David Rhodes, 2013
With his 2008 novel Driftless, "the best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years" (Alan Cheuse, NPR), Rhodes brought Words, Wisconsin, to life in a way that resonated with readers across America.
Now, with Jewelweed, this beloved author returns to the Driftless Region, and introduces a cast of characters who all find themselves struggling to find a new sense of belonging in the present moment—sometimes with the help of peach preserves or mashed potato pie.
After serving time for a conviction, Blake Bookchester returns home, enthralled by the philosophy of Spinoza and yearning for the woman he loves. Having agitated for his release, Reverend Winifred Helm slowly comes to understand that she is no longer fulfilled by the ministry.
Winnie’s precocious son, August, and his best friend, Ivan, befriend a hermit and roam the woods in search of the elusive Wild Boy. And Danielle Workhouse, Ivan’s single mother and Blake’s former lover, struggles to do right by her son. These and other inhabitants of Words—all flawed, deeply human, and ultimately universal—approach the future with a combination of hope and trepidation, increasingly mindful of the importance of community to their individual lives.
Rich with a sense of empathy and wonder, Jewelweed offers a vision in which the ordinary becomes mythical, and the seemingly mundane is transformed into revelatory beauty. (From the publisher.)
• Raised—outside Des Moines, Iowa, USA
• Education—B.A., Marlboro College; M.F.A., Iowa
• Currently—lives in Wonewoc, Wisconsin
David Rhodes is an American novelist. He has published five books—Jewelweed in 2013 and before that Driftless in 2008. Both books, along with Rock Island Line before them, take place in the fictional small town of Word, Wisconsin.
Rhodes grew up outside Des Moines, Iowa. As a young man, he worked in fields, hospitals, and factories across the state. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Marlboro College in 1969 and a Master of Fine Arts degree from The Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1971. Soon after, he published three acclaimed novels: The Last Fair Deal Going Down (1972), The Easter House (1974), and Rock Island Line (1975).
In 1976, a motorcycle accident left Rhodes partially paralyzed. In 2008, he returned to the literary scene with Driftless, a novel hailed as “the best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years” (Alan Cheuse). He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010, to support the writing of Jewelweed, published three years later.
Rhodes lives with his wife, Edna, in rural Wonewoc, Wisconsin. (Adapted from the pubisher and Wikipedia. Retrieved 6/4/2013.)
I liked Driftless, but his emotionally rich new novel, Jewelweed, a sequel of sorts, is even better. The novel emits frequent solar flares of surprise and wonder.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
[A] deeply moving meditation on the resonance of each individual life on a small Wisconsin town.
Wisconsin State Journal
Jewelweed is a novel of forgiveness, a generous ode to the spirit’s indefatigable longing for love.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
There’s a benevolent sort of rural American magical realism in Rhodes’s latest ensemble novel, set in the Driftless region of southeast Wisconsin, where recently paroled Blake Bookchester returns from prison after serving over 10 years for drug trafficking. In the oddly isolated town of Words, Wis., Blake haltingly reintegrates himself into a vividly real landscape.... Rhodes sometimes bear[s] down too hard to make the point that actions and words of this size and simplicity have profound redemptive qualities.
The novel is filled with vibrant, skillfully drawn characters whose lives will surprise readers.... Rhodes also has important things to say about humble, hardworking Americans at odds with contemporary American culture, which he finds predatory, corporate, and soulless. Verdict: An impressive and emotionally gratifying novel. —Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT
[A] rhapsodic, many-faceted novel of profound dilemmas, survival, and gratitude.... Rhodes portrays his smart, searching, kind characters with extraordinary dimension as each wrestles with what it means to be good and do good.
1. Did the justice system fail Blake? Was his prison sentence an appropriate length? Can he escape that part of his past? How do the other characters view the prison system? Does Jewelweed make a larger commentary on prisons?
2. How does the Midwestern landscape affect the story? Is there a “Midwestern” voice at play? Would you know Jewelweed takes place in the Midwest if it wasn’t specified? What makes something “Midwestern”?
3. Food is a key element in Jewelweed. Beginning with the breakfast pie Nate eats in the first chapter, food, taste and smell all seem critical to this story. What are some other instances where food is central to the narrative? How has food played an important role in your life? How is memory connected to food?
4. Early in the novel, Winnie considers “how she might know herself better” (35). In what ways are the other characters trying to know themselves better? Are any characters avoiding selfreflection? Which characters are the most successful?
5. The characters in Jewelweed all seem to be yearning for freedom. Freedom looks different for each of the characters, but can the concept be distilled? Do any of the characters find the freedom they seek?
6. There are glimpses of the fantastic throughout Jewelweed—the giant turtle that evades capture, the Wild Boy’s ability to be largely unseen, the extraordinarily lifelike statues Lester Mortal creates and then burns as a way of letting go of parts of his past. Much of the novel is imbued with a subtle sense of magic despite its grounding in a rural landscape. How does Rhodes make the ordinary seem extraordinary? Does his writing style evoke the fantastic, or does the content? Is it some combination form and content?
7. What function does the Wild Boy serve? When the details of the Wild Boy are fleshed out as Jewelweed comes to a close, does your opinion of Lester Mortal change?
8. At one point Blake says to Jacob, “do you ever think maybe there are some things you weren’t supposed to get over? Things that would take you the rest of your life to work through?” (209) What hasn’t Blake gotten over? Is this notion universal? What have other characters been unable to let go of?
9. Why do Ivan and August have such a strong bond? How does August’s worldview impact his relationship with other characters?
10. Faith is a central theme in Jewelweed—religious and otherwise. How does Winnie’s faith evolve throughout the course of the book? Do you think the characters are trying “to find the sacred in the ordinary”? (284) How does Rhodes create the sacred through language?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)
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