Jodi Picoult, 2000
Washington Square Press
Not one to shy away from the tough issues that makes her novels so compelling, Jodi Picoult’s recent bestsellers tackled themes from sexual abuse to stem cell research to intense parent-child relationships. Her eager fans have come to expect hard-hitting topics, and Picoult never disappoints.
In Plain Truth, a shocking murder shatters the picturesque calm of Pennsylvania's Amish country—and tests the heart and soul of the lawyer who steps in to defend the young woman at the center of the storm.…
Moving seamlessly from psychological drama to courtroom suspense, Plain Truth is a triumph of contemporary storytelling. Jodi Picoult presents a fascinating portrait of Amish life rarely witnessed by those outside the faith—and discovers a place where circumstances are not always what they seem, where love meets lies, and where relationships grow so strong they can transcend death. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—May 19, 1966
• Where—New York, New York, USA
• Education—B.A., Princeton University; M.A., Harvard University
• Currently—lives in Hanover, New Hampshire
Jodi Picoult received an A.B. in creative writing from Princeton and a master's degree in education from Harvard. The recipient of the 2003 New England Book Award for her entire body of work, she is the author of fourteen novels, including The Tenth Circle, Vanishing Acts, and My Sister's Keeper, for which she received the American Library Association's Margaret Alexander Edwards Award. Recently, she penned several issues of Wonder Woman for DC Comics. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. (From the publisher.)
Born on Long Island, New York, Jodi Picoult was convinced that the tranquil, suburban setting offered no real inspiration to her for being a writer. There was no drama; just the daily grind of families living their lives. Eventually, though, the story of this challenge became the core of Picoult's bestselling novels.
Picoult studied creative writing at Princeton, and before she graduated, she had two short stories published in Seventeen magazine. This early success inspired Picoult to devote her life to writing. After college, she paid the bills with a series of copywriting and editing jobs, and she even taught eighth grade English. Marriage and children soon followed, and while she was pregnant with her first child, she wrote her first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale, a remarkable tale told from five different points of view that heralded a bold new voice in fiction.
In subsequent novels, Picoult has mined the complex mysteries of everyday life: love, marriage, career, family. Faced with difficult, often painful moral choices, her characters struggle to find balance in an off-kilter world fraught with danger and shattered by terrible sociological ills like domestic violence, sexual abuse, and teen suicide. Though page-turners of the highest order, Picoult's stories avoid easy solutions and provoke thoughtful reading and animated discussion. Unsurprisingly, they are a favorite choice for book clubs.
From her web site, Picoult talks about the relationship between her family and her writing. "It took me a while to find the balance," Picoult says, "but I'm a better mother because I have my writing ... and I'm a better writer because of the experiences I've had as a parent that continually remind me how far we are willing to go for the people we love the most."
From a 2004 Barnes & Noble interview and her website:
• She has gone skydiving and says, "and I'd do it again—if I didn't have kids."
• Picoult and her family own two Jersey calves, named Decalf and Coffee.
• Before becoming a novelist, Picoult worked at a two-person ad agency, where her main responsibility was "to keep the owner's wife from finding out he was sleeping with the freelance art director."
• If she could invite anyone, living or dead, to a dinner party, Picoult's guest list would include Ernest Hemingway, Alice Hoffman, William Shakespeare, Mel Gibson, and Emeril Lagasse.
• Other than writing, other talents of Picoult's include making Linzer tortes and broccoli soup, and childbirth. "I'm awfully good at giving birth—quickly, no drugs, etc.—though that definitely has a limited appeal," she quips.
• When asked what book influenced her most, this is what she said:
Gone With The Wind. I read it when I was twelve— I was a total dork, and memorized huge sweeping dialogues I could act out as both Scarlett and Rhett. But what stuck with me was the way Margaret Mitchell managed to create an entire world out of words. I thought, "I want to do that." (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
Songs of the Humpback Whale (1992)
Harvesting the Heart (1993)
Picture Perfect (1995)
The Pact (1998)
Keeping Faith (1999)
Plain Truth (2000)
Salem Falls (2001)
Perfect Match (2002)
Second Glance (2003)
My Sister's Keeper (2004)
Vanishing Acts (2005)
The Tenth Circle (2006)
Nineteen Minutes (2007)
Change of Heart (2008)
Handle With Care (2009)
House Rules (2010)
Sing You Home (2011)
Lone Wolf (2012)
The Storyteller (2013)
Leaving Time (2014) (Bibliograhphy from Wikipedia.)
