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READERS GUIDE

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Richard Russo’s Elsewhere, the powerful new memoir by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Empire Falls.

Introduction

Elsewhere chronicles Richard Russo’s complex relationship with his mother, Jean, paying homage to the troubled woman who raised him by herself and to whom he owes, as he says in the Acknowledgments, “just about everything,” including becoming a writer. The book moves from Russo’s childhood in the gritty mill town of Gloversville, New York, to his mother’s death many years later, an expanse of time in which mother and son are rarely apart.

Elsewhere also tells the story of Gloversville itself, its sad but all too typical decline from thriving manufacturing town to impoverished backwater, as the tanneries, where Russo’s grandfather and cousin worked, leave the U.S. in search of cheap labor and a free pass on pollution and health regulations. Indeed, Gloversville is the gravitational center of the book and of Russo’s and his mother’s life, holding them in its orbit, however far they try to move away from it.

The first move comes when Russo decides, with some subtle encouragement from his mother, to enroll at the University of Arizona. Her plan is to join him, to escape the confines of Gloversville and her overbearing parents, to find freedom and a new life in the desert Southwest. They make the harrowing 2,000 mile drive in a feeble Ford Galaxie, nicknamed “the Gray Death,” just a few months after Russo has gotten his driver’s license. His mother assures him that she has a job just waiting for her, but in this, as in so many things that follow, she has deluded herself: there is no job and, after the long trip, little money left.

Even more challenging are Jean’s mounting anxieties and occasional full-scale meltdowns, her increasingly irrational rigidity and bad decisions. Nevertheless, Russo remains devoted, helping his mother make one move after another, to Tucson, where she lives with Russo and his new wife, as he finishes graduate school; back to Gloversville, which she finds intolerable again; and then to Illinois and later to Waterville, Maine, for his teaching jobs; and finally to the Maine coast, as Russo settles into life as a full-time novelist. Each of the moves brings out his mother’s obsessive worry and impossible-to-satisfy standards, and each move proves eventually to be a mistake.

But the external movement the book traces is secondary to Russo’s own inner journey—his attempt to fully understand his mother and in the process to repay the debt of her sacrifice for him. Russo’s belated and accidental discovery that his mother suffered from OCD spurs him to think about his own obsessive qualities, the very qualities that made his mother miserable but which he turns to his advantage as a writer. 

Readers who have experienced the challenges of caring for an aging parent will resonate with much of Elsewhere, its evocation of the potent mixture of guilt, exasperation, love, and worry that so often accompany such care. And fans of Russo’s fiction will gain new insight into the author’s life and the life of Gloversville, the small town setting that features so prominently in Empire Falls and Russo’s other superb novels.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In the Preface, Russo writes that “What follows in this memoir—I don’t know what else to call it—is a story of intersections: of place and time, or private and public, of linked destinies and flawed devotion” [p. 12]. In what ways do place and time, private and public, linked destinies and flawed devotion intersect in the book? Why does Russo hesitate to call it a memoir? In what sense is it more than a memoir?

2. As he reads the book about OCD, Russo writes: “As dispiriting as it was to recognize my mother on virtually every page…it was even more painful to recognize myself as her principal enabler. Because, like alcoholics and other addicts, obsessives can’t do it on their own” [p. 225]. Is Russo right to take some responsibility for his mother’s mental turmoil? In what ways does he enable her? Could he have responded differently?

3. How might Jean’s life have been different if she had been properly diagnosed and treated for OCD?

4. Of becoming a writer, Russo reflects that, “Somehow, without ever intending to, I’d discovered how to turn obsession and what my grandmother used to call sheer cussedness…to my advantage. How and by what mechanism? Dumb luck? Grace? I honestly have no idea. Call it whatever you want—except virtue” [p. 166]. How can Russo’s ability to harness his obsessions be explained? Why does he refuse to call it “virtue”? How is it that obsessiveness can be so destructive for one person and so fruitful for another?

5. What powerful mixture of feelings does Russo experience when his father tells him bluntly that his mother is crazy? What are the most challenging aspects her behavior?   What does Russo see as the source of her anxieties and panic attacks?

6. In what ways are Rick’s challenges in dealing with an aging parent that universal? In what ways are they specific?

7. Near the end of the book, Russo writes that “novelists, if they know anything, should know how important stories are, that narratives often provide the key to things that run deeper in us, in our basic humanity, than can be diagnosed by even the most skilled physician. Given how often I’d heard it, I should have recognized the importance and meaning of my mother’s Easter story, the one where she and her sister got new dresses and my grandmother did not” [p. 241]. What is the importance and meaning of his mother’s Easter story? Why and in what ways are stories crucial for understanding—and even shaping—our lives?

8. How has the story that Russo tells in Elsewhere helped him arrive at a greater understanding of his mother and their own shared narrative? What does he know at the end that he didn’t know at the beginning?

9. Why does Russo attribute his becoming a writer to his mother’s influence? How did she inspire him to write?

10. In what ways does Elsewhere explore the difficulties that virtually everyone must face in dealing with an aging parent? What aspects of the memoir are unique to Russo’s own situation?

11. In the Acknowledgements, Russo says: “To my mother I owe, well, just about everything, and to some readers these pages may seem a strange way to repay such an enormous debt” [p. 246]. Why does Russo feel such gratitude toward his mother despite the many challenges of taking care of her? Does the book seem a strange way to repay the debt?

12. Elsewhere is not only about Russo and his mother but also about the town of Gloversville where Russo grew up. In what ways does the trajectory of Gloversville, from thriving manufacturing town to impoverished post-industrial backwater, mirror what’s happened in much of America over the past seventy years? Why do the tanneries and related glove-making businesses move their operations out of the U.S.? How does this affect Gloversville? In what ways did those companies, exploit and endanger both their workers and the health of the town itself? Are the tanneries guilty of what Russo calls “corporate murder” and “corporate rape” [p. 231]?

13. How does this nonfiction treatment of his hometown differ from the fictional versions of Gloversville Russo has written about in his novels? What does this treatment add to his fictional portraits of the house and town that, he says, would “nourish [his] creative life for more than three decades”? [p. 239]

About this Author

Richard Russo lives with his wife in Camden, Maine, and Boston. In 2002 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls.

Suggested Reading

Andre Dubus III, Townie; Richard Ford, Canada; Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections; Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club; D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; Philip Meyer, American Rust; Jeanette Walls, The Silver Star; Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life.
 
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