Set in the 1950’s in New York City, Chains Around the Grass is a portrait of a Jewish-American family that glows with affection, tenderness, and courage when tragedy changes the lives of all who are left behind. A passionately personal and heartfelt book, based heavily on autobiographical material, this is the book Ms. Ragen says that she became an author to write.
Based on novelist Ragen’s own experiences growing up in an ethnically mixed low-income housing project in the Rockaways, this novel opens a window into the bittersweet world of the Markowitz family as they struggle to make ends meet in 1950s New York City. A first-generation Jewish immigrant with incredible reserves of optimism and ambition, David Markowitz trades in his religious identity for the promised gold of America, believing that “if you really wanted to, if you worked your can off, you could not only get out of Brooklyn, but get Brooklyn out of you.” After being conned into making a bad investment that leaves him and his family financially and emotionally bankrupt, David dies suddenly. For the first time in her life, his wife, Ruth, must take sole responsibility for her three children, something that seems overwhelmingly difficult.
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- Why do you think the author chose to call this book Chains Around the Grass? To what does the title refer? Does it have a deeper, symbolic significance?
- The author has said that this is a book about “the dark side of the American Dream.” How would you describe the American Dream? In what way does this book look at its more sinister aspects? Do you agree or disagree with the author’s perspective, and why?
- All of the characters in this book go through life-changing experiences. In what way do these experiences change them, build them, destroy them? Are they better or worse human beings for having gone through these experiences?
- George Orwell once wrote: “A tragic situation exists when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces that destroy him.” Does a tragic situation exist in Chains Around the Grass?
- If Ruth Markowitz had grown up in the Sixties instead of the Forties, how would her life have been different?
- Who do you think is the main character of this book and why?
- How would you describe Sara’s religious experience? What does it have to say about growing up Jewish in America?
- This is a book about families and the American-Jewish immigrant experience. What does this book have to say about the clash of American values and culture with Jewish values and culture and its effect on the family bonds of Jewish-American immigrants? In what ways are American values similar to Jewish values, and in what way are they in opposed?
- Describe Jesse Markowitz’s behavior in light of his relationship to his father. In starting a business, what were some of the things he was trying to prove, to himself and to the world?
- The book says of Ruth: “All her knowledge, so new and painfully won, all her experience, would not be able to help her son, as it had not been able to help her husband.” To what knowledge does this refer? How could this knowledge have helped her husband, her son?
- At the end of the book, the author concludes: “As long as life rolls forward, no story ever ends, and no tale is ever really a tragedy.” Do agree or disagree with this statement and why.
- Would you describe Sara’s two experiences by the sea as religious experiences? In what way? How else could you describe them? Have you ever experienced something similar? Describe.