Though it begins as the quietly electrifying story of an unmarried Amish teenager who gives birth to a baby she is accused of then smothering, Picoult's latest (after Keeping Faith) settles into an ordinary trial epic, albeit one centered intriguingly on an Amish dairy farm near Lancaster, Pa. Katie Fisher, 18, denies not only having committed the murder but even having borne the baby, whose body is found in the Fishers' calving pen, and she sticks to her story, even when she is quizzed by Ellie Hathaway, the high-powered Philadelphia attorney who undertakes Katie's defense as a favor to Leda, an aunt she and the young woman share. Ellie, who has retreated to Leda's farm in Paradise to reconsider her life—she successfully defends guilty clients—embarks on the case reluctantly: at 39, she wants nothing more than to have a child. However, to meet bail stipulations, she volunteers as Katie's guardian (since Kate's strict parents reject her) and moves in with the Fishers. Living with the Amish necessitates some adjustments for both parties, but Katie and Ellie become fast friends in spite of their differences. Very little action occurs beyond the initial setup, though the questions remain: Who was the father of Katie's child? And did she smother the newborn? Told from both third-person omniscient and first-person (Ellie's) vantages, the story rolls leisurely through the trial preparations, the results of which are repeated, tediously, in the courtroom. Perhaps the story's quietude is appropriate, given its magnificently painted backdrop and distinctive characters, but one can't help wishing that the spark igniting the book's opening pages had built into a full-fledged blaze.
(Audio version.) In the middle of a summer night, Amish teenager Katie Fischer goes out to the barn on her family's Lancaster County, PA, farm and gives birth to a son. Exhausted by the ordeal, she falls asleep. When she wakes up, the baby is gone. It is found hours later, covered by hay, dead. Katie is then charged with murder, which she vehemently denies. Philadelphia defense attorney Ellie Hathaway is burned out; she's had one too many sleazy clients. Her eight-year relationship with another attorney has ended, so Ellie retreats to her friend's home in Lancaster County. The friend, a former Amish church member and a cousin to the Fischers, persuades Ellie to take Katie's case. The bail bargain is that Ellie must live at the Fischer farm, where she gains an understanding of their culture, in which God is first, the community is second, and the individual is third. The book is written from both Katie's and Ellie's point of view, so the use of two narrators (Christina Moore and Suzanne Toren) emphasizes the different voices very effectively. The Pennsylvania German dialect and accented English are convincing; recommended. —Nann Blaine Hilyar
An uneven reworking of tabloid headlines: a young woman is charged with infanticide, and a hard-boiled attorney agrees to defend her. With one crucial distinction: the defendant is Amish.... All, of course, will be tidily resolved by trial's end. Despite a provocative and topical premise, and a strong opening, Picoult fails this time, her seventh, to rise above paint-by-numbers formula.
1. Must "like the patches that make up a quilt," Picoult deliberately brings together in a single narrative two starkly different and often clashing cultures and ideologies; she highlights the tensions between them, and also underscores their inherent similarities. Discuss Picoult's writing style. What techniques does she use to establish the novel's tone, to develop her characters' oft-concealed motives, and to achieve this overall "quilt"-like effect?
2. Critics have suggested that what makes Picoult such a unique and effective novelist among contemporary writers is her firm grasp of the delicacy and complexity of human relationships. How is this quality particularly apparent in Plain Truth?
3. Furthermore, like precious few novels today, Picoult's books thoughtfully contend with the significance and mechanics of spirituality in an increasingly secular culture. In fact, USA Today observed that what makes Keeping Faith [a previous Picoult bestseller] especially remarkable is the way it "makes you wonder about God. And that is a rare moment, indeed, in modern fiction." Could the same be said of Plain Truth? Explain. What aspects of this novel particularly resonated with you?
4. How would you describe this novel to a friend? Is it a suspense novel? A love story? A legal thriller? An exploration of modern culture and morality? A study of human psychology and character motivation? What makes Plain Truth stand out among contemporary novels? To what degree does Picoult refresh or even redefine the various fictional genres with which this novel might be associated?
5. Identify the narrative techniques Picoult employs to draw you into Katie Fisher's plight. Why do we care so much about her? How does her specific situation come to touch upon such timeless and universal issues as community estrangement and forbidden love?
6. How accurate is it to say that, as readers, we approach this novel in much the same way Ellie approaches Katie's case: as aliens to the Amish lifestyle, and as onlookers painfully unsettled by the horrendous crime with which Katie is charged?
