As part of Bas Bleu’s 2017 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
Our November Book a Month selection, The Golden Age by Joan London (NOT Joan Lunden!), tackles a topic Americans don’t hear much about anymore: polio. Cheerful, right? Now, now, hear us out! Yes, The Golden Age revolves around Frank Gold, a young wartime refugee from Hungary who contracts polio in Australia. And, yes, the novel offers readers insight into the terrible infectious disease. But despite—or perhaps because of—his experiences in the war and in the hospital (which once was a pub), Frank is a passionate budding poet, and thus his story becomes an ode to beauty, love, family, life, death, and survival. Praised by our reviewer as “elegant and touching,” this quiet novel is a terrific choice for book clubs, promising rich discussions.
1. What did you know about polio before reading this novel? Have you ever received a polio vaccine? Do you remember the time before the polio vaccine was developed (in the 1950s), when it was one of the most-feared childhood diseases in America?
2. Frank and his parents narrowly escape the horrors of World War II, only to face a heartbreaking situation in what they hoped would be a safe place. How does each of the Golds handle this new obstacle? Did you view Frank’s situation differently when reading it through his eyes than through his parents’?
3. Even without Frank’s diagnosis, the Golds’ situation in Australia is a difficult one. They are strangers in a strange land, alive and no longer persecuted but separated from the culture and people they have always known. What was your reaction to Frank’s parents’ struggle as refugees? How does their situation compare to those of refugees you’ve seen in the news over the last few years?
4. In chapter 3, London writes of Frank, “polio had taken his legs, but given him his vocation: poet.” Discuss (or think about, if you’re solo reading) a time in your life when something lasting and good came out of a tragedy or a challenging setback.
5. Elsa is just twelve when she thinks, “if her mother didn’t come, the sky also told her that each person was alone and the world went on, no matter what was happening to you.” That’s a big revelation for a young person to have, but also proof of how young Elsa is: her mother’s presence (or absence) has monumental consequences. How are Frank and Elsa wise beyond their years? In what ways are they still childlike? Can you remember how old you were when you began to feel more like an adult than a child?
6. Sullivan tells Frank that poetry doesn’t “have to strut about…it could be about personal things,” like the World War I poets who wrote not about the politics and tactics of war but about how the conflict personally affected the soldiers. Think about the “poem” of your own life: Would a stranger learn more about you from a single, life-changing incident (like an illness) or from spending a normal, mundane day with you? Why?
7. Shortly after he meets Frank, Sullivan says, ‘Once you get used to your condition […] your imagination becomes free again.’ What does he mean by this?
8. Do Frank and Elsa find happiness at the end of the book?