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In Our Midst

Reading Group Guide

1. Mr. Griffin says, “When people are afraid, they’ll hand over their rights as willingly as they’d hand over pennies for bread. But not until they’ve handed over other people’s rights first.” What was your reaction to that passage? Can you think of other times in our history that the “systemic repression” Mr. Griffin cites occurred or of systemic oppression occurring now?

2. How would you describe Nina and Otto’s relationship as a couple and their relationship with each of their sons at the beginning of the story? How do those relationships change through the course of the story?

3. Otto consciously rejects initiating the process to attain US citizenship. If you’re a US citizen, how did that make you feel? If you’re an immigrant who has attained citizenship or is in the process of obtaining it, how did you feel about his decision?

4. One of the ideas central to In Our Midst is family love and loyalty. In what ways do members of the Aust family make sacrifices for one another?

5. In Our Midst also deals with the idea of “the kindness of strangers.” Can you think of specific examples, small and large, of that motif in your own life?  Should strangers be regarded as enemies or new friends?

6. Were there some characters about whom you felt strongly? Ones whom you sometimes liked, sometimes disliked? Why might a fiction writer want to avoid creating characters who are either “saints” or “sinners”?

7. Would you have made the same choice Nina did, joining your family in an internment camp?  If you had been the one arrested and placed in an internment camp, would you have urged your spouse to join you?

8. Which of the characters in In Our Midst do you consider the most American, according to your definition of fundamental American values?

9. What did you notice when you first looked at the cover? How did the cover image become more meaningful as you read the novel?

10. What do you think motivated Mr. Beale and Mr. Griffin to help the Austs?

11. How did you feel as you read about conditions in the internment camps? Prior to reading this book, were you aware of the internment of German- and Italian-Americans during WWII?

12. Music, singing, and the power of lyrics to connect to or express deep emotion recur throughout the story. Which of these moments made the strongest impression on you? Are there songs or poems that deeply connect you to key moments in your life, to your sense of beauty, or to your feelings about your home or country?

13. Throughout history, societies have identified “insiders” and “outsiders.”

(A) As she experiences life under the label of an “enemy alien,” Nina recalls an exchange with an African-American family outside the restaurant that she comes to realize was misinterpreted and, therefore, accepted by her patrons. What do these experiences communicate about American values during the early 1940s?

(B) The boys who beat Hugh are newly enlisted “good” Americans, and the men who torture Gerhard are Nazis. How are their actions and underlying motivations the same and how are they different?