7. What kind of man is Aaron Fisher? As you were reading, what were your reactions to his choices? What motivates him? If we had to, how could we make a case for defending Aaron's code of life, his propensity to put the community above the individual? What compels him to adhere so strictly to the laws and traditions of the Amish faith, even when it means severing all ties with his only son?
8. On the face of things, Sarah Fisher appears to be a woman willing to submit wholly to her husband's word and will. Does this assessment bear out in the end? Looking back through the novel, identify the subtle clues and telling bits of dialogue which Picoult lays out to lead us toward Sarah's astonishing revelation at the end of the novel. What does motherhood finally mean to Sarah Fisher?
9. "You know how a mother would do anything, if it meant saving her child," Sarah tells Ellie. And earlier on, ostensibly referring to her ability to butcher chickens without remorse, Sarah pointedly tells Ellie, "I do what I have to do. You of all people should understand." What is Picoult up to here? Why would Ellie in particular understand this?
10. With which characters in Plain Truth do you most closely identity? Why?
11. Reread the epigraph that opens the books. Why do you suppose Jodi Picoult chose to begin with this particular Amish school verse? In what ways does it speak to the central tension which drives Plain Truth—the tension between the strictures and codes of Amish life and those of the American justice system (and, by proxy, of American culture writ large)?
12. How does Ellie's role as Katie's defense attorney become blurred with her role as a sort of surrogate mother to Katie? And what is being intimated when Ellie, after insisting that Katie's case "isn't about me," privately admits that she "wasn't telling the truth"? Is Katie's case, in a certain sense, very much about Ellie? Explain. What bearing does Ellie's childlessness initially have on her relationship with Katie, and on her approach to the case? How does the dynamic between these two women shift once Ellie discovers she is pregnant with Coop's child?
13. "We all have things that come back to haunt us," Adam Sinclair tells Katie at one point. "Some of us juts see them more clearly than others." Discuss the ways in which the ghosts of past events come to haunt the present action in Plain Truth. Of all the book's characters, who would you say finally come to "see" things most clearly? Ellie? Jacob? Sarah? Explain.
14. One of the primary "ghosts" of Picoult's storyline is the specter of Ellie and Coop's ill-fated affair back in college. What happened back then? How has the experience colored and complicated Ellie's life choices, whether personal or professional, ever since?
15. In continuation with the previous two questions, consider other "ghosts" from the past which haunt and presage the novel's present action. For instance, how does Jacob's decision to leave the farm and family to pursue life as a secular scholar bear directly upon Katie's plight, particularly in light of her estrangement from her father and community? And what is the legacy, brought to bear during her stay in Paradise, of Ellie's previous track record as a defense attorney committed to attacking her cases with a sort of "by-any-means-necessary" ethos, regardless of guilt or innocence? To what degree would you say Jacob and Ellie, in the course of this novel, are liberated from their pasts?
16. Imagine an alternate telling of this story in which instead of Ellie, it was Katie or Sarah relating her experiences to us in the first person. How would it have colored our perception of events?
17. What are the central themes of Plain Truth? What does Picoult seem to be saying about notions of tradition, family, religion, and community in modern life?
18. What did you learn about Amish life in reading this novel?
19. Ellie Hathaway is a protagonist who finds she must come to painful terms with the choices she has made in life. Even when we meet her at the start of Plain Truth, she appears to be in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Unpack the emotional baggage underlying her ordeal. Describe the extreme change Ellie undergoes in the course of her stay on the Fisher farm. What effect does the intimate relationship she forges with Katie have on her sense of self, and on the way she approaches her role as a defense attorney?
20. How do Ellie's perceptions of faith and prayer evolve during her stay at the Fisher farm? Discuss the scene that finds Ellie kneeling with the family to recite the Lord's Prayer. What is going on here? In a community "where sameness was so highly valued," where submission to a higher power is paramount, what happens to Ellie's previously unquestioned ideas and/or hang-ups about professional success, motherhood, commitment, and emotional dependence?
21. What kind of future so you see for Ellie and Coop? For Katie and Samuel? Jacob and his Plain heritage? Sketch out a hypothetical epilogue that takes place five years after Ellie's final conversation with Sarah at the close of the book.
22. Discuss the significance and layered meanings behind the title of Picoult's novel. For instance, in the realm of this story, is "Plain truth" a different sort of truth than "plain truth"?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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