Vermont Reads 2021

“We Contain Multitudes”
by Sarah Henstra

Leading a Book Discussion

Before You Start

We Contain Multitudes is a book that can challenge our impressions of people who are different from us and situations that we may only know through the news and social media. On the other hand, people in your community are also likely to be only too familiar with some themes in the book, including addiction and domestic violence. We recognize that this presents challenges to notions of ourselves in a diverse world, and we strongly encourage you to engage a facilitator who is trained in holding reading discussions about complex social issues. 

If your community would like suggestions for trained facilitators, please contact Tess Taylor by email or Richelle Franzoni by email and we will help you arrange a facilitated discussion in your community. 

Ideas for a Dynamic Discussion

  • Use a facilitator, preferably someone who loves literature, has experience leading discussions, and has taken the time to read and research the book carefully. They should be prepared with a list of stimulating questions (the list on this page is a good start) and should try to include everyone in the conversation. They should also provide a brief biography of the author.  
  • For in-person meetings, it is best to seat people in a circle. If the group is too large for this configuration, ask people to speak loudly and clearly so that everyone can hear, or, as appropriate, ask them to stand and face the group when talking. If your discussion needs to happen virtually, break-out rooms are helpful for large numbers. 
  • Don’t forget the introductions! Be creative — in addition to stating their names, people might briefly share their general impressions of the book, their reason for attending, or something about the book for discussion. 
  • Make sure that all participants have access to the Resources pages on our website and/or this printable PDF – especially for further information about our partners, Outright Vermont, Recovery Vermont, The Howard Center, and the Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence. 
  • Discussion facilitators should end the discussion with some kind of “closer.” One example is asking everyone (or, if the group is large, volunteers) to share a final thought about the book or the experience they just had discussing it. Or ask volunteers to read their favorite sentence or paragraph from the book. 
  • Please plan to have space available after the group in case any one present would like to ask more questions one-on-one or get additional resources about anything that came up in the conversation.  Some participants may need one-on-one time after the group discussion. 
  • If the discussion is in person, please serve refreshments! 

Key Words

It helps to be clear and agree about definitions when discussing a book. Discuss and define these words together before reading We Contain Multitudes. Be mindful of their meanings as they come up in your book discussions and projects.

  • accountability 
  • bluegrass music 
  • bullying 
  • butcher boys 
  • consent 
  • domestic violence 
  • empowered 
  • epistolary novel 
  • exploited 
  • family 
  • friendship 
  • harass 
  • homophobia 
  • identity 
  • justice 
  • LGBTQ+ 
  • metaphor 
  • multitudes 
  • PTSD 
  • Pride 
  • Relationships 
  • Sexual Orientation 
  • Stereotype 
  • Veteran 
  • witness 

Discussion Questions

Discussion questions supplied by NOVL Bookclub / Little Brown and Company at theNOVL.com 

  1. In a letter to Kurl, Jo writes, “You and I don’t, technically, ‘tell’ each other things, do we? We write them” (p. 54). Jo and Kurl have an easier time communicating with each other through writing—why? Even when they become friends, and eventually fall in love, why is letter writing so compelling to both of them?
  2. When asked to identify a hero in their life, Kurl notes, “The thing about heroes is they make you look at yourself” (p. 16). Who do Kurl and Jo identify as their heroes? Why? Do you think they would answer this question differently by the end of the book?
  3. Why does Jo love poetry, and specifically Walt Whitman? What draws him to “Song of Myself”?
  4. What is the significance of the Red Eft? Why is Kurl so fascinated by them? What does it reveal about his character?
  5. Jo and Kurl often discuss outer worlds vs. inner worlds—like in their discussions of Inner vs. Outer Sanctums, and what they write in their letters vs. what they say aloud to others. Why do you think they do this? How does it affect their relationship?
  6. On page 132, how does Kurl interpret the meaning of grass in “Song of Myself”? Why do you think Adam finds this image compelling, and how does it relate to his own life?
  7. On page 149, Kurl uses a metaphor of a glass ornament to describe Jo. But in Jo’s response on page 153, he counters arguing that Kurl is the glass ornament. In your opinion, who is the glass ornament?
  8. Why is Shayna invested in learning more about her mother? While Jo clearly cares about Raphael, he watches Shayna become more and more obsessed with Raphael from a distance. What does Raphael mean to Shayna, and what does she mean to Jo?
  9. Jo is often frustrated that Kurl cannot leave his abusive uncle, to the point where it begins to tear them apart—why do you think Kurl has such a hard time abandoning his family? Why does Jo not understand Kurl’s decisions to stay?
  10. What do you think the title means? The first moment the phrase “We contain multitudes” appears is on page 193, when Jo writes the phrase on Kurl’s car window. What is the importance of this scene, and what does it reveal about the entire book?