The Memory of Old Jack, by Wendell Berry
Book Discussion Question
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  1. The novel takes place mostly in Jack’s head, remembrances of his life leading up to the present. Comment on some important people and events that he recalls and their effect on him. You might consider Ruth, Will Wells, Rose, Ben, Clara, Andy, his “triumph” over Sims McGrother (in acquiring the neighboring property), and the barn burning.
  2. What about the first memory Jack recalls in Chapter One makes him think his life was full of “light and music?”
  3. Describe the nature of Jack’s initial attraction to Ruth. What did he want in her as a wife?
  4. How does Jack’s relationship with Rose reflect his relationship with his farm?
  5. How does Wendell Berry use the character of Clara to comment on Jack’s life and society in general?
  6. Compare this passage to the way Jack feels about his own life:
    “It comes to Mat suddenly — so that he first grimaces and then grunts — that the Berlews and the Pettits represent the two halves of the same distraction. What the Pettits are is what the Berlews dream of being. Is not the Burlews’ old car the hopeless dream of a Cadillac? Is not their tireless going a persistently frustrated pilgrimage in search of Easy Street?” (p. 156)
  7. Wendell Berry wrote The Memory of Old Jack when he was about 40, and when the novel begins Jack is 92. How do you think Berry was able to look ahead to see how Jack would feel at the end of his life? Do you think that he did a good job with that part of the book and Jack’s character?
  8. How does Berry use narrative structure and language to explore the nature of Jack’s memories?
  9. Discuss how Jack, even in his current situation, deeply impacts those around him. How do Mat and Jack’s friends take his death? His daughter Clara?

Map of Port William, KY