Reader’s Guide for On the Sickle’s Edge: Why Family Stories Matter

Blog, On Writing, What I'm Thinking

If you’ve found your way to the Reader’s Guide questions below, you may have already read On the Sickle’s Edge, or perhaps you’re considering reading it or making it a book club choice.  Either way, I’m deeply grateful for your interest in this story based on my family history, a story that takes place in the Soviet Era, when hardship and deprivation brought out both the best and the worst in those who lived under it.

Family history, and the family stories passed down to me, have been central to the writing of this novel. The importance of our personal history in determining who we are capable of being and who we might become, can’t be overstated. This is especially true in a society of immigrants whose forebears came from elsewhere.  Our personal histories have an impact on us whether or not we are aware of the family stories and myths that landed us where we are.

What’s become clear to me as I investigated and researched family archives and Russian history for this book, is that the more we can know of our history, the richer we are. My goal is to encourage readers to investigate their own histories, and to share what they discover. This is a pivotal time, because in a few years the descendants of those who came to the United States in the massive immigrations from around the world at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, will all be gone. There will be no one left who knew them, and few who remember their stories. The importance of capturing the past for future generations is up to all of us who have living parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. And for those of us who have family histories we haven’t yet shared, now is the time to preserve it for future generations.

I’ve addressed these issues and others in the “Study Guide,” on my website, and in my blogs. You will also find family recipes and traditional foods, cultural artifacts, and historical notes, and stories others have shared with me as I’ve toured and spoken about the writing of this story. Many of the questions come from readers and book groups who’ve said they found the novel inspirational and historically valuable. I hope you have a similar experience.  I would love to hear from you about your family’s stories.


  1. Did the book give you a better understanding of life in 20th-century Russia and the Soviet Union? Life in late 19th century Latvia? In what ways?


  1. What will you remember most about On the Sickle’s Edge? Do any of the themes in the book have relevance today? Why or why not?


  1. What is the effect of revealing the story through the narrative of multiple characters? Did you relate to one of the narrators more than others?


  1. Many of the characters suffer great losses. How do these losses impact their worldview and actions over the course of the story?


  1. To some extent, we are all shaped by the political and economic times in which we live. In what way do political, economic and social circumstances affect the lives and identity of the three principal characters in the book — Lena, Darya and Steven?


  1. A key theme is the secrets various characters keep. What are the consequences — for each individual, their descendants, and loved ones — of keeping secrets? Of revealing them? Are you aware of any secrets in your family’s history?


  1. How does the mysterious teapot become a metaphor for the secrets passed from one generation to another? What is Steven’s role in saving the teapot from destruction? Given his character, in what ways is that an appropriate role for him to play?


  1. Art and painting figure prominently in the story, especially in the lives of Lena, Vasily and Steven. How does art manifest itself as a saving grace in the lives of these characters? Are there times when art fails to provide them a refuge?


  1. This book has been called a “feminist novel” because of its many strong female characters. Do you agree? Why or why not?


  1. Lena says, “Boys want to grow up to be heroes. Girls want to grow up to be caregivers.” In what ways do the characters in the book adhere to or deviate from these gender roles? In your own life experience, is this true? How so?


  1. On the Sickle’s Edge is sometimes regarded as a “coming of age story” in the case of the character, Steven Green. What events in the book push Steven to evolve? When he goes to Russia to rescue Darya and her children, what are the reasons that motivate him to act?


  1. We learn a great deal from family letters in the book. Is this narrative device effective? Why or why not?


  1. Do you think Esther’s decision to change their family’s identity was a wise one? Why or why not?


  1. Why does Lena’s daughter, Klara, run away from home? Could this have been avoided? How does Lena’s experience with her daughter impact the way she raises her granddaughter Darya?


  1. Explore the interplay between Darya’s romantic relationships and her sense of self. Why is she initially attracted to Grigory Yanov? What drives her to finally see him for what he is? Why did she wait so long to leave Russia — and once safely in the U.S., why does Darya hesitate to pursue her romance with Steven?


  1. After immigrating to the U.S., Lena says she thinks “having too much freedom makes people sloppy.” What does she mean by that? Do you agree?


  1. What scenes were most vivid or moving for you? What did you feel?


  1. Several characters must make decisions that could put themselves or their loved ones at risk: Esther and Isaak concealing their family’s Jewish identity; Darya betraying her husband; Nikolai living as a gay man in the Soviet Union. What other examples did you notice? How would you have responded in their situation?