Discussion Questions for Book Clubs
1. As a girl and a young woman, Phoebe dreams of being a scientist. Why does she put aside this dream? Is she influenced by the social norms of the 1950s, as the author contends? If Phoebe had stuck with her dream, might she have become a successful scientist, or would she have faced too much sexism? Was it possible, in that era, for a woman to pursue a career but also get married and have children? What has changed for women today? What hasn’t?
2. Why do you think Phoebe’s father, Leo Burnett, is so driven? Is he motivated primarily by a fear of turning out like his father—unloved and poor—or does he simply relish the art and business of advertising? Do you see any aspects of his drive as pathological? What are his strengths and weaknesses as a businessman? As a husband? As a father?
3. The author likens Phoebe’s “spark bird” experience—her encounter with the Blackburnian Warbler in 1965—to a religious awakening (20). What does the author mean, and do you think this is a fair comparison? In what ways is birding comparable to religion, and in what ways is the comparison limited?
4. In her late thirties and early forties, around the time her youngest child starts school, Phoebe becomes severely depressed. What do you think causes this depression? Why does she choose to deal with it by writing poetry, rather than by discussing it with her husband or with a doctor? Was depression acknowledged and discussed much in the late 1960s and early 1970s? How are things different now?
5. When her children are still living at home, what are Phoebe’s strengths and weaknesses as a mother? What aspects of being a mother and a housewife does she like, and what doesn’t she like? Might she have enjoyed parenthood more if she had been able to combine it with a career, as her husband did? If she had had fewer children? If she had waited until she was in her thirties to start a family?
6. When Phoebe is told in 1981 that she has less than a year to live, she decides to fulfill her longtime dream of traveling around the world to see birds. Do you have any idea what you would do if you received such a devastating diagnosis? Would you go on living as you do today, or would you make dramatic changes?
7. A year and a half after being told she is dying, Phoebe writes to a friend, “I’m really as happy as I’ve ever been” (115). What is making her so happy? If she hadn’t gotten terminal cancer, might she have ended up just as happy in her early fifties, or was the cancer a necessary call to action?
8. Why does Phoebe decide to try to see 5,000 species? Does the goal keep her mind off the cancer? Is it an excuse to spend more time on the road? Is she hungry for recognition from other birders? Does she want to create a legacy for herself before she dies?
9. The author sees Phoebe’s gang rape in Papua New Guinea as a major turning point in her life, even though Phoebe herself doesn’t describe the ordeal that way. What evidence does the author have that Phoebe was deeply affected by the rape, and do you agree? Or do you believe Phoebe’s contention that she was “over” the incident within a few months (155)?
10. What do you make of Phoebe and Dave’s relationship over the years? Do they know each other well when they get married? Are they happy together during the early years of their marriage, as the author believes? In 1972, when Phoebe first gets melanoma, why don’t she and Dave discuss the situation more fully? Beginning in the 1980s, do Phoebe’s travels drive them apart, or are they already hopelessly distant when she begins traveling? Might they have been happier together if they had communicated better—about Phoebe’s melanoma, her depression, and other matters? Or do Phoebe and Dave become so different as time goes on that it is no longer possible for them to meet each other’s needs?
11. In the early 1990s, why does it become so important to Phoebe to be the first person to see 8,000 species? Does this goal contribute to her happiness, detract from it, or both? In what ways has she become like her father by this point?
12. During her quest for 8,000 species, Phoebe misses three major family events: her mother’s funeral, a family reunion in Belize, and her eldest daughter’s wedding. Do you sympathize with her decisions to miss any or all of these events, given the various circumstances? Or do you find her choices alienating? Might we judge her decisions differently if she were a man?
13. Even as Phoebe grows more distant from her family, she cultivates close, caring relationships with other birdwatchers. Does she find her relationships with birders more rewarding than her relationships with family members, and if so, why? Is there anything wrong or unnatural about this? Must we be closer to our family than to our friends?
14. When Dave proposes divorce, why does Phoebe resist? Is she purposely misleading him when she says she’ll slow down after she reaches 8,000 species, or does she really intend to change her pace? Why does she end up breaking this pledge? Is she aware that she has done this? Why doesn’t Dave leave her at this point?
15. During her travels over the years, Phoebe experiences many close calls with death, but seems unfazed by them. Why is she so fearless? Do you think, in the end, that she gets the kind of quick, painless death she always wanted? As the author asks in the introduction, what does it even mean to live—and die—well?