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Book club questions for Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward explore the themes of slavery, resilience, and identity, prompting readers to reflect on the profound impact of historical trauma and the enduring strength of the human spirit.
Wow! What a book! It is beautifully written, filled with magical realism and strong female characters. Despite the difficult themes of slavery, Annis’s resilience, compassion, and courage shine through, making it a powerful and unforgettable read. I have a feeling that I will be thinking about and recommending this book for years to come.
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
In this blog post you will find the discussion questions for Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward.
For a complete list of Jesmyn Ward’s books in order, click here!
At the bottom of this post I have prepared a printable PDF with downloadable book club questions for this novel so you can use them with your book clubs, and I also have some additional suggestions for novels that share similar themes and narratives.
About the Story
Let Us Descend, authored by Jesmyn Ward, is a powerful and haunting reimagining of American slavery set in the years before the Civil War.
The story follows Annis, an enslaved girl who has been sold south by the white man who fathered her. Annis becomes the reader’s guide through a brutal landscape, from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and the heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation.
Amidst the harrowing journey, Annis seeks solace in memories of her mother and tales of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout the narrative, Annis opens herself to a world beyond the physical realm, connecting with spirits of earth, water, myth, and history.
This novel is a profound exploration of Black American grief and joy, a tale of rebirth and reclamation, making it a masterful and deeply moving addition to Ward’s literary legacy.
About the Author
Jesmyn Ward, born on April 1, 1977, in Berkeley, California, is an accomplished American novelist and professor of English at Tulane University.
Ward’s literary journey began with her debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, but it was her second novel, Salvage the Bones, that garnered critical acclaim. This poignant tale, set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina, won her the prestigious National Book Award for Fiction in 2011.
Ward’s dedication to capturing the complexities of human experiences continued with her memoir, Men We Reaped, and her third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, which earned her a second National Book Award in 2017, making her the first woman to win the award twice.
In 2022, she was honored with the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, recognizing her outstanding lifetime work. Despite facing personal hardships, including the loss of her husband, Ward’s writing continues to inspire readers worldwide.
She is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University and lives in Mississippi with her two children.
Book Club Questions for Let Us Descend
Disclaimer: the following discussion questions contain spoilers, so proceed with caution if you haven’t finished the book yet.
- How does Jesmyn Ward use magical realism in “Let Us Descend” to convey the harrowing experiences of the characters, especially Annis? What effect does the inclusion of spirits and the supernatural have on the overall narrative?
- Annis faces immense challenges, including separation from her loved ones, starvation, and mistreatment. How does her inner strength and resilience shape her character throughout the story? In what ways does she find moments of hope and connection amidst the horrors of slavery?
- The novel incorporates elements from Dante’s “Inferno.” How does this literary reference enhance the story’s depth and meaning? How does Annis’s journey mirror or deviate from Dante’s descent into hell?
- In what ways does “Let Us Descend” shed light on the brutal realities of slavery in pre-Civil War America? How does the author’s meticulous research and historical accuracy contribute to the novel’s impact?
- The novel has been criticized for its portrayal of sexual slavery. How did you perceive Ward’s approach to this sensitive topic? Did it contribute to the depth of the characters or feel gratuitous?
- The narrative employs stream-of-consciousness style, particularly in Annis’s thoughts and reflections. How does this writing technique enhance the emotional intensity of the story? How does it help readers connect with Annis on a deeper level?
- The novel discusses the plaçage system in New Orleans, a practice where white men formed relationships with free women of color. How did Ward handle this topic, and what insights did it provide into the complexities of race, power, and relationships during that time?
- The book explores the relationships between family members, even in the face of extreme adversity. How do the interactions between Annis, her mother, and the spirits of her ancestors illuminate the themes of love, loss, and familial connections?
- Language is an important aspect of the novel. Ward weaves dialects and metaphors into the characters’ speech. How did the language contribute to the authenticity of the story, and did you find it effective in immersing you in the historical setting?
- How did Annis’s relationships with her mother, Safi, and others shape her identity and resilience throughout the story?
- Given the extensive historical and literary references in the novel, do you think these elements enriched the story or made it more challenging to engage with? Did you find the allusions to Dante’s Inferno and other historical events enhanced your understanding of Annis’s journey?
- How does Jesmyn Ward’s prose style influence the reader’s experience? Can you identify specific passages or descriptions that left a lasting impression on you?
- Annis’s encounters with the spirits of her ancestors are a significant aspect of the story. How do these spiritual connections serve as a source of guidance and strength for Annis? How do they contribute to the novel’s themes of heritage and resilience?
- Considering the challenging themes and graphic scenes in the book, how did you personally cope with the emotional impact of the story? Did any particular moments resonate with you strongly?
- Jesmyn Ward is known for her ability to explore complex themes of grief, joy, and resilience. How does “Let Us Descend” contribute to the broader discussion of Black American history and culture? In what ways does it challenge or redefine traditional narratives surrounding slavery and its aftermath?
Hope you enjoyed the book club discussion questions and reading guide for Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward!
Here are some more of my book club recommendations related to this book:
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller, this majestic, stirring, and widely praised novel from two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, the story of a family on a journey through rural Mississippi, is a “tour de force” (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a timeless work of fiction that is destined to become a classic.
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.
His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng
From the bestselling author of The Garden of Evening Mