stick to man-made rules should give those who do the freedom (and respect) to continue to do so, if they wish. This is a Biblical principle, and was admirably demonstrated in the book, in that Amish adolescents were shown to have considerable freedom to go against the rules, and that all, bar Jacob, chose to return to the faith they shared with their families.

In a scene in which concern for Katie’s fate was not allowed to interfere with a communal barn-building event, we saw another factor of Amish life: the extent to which individualism was sacrificed to the needs of the community. Again, this is a Biblical principle, one which we thought was not always as prominent in the modern church as it might be.

Both these themes had the effect of elevating what we might, otherwise, have considered mere religion to a free, life-choice expression of faith.

MAKING CHOICES MEANS TAKING RESPONSIBILITY

As I’ve previously pointed out in my post, What Makes A Story A Plot? a plot summary has been defined by eminent author, E.M. Forster, as: “a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.” Hence, in his example, he cites a story as ‘the king died, then the queen died’, but a plot as ‘the king died, then the queen died of grief.’

In Plain Truth we see plenty of choices being made by the characters: choices which cause consequences for which the characters must then take responsibility. Jacob, for instance, makes the choice to further his education knowing that the consequences will be a ‘shunning’; he has, then, to accept responsibility for the homesickness and family alienation that follow. Leda, sister of Katie’s mother, has made the choice to marry out of her community, but she is portrayed as a balanced individual who, despite the ‘shunning’ that ensued, has not lived to regret her decision.

When asked, in the discussion questions, to what extent we thought Katie responsible for what happened to her baby, we found it difficult to reconcile her lack of preparedness. It was her choice to keep her pregnancy and the birth of her baby secret and, although this was presented in psychological terms in the book as ‘a state of disassociation’, we were not entirely convinced. In a community where Plain Truth is taught from the cradle, can Katie really be excused?

GUILT & REDEMPTION

Nor could we entirely understand Katie’s mother’s apparent lack of help. Why did she not encourage Katie to talk? What did she think would be the outcome of her daughter’s pregnancy if the child had lived?

In the twist at the end, motherhood is presented as sacrificial. “You know how a mother would do anything, if it meant saving her child,” Sarah says. And here we were all in agreement. This mother has already lost two children: Hannah who drowned; Jacob who was ‘shunned’. Now she risks losing Katie, whose pregnancy may, at least in part, be laid at her door.

The suggestion that Sarah may have felt responsible for her ‘lack of protection’ of her children is not far-fetched. There is a sense in which guilt – however irrational – is inherent in parenthood. As the mother of a reformed heroin-addict, I well know that sense of guilt that demands to know ‘where did I go wrong?’ and tells you, mercilessly, that ‘you should have done more’. But, I reminded myself and the group, you can only do your best as a parent because, in the end, your children are responsible for their own actions. We have to learn forgiveness for ourselves, as well as for others.

CULPABILITY & FORGIVENESS

The issues surrounding forgiveness play a fairly large – and, we felt, not entirely comfortable – part in the book. Katie, for instance, is not only prepared to confess publicly, before her community, to something she didn’t do in order to receive forgiveness from her Bishop but when asked why, she justifies her action by pointing out that it avoids the prolonged embarrassment of denying it.

One member of the group suggested that confession – even for things you haven’t done – was simply an admission of the sinful nature of which we are all guilty. In other words, since there’s always some wrongdoing or other in us that requires forgiveness, it makes little difference whether we accept forgiveness for the sins we know we’ve committed, or the ones we know we haven’t. Others, including me, saw this not as true repentance, but a falsehood.

There were, nevertheless, many instances of true repentance and forgiveness. That of Aaron, for instance, and Samuel.

The general feeling of the group was that the male characters of the book were somewhat two-dimensional. Jacob’s father, Aaron, for example, was not well fleshed-out. Perhaps the lack of any stream of consciousness was the author’s way of depicting a cold, insensitive character? We speculated as to the true nature of the guilt he was eventually alleged to feel. Was it because he felt he was to blame for his son’s failure to adhere to his religious beliefs? Or did he ‘shun’ Jacob – despite a degree of clemency offered by the Bishop – because his pride was hurt and he wanted no reminder of his own vulnerability?

