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Wanted: Scholars to lead library book discussions

The Wisconsin Humanities Council is looking for individuals who would like to be included on a list of scholars scholars who enjoy engaging in discussions with the general public and would be willing to lead book discussion programs at public libraries.

This list will be provided to librarians. It will include contact information, though you may or may not be called on. If you do get requests from libraries, you will be compensated for your travel costs and receive an honorarium from the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Please email Jessica Becker at jebecker2@wisc.edu if you are interested in putting your name on this list. Please indicate your department, area of specialty, address, email, and phone number where you prefer to be contacted.

The WHC will be launching the fourth annual (and final) A More Perfect Union book discussion series next month. The series includes four titles that together explore the phase from the preamble to the Constitution “to ensure domestic tranquility,” The books and discussion are meant to inspire critical thinking about American history and the many ways Americans contemplate the place they call home, we value about it, when we choose to fight for it, and the borders and boundaries we create.

The Books included in A More Perfect Union: Domestic Tranquility

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

When do you decide to take the law into your own hands and stand up against past wrongs and lost rights? Joe Mondragon becomes an unwilling hero who never expects that by illegally tapping into his community’s main irrigation ditch he will inspire a community uprising. As a motley assortment of locals gradually see their interests and pride tied to Joe’s, the Anglo water barons and powerbrokers in the capital worry that this rural Hispanic community might rise up and destroy the outsiders’ multi-million dollar development scheme. The “war” that follows is a comedy of errors and tactical maneuvers that sometimes brings people together, sometimes deepens divides. Now a classic, the book’s fictional betrayal of disputes over land and resources between locals and outsiders will resonate with Wisconsin communities where pressure on land and competing visions for its use are growing issues.

What natural checks and balances keep local “wars,” or any conflict, from erupting into violence? Who has the power to quell local uprisings? What purpose does the threat of uprising serve? Why do “locals” and “outsiders” often relate differently to the same land?

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Set among the forested mountains and small, struggling farms of southern Appalachia, three stories come together one summer, a season of “extravagant procreation,” to create a narrative of complex characters, each tied to the land in his or her own way. Deanna Wolfe is a wildlife biologist living an isolated and purposeful life tracking a family of coyotes that has just moved into the valley. Her world, privacy, and sense of purpose, is disturbed when a young hunter moves into her territory, bringing with him a personal vendetta against the coyotes. On the nearby farms, city-educated and newly widowed Lusa must learn to fit into the tight-knit farming community, while claiming or losing the land she has become attached to. And two elderly, feuding neighbors hash out their different approaches to farming, arguing across the fence-line of their property and learning that “everything alive is connected to every other by fine, invisible threads.”

How do differing beliefs about land and its value divide us? Can these different visions live side by side? When does our need for community temper our differences? What issues are worth fighting for?

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

This timely story revolves around two couples leading parallel, but very different, lives in the hills of southern California. Delaney, a nature writer, and his wife Kyra, a real estate agent, are wealthy, politically correct suburbanites who face with growing unease the Mexican workers who are becoming increasingly visible in – and seem to be threatening to — their comfortable lives. As their community organizes to build a gate around the neighborhood, Candido and America Rincon, illegally camping in the nearby valley, are living hand-to-mouth, vulnerable to dangers lurking all around. A car accident brings Candido and Delaney together briefly, leaving Candido too injured to work and Delaney angry, guilty, and ultimately vengeful. The compelling characters are caught up in a fast-paced story that provokes the reader to think critically about issues of security, personal responsibility, inequality, and the many things that divide us.

What is the meaning of home? Do you associate your home with feelings of safety? What kinds of protection of community and family are justified? How do we make those choices as individuals? As a community?

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

In artful prose, the author tells the story of 26 Mexican men who attempted to enter the U.S. through an area of the Arizona desert known as the Devil’s Highway. The reader gets to know the men who left behind families and lives in the state of Veracruz to follow the promises of smugglers, known as “coyotes,” and find work in the north. Lost with unskilled guides and suffering from severe hypothermia, only 12 survived the ordeal. Those who didn’t make it out came to be labeled the Yuma 14, named for the southern Arizona Border Patrol sector. The story is a well-crafted mix of first-person testimony, geographic history, cultural and economic analysis, poetry, and commentary on immigration policy that questions the brutality and unsustainable nature of the many walls separating the U.S. from Mexico.

What could make you leave your home and family to live in another country? What would make you stay in a difficult situation? How are national boundaries established? Are they necessary? What are they meant to keep out? What do they keep in?

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