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The Real Minerva by Mary Sharratt

About the Book

A riveting, old-fashioned story with a modern spirit, Mary Sharratts The Real Minerva is the
tale of three women forging their own paths in the midwestern farming community of Minerva,

In 1923, as book-loving Penny enters adolescence, her mother pulls her out of school to go to
work. Penny, the only child of Barbara, an embittered single mother who works as a cleaning
woman for a wealthy family, sees no escape from her bleak existence until a scandalous figure
arrives in town and sets tongues wagging. Cora, very alone, very headstrong, and very pregnant,
has fled the city and her secrets to make a new home on her grandfathers farm. Intrigued by this
curious and rebellious woman, Penny dares to work for her.

Like Sue Monk Kidds The Secret Life of Bees, The Real Minerva is a suspenseful, moving novel
about the strength of women and the unexpected bonds that form between them. As Sharratts
characters assert their dignity and independence against all odds, her novel explores what it takes
to reinvent the self and to claim ones true identity.

A Book Sense Recommended Title

Evocative and mythic, with a sublime sense of good old-fashioned storytelling. Caroline

Sharratt celebrates female grit as her three spirited protagonists challenge with courage and a
little firepower the men and the society that wronged them . . . a story about survival.
Kirkus Reviews

Lively . . . memorable . . . entertaining. Washington Post Book World

About the Author

Mary Sharratt is the author of the novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The
Vanishing Point (forthcoming in spring 2006). A born and bred Minnesotan, she drew on her
mothers and grandmothers stories of Minnesota farm life in the early twentieth century for The
Real Minerva, which was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and a winner of the Willa
Literary Award. Sharratt now lives in Manchester, England.

Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a
deeper understanding of The Real Minerva for every reader.

1. What do you make of the title The Real Minerva? The novel suggests that a perceived identity
often differs from the underlying truth and the truth can often be painful, complicated, and defy
expectations and stereotypes. What do you think is the real Minerva? Is there one?

2. Although both Cora and Barbara serve as Pennys mentors, her relationship with her employer
is much different than that with her mother. What lessons does each woman teach her? How do
the women play a valuable role in Pennys life?

3. What roles do the prologue and epilogue serve, especially since they are told from Phoebes
point of view?

4. At one point in the novel, Cora and Penny discuss sex. Penny asks about love, and Cora
replies, Love . . . Dont believe any of that romantic gibberish you see in the picture shows. I
only found out what real love is when I became a mother (127). What do you think the novel
ultimately says about love both between mothers and daughters and between men and
women? Which love creates a stronger bond?

5. Cora says, Sometimes it isnt easy being a mother . . . One day Phoebe will want to know
about her father. And I wont know what to tell her. Barbara and Cora, for different reasons,
decide not to tell their daughters about their fathers. Do you agree with this decision? How does
it affect the communication between Barbara and Penny?

6. Penny, Cora, and Barbara all embody a source of strength that is unique to each woman.
Discuss the strengths present in each. How do they come into conflict with each other? Which do
you think are most admirable?

7. Penny, Cora, and Barbara all show courage at pivotal moments in the novel: Penny leaves the
Hamilton household, Cora leaves Chicago to run a ranch, and Barbara shows grace and pride
when Mr. Hamilton dies. Discuss these and other moments of courage in the novel. What
personal and social battles did these women have to overcome in order to act? Which acts do you
think are most admirable?

8. Much of the tension between Penny and her mother results from their class status and the way
that it is perceived in Minerva. How is Barbaras relationship with Mr. Hamilton affected by
class? Could things have ended differently if they were considered equals? How does Pennys
class threaten her desire to continue with her education and become a doctor?

9. Minerva is a small town where gossip is common. Gossip and the social constraints of the era
affect Penny, Cora, Irene, and Barbara eventually with fatal consequences. Discuss how
gossip and stereotypes negatively impact these women. To what extent does it drive them to
some of their actions? Does society bear some of the blame for the hurt and violence that results?

10. During one of their visits to the lake, Cora and Penny discuss shape-shifters. At some point in
the novel, each of the three women becomes a shape-shifter or reinventor of sorts. When does
this occur and why? What impact do Minerva and the time period have on the women and their
ability to express themselves?

11. Several key moments of violence drive the novel. What contributes to these violent episodes
and are any of them justifiable? What do you think about the fact that each act of violence has
life-altering and lasting implications for the characters?

12. Despite their class differences, Irene and Penny share many similarities. They are the same
age, have some toughness, and similar views on their parents relationship. But, despite these
facts, they end up in vastly different places by the end of the novel. Why does Irenes suffer a
downfall, but Penny manages survival? What role do the women play in Pennys survival?

13. In an attempt to comfort her daughter after the shooting, Barbara says to her, Always
remember that you stood by your friend . . . You saved her . . . And now she wants to save you.
Cora also says that Penny saved her and Phoebe. Discuss the ways in which Cora, Barbara, and
Penny save each other, and some of the consequences. How far would you go to save someone
you love?

14. What is the significance of The Odyssey in the novel? What parallels does it have to the lives
of Penny, Cora, and Barbara?

15. Near the end of the novel, as Cora leaves Penny, she tells her to be a heroine for both of us.
Throughout the novel, Penny has romantic and heroic visions for herself. How do her visions of
a hero change over time? Do you consider Barbara and Cora heroes? If so, why?

For Further Reading

The following books may be of interest to readers of The Real Minerva.

The Vanishing Point by Mary Sharratt (forthcoming, spring 2006)

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Wild Life by Molly Gloss

Last Years River by Allen Morris Jones