Author’s Study Guide

for Readers, Discussion Groups, Teachers, and Students


The questions that follow are meant to help readers focus on various aspects of Lineage that emerge in its sections and segments. They reflect how the author reads the book and nudge readers toward his understanding of what its concerns and ideas are, but as most readers know, each reader will interpret and respond to what is read according to their own tastes and backgrounds. There is no expectation of “right” answers to these questions.


  • Tables of Contents are intended offer readers hints as to the organization of the book. This one lists a Prelude, three Interludes, and a Postlude around and between sections titled Ancestry, Uncle, Grandmother, and Self. What does this table of contents suggest to you about the organization or structure of the book? As you progress incrementally through the book, what do you think you will encounter?

  • In the closing paragraph of the Prelude (p. 2) the author tells us, “I ponder old photographs, read old notes and letters, gaze into the faces of my ancestors, and try to interpret—to read—what I consider to be their literary remains. [. . .] I also wonder if reading their words and pondering their images—investigating such evidence of my lineage as I can find—will tell me something about who I am.” Have you had the opportunity to examine such family artifacts as these? What did you notice about them? How did you react to them? Or, if you haven’t had the chance to do that, what do you think such evidence of your family’s “literary remains” would be like, if there were any?

  • “Family Portrait Ross” opens with an 1868 picture of the Ross family (p. 9). (A copy is also available on the author’s book website under “Photos.”) One aspect of a book with such personal images of actual people, historic or contemporary, is the opportunity for the reader to interpret the image and compare it to the author’s interpretation. This happens throughout Lineage. Before you read or reread the author’s comments on this formal photo, look closely at the faces, the poses, the clothing, the setting, and jot down your own notes on what you notice about the members of this family. How does your interpretation agree with or differ from the author’s interpretation? What do you think accounts for the difference, if there is one? Feel free to try this out with other images throughout the book.

  • Other family portraits appear in the book, for example, one of the Budnacks on page 17, one of the Lindermans on page 20, one of a family outing on page 21. How would you compare any of these older family images from early in the twentieth century to similar portraits in your family? What similarities or differences are there in what you perceive of personality or period between your family and theirs? If you don’t have such a photo handy, try to imagine what your family might look like posing for such similar portraits? What do you think family portraits tell us about the families in them?

  • The Interludes on pages 29 and 54 reflect on family houses, one in the author’s hometown, one in his grandmother’s hometown. One way of getting in touch with your own past, if you were inclined to do so, would be to journal about the house you grew up in or a similar residence with which you are familiar. Imagine yourself moving toward the exterior of such a place, opening a door, and stepping inside. What do you see? What do you notice as you wander around the building? What can you identify in each room you enter? What does your visit suggest to you about the people who dwell (or dwelt) there? (Another approach would be to open the door to your room or peer through the window: what identifies it as your room? What do those objects tell you about the person who lives there?)

  • The “Uncle” section of Lineage consists of nine segments, most of them short narratives about the author’s interactions with one of his mother’s brothers over a period of years. After you’ve read the section, how do these anecdotes affect your understanding of the uncle’s personality? What do you think are the hallmarks of his identity? Do what extent do you agree or disagree with the author’s sense of who his uncle was? Have you had a similarly influential figure in your life? If so, how does that individual resemble or differ from the author’s uncle?

  • In the ten segments of the “Grandmother” section of the book, the author tries to get to know a person he doesn’t remember meeting, who died when he was very young. In addition to the family photographs that he examines, he has a variety of what he thinks of as her “literary remains”—a note to his mother, a note to her daughter, her newspaper column, her unfinished novel—that he can examine and use to interpret her personality. As you read those artifacts, what sense of her character, her personality, do you get? Do you agree or disagree with the author’s interpretation? Why?

  • At the end of the “Grandmother” section of the book (pp. 88-90), the author writes a note to the grandmother who died decades before and imagines her writing back. The challenge here is to capture the voice of the woman, the sense of what she herself might have said, based on his familiarity with her notes and columns and images. How well do you think he succeeds? Why or why not? (Challenge: write a note to someone you don’t correspond with—a lost family member, lost friend, an author you’ve read, a historic figure—and then write that person’s reply to your note, trying to capture the personality of that figure and differentiate between his/her voice and your own. How well did you think you did? Why?)

  • “Interlude: Locks” (p. 91) lets the author consider his hometown. In writing classes he has sometimes drawn on the blackboard a quick map of his neighborhood and the sites he would roam in the city, identifying locations that were especially meaningful to him—where he and friends lived, where he went to church and school, the places he played and hung out—and then invited students to first draw a similar map of their hometowns or familiar communities and next write a journal entry as if they were following someone (themselves, perhaps) strolling from place to place. Try that yourself. Then consider and discuss what you notice about your community and your place in it and perhaps what fuller stories you might tell about being in those locations.

  • How does the “Self” section of the book differ from the earlier sections? What is its relationship in time to the other sections? Is there a common thread running through the segments? Which of the segments strikes the strongest chord with you as either a reader or as someone who has had similar experiences or reflections?

  • When discussing Lineage the author has often compared it to such non-literary forms as an album and a medieval Polyptych, in either case a collection of images, or to a haibun journal, where prose passages and brief poems (haiku) alternate. How do you think it differs from a traditional memoir? How does it differ from a traditional essay collection? What are the advantages of such a structure as this book has? What are the disadvantages? If you were to compose such a book as Lineage, what elements do you think you’d need to assemble in order to cover similar ground? What aspects of your lineage would need to be included?