A plot, of course, shows the journey made by its characters, and Aaron’s character, shallow though it was, showed some sign of development in the end. But it was Samuel who undertook the bigger journey. Faced with Katie’s betrayal, he was hurt beyond measure and initially rejected her. His ultimate forgiveness of her was thus all the more remarkable.

Ellie, too, had her ghosts to lay to rest. Haunted by the memory of a successful career which had seen her win acquittal, on technicality, for people she knew to be child abusers, she had reached a watershed. Did she see, in Katie, a ‘good cause’, we wondered, or merely a means of re-establishing her self-esteem? Her journey, as she was forced to give up her sophisticated life in order to move in with the Amish to be a warden for Katie, was a catalyst in her journey to self-forgiveness.

CONCLUSION

Reading through this collation of disjointed answers to the questions in the book – and particularly the sub-titles with which I’ve headed each section - has made me realise that the plot is a game of two halves. Jodie Picoult’s story-telling may not have seemed, at first sight, to be very profound. But in the end, the author is seen to have raised contemporary issues about life and faith which demand a response from us, the readers. Isn’t that what makes for a good read? I think so! And my Readers’ Group thought so too.

Whether you've read the book or not, you probably have some view on this discussion, either for or against the conclusions we’ve reached. Do leave your comments and make this Online Book Club Discussion your chance to have a say.

This article may be reproduced in any non-commercial format on condition that it appears unaltered, in its entirety, and that the following copyright line and bio are prominently displayed beneath it.

© Copyright Mel Menzies: USED BY PERMISSION
Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. This article, in its original form, can be found at http://www.melmenzies.co.uk/

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6th December 2017
at 12:38am
Hello! Just finished reading, "Plain Truth" and have continued mulling it. Don't know whether it's too late to post or not, but here goes. This is new for me, and I only want to touch on a couple of points. I don't know if 'spoiler alert' is essential to precede my comments but please consider that I've stated that phrase here.

This is my first JP authored book to read in full. I could barely put this book down once I got hooked although the opening was a little difficult to get past. Eloquently written; word-craft, extraordinary! I enjoyed the character developments feeling like I could almost know them, or at least fit into a room with them and feel some level of comfortable. The premise for the story was shocking and interesting to me. I have a love-irritation for this book. I loved the mystery with it's story build-up. I also feel like the author led me easily down a garden path only to smack me in the forehead with a skillet on the last page, making a fool out of me for my belief in her characters' testimonies.

Coop swore under oath that murder wasn't an Amish characteristic, that the Amish creed was about humility (and serving God through loving and serving family and community), more or less.

I also remember testimony that shunning was only 6 or so weeks long and then the community and Bishop forgive, receiving that person once again in wholeness. It was pointed out that Aaron's further refusal to recognize Jacob as his son was excessive and NOT considered part of the shun process. Lastly, I remember reading that illegitimate babies were accepted and lovingly raised within the Amish community.

All of that to say that the final reveal flies in the face of this carefully-laid groundwork for the reader. On one hand, TA-DA! GREAT JOB!! On the other, wow! Do I feel irritated or what?

Irritation seems irrational. I had to take a closer look to discover that I have esteemed the Amish as a little-g god! Of course, all people are people, but I so wanted to believe Coop's assessment regarding their core beliefs! I couldn't help but stupidly look for perfection regarding their unworldly life. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk. She caught me.

Now, on the other hand, I laid odds at 98-2 in favor of one of the two parents because of the given clues. But, I laid those ideas to rest once the possibility of infection was revealed. Sucker. That's me.

Mystery is my favorite genre; I've read tons of them. The possible reason I am still stinging from the conclusion must have to do with the faith aspect that runs so strongly through the text.

Well, without droning on and on, unaware if anyone will read and comment, I'll tie it up and say, thank you for this outlet! I hope I didn't break any/too many rules commenting.






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