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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

Watermelon Nights

1. Watermelon Nights shifts between the rural reservation of the past and the urban streets of contemporary Santa Rosa. Are the Pomos more cohesive as a tribe when they live on their own land? Is it easier for them to maintain a traditional life in isolation? Does their dependence on white employers and government assistance, whether on the reservation or in town, inevitably undermine their attempts to preserve the Indian way of life?

2. Why is Johnny Severe, who is "hardly quarter Indian," so eager to organize the Pomo tribe? Why does he think "official" recognition will make a difference in his life? How have his grandmother's stories influenced his decision to help revitalize the tribe and its traditions? What role does his mother's renunciation of the Indian community play in his attachment to tribal culture?

3. Does Felix's boast that he is "full Indian" reflect genuine pride or is it a way of ingratiating himself with Johnny and the others involved in organizing the tribe because, as Johnny muses, "now with everyone wanting to be full blood and all, nobody wants to claim relations that ain't Indian"? What convinces Johnny to let go of his uneasy feelings about Felix and embrace his friendship? What parallels does he see in their lives? Does their attraction to each other evolve naturally, or does Felix manipulate the course of their friendship? Why does Felix turn on Johnny so viciously?

4. Early in the novel, Johnny says "Indians are a mean, unhappy bunch," and the raucous tribal meeting, as well as the attack on Johnny, quickly become forums for expressing the resentments, jealousies, and hatreds that simmer within the tribe. Does Elba's narrative, revealing the horrors of the past and the indignities suffered by the tribe, make you more sympathetic to the Bill sisters, Zelda and Billyrene Toms, and other members of her generation? How have their experiences shaped the lives and beliefs of Johnny's generation? Discuss the different ways Johnny, Tony, Edward, Francis, Raymond, and Alice choose to deal with their heritage. What events and memories of her own past help Elba maintain her equanimity and her hopefulness about the present and future?

5. What does Iris's success in the spelling bee represent to her? To Elba? Do you think Elba would have supported Iris's "revenge" had she known about it? Does Iris's defiant act bring her the satisfaction she sought? How do these events shape her opinions about white society? Do they justify her initial coldness toward Patrick years later or is she herself guilty of bigotry?

6. After Iris witnesses the terrible scene at the Roundhouse on the old reservation and learns about what happened between Anna and Mike Bauer, why does Elba say "You don't see nothing . . . I think I done wrong with you . . . Maybe I should've let you starve like the rest of us."? Do you think Elba should have tried to help Iris feel more comfortable within the community? Was leaving South Park the only choice Iris had?

7. Despite her success in creating a comfortable life in San Francisco, several reviewers suggest that Iris is the most tragic figure in Watermelon Nights. In view of the heart-breaking events of Elba's life and Johnny's chilling encounter with tribal prejudices, why do you think they reached that conclusion? Do you think that Iris's loss of identity and a sense of belonging is more devastating than the physical and emotional trials of the other characters?

8. The destructive impact of white racism on Indians and their culture runs throughout Watermelon Nights. Do you think this is an accurate version of history? How do the attitudes of the white community affect the Pomos' image of themselves? Of other minority groups? Is Felix right when he says "We're at the bottom of the barrel, man, and nobody wants nobody to get out. It'll make everybody confused because it we're not all at the bottom of the bucket then who are we?"

9. Many of the stories in Grand Avenue, as well as two parts of Watermelon Nights, are narrated by women. Does this affect the tone of the stories and the "facts" they reveal? In general, do you think women assume more responsibility for maintaining traditions and shaping cultural identities? Does this differ from culture to culture, and if so, why?

10. Elba's aunt, Chum, and her friend, Nellie Copaz (whose life is depicted in detail in several stories in Grand Avenue), are both expert basket-weavers, a skill the Pomo are known for. How is this craft symbolic of their roles within the community? What significance does Elba's garden have? How does the care she lavishes on it and the effect its beauty has on other people reflect her approach to life?

11. In "The Water Place," a story in Grand Avenue, an old woman sums up the story of the Pomos with these words: "Look at what the Spanish did, then the Mexicans, then the Americans. All of them, they took our land, locked us up. Then look at what we go and do to one another." Discuss how this stark viewpoint applies to the events and interactions of the characters in Watermelon Nights. To what extent do the exclusionary actions and prejudices within the tribe determine the fates of Johnny, Elba, and Iris?

12. In what ways does Sarris's chronicle of Native American history and life complement or contrast with works by Louise Erdrich, Leslie Silko, Sherman Alexis, and other American Indian writers? How do his portraits of the Pomo compare to stories you have read about other groups marginalized by society—for example, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, novels and memoirs by African Americans like Claude Brown, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin, or the works of contemporary Latino writers?

Courtesy of Penguin Putnam, Inc.

Watermelon Nights
by Greg Sarris

  • Publication Date: November 1, 1999
  • Mass Market Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0140282769
  • ISBN-13: 9780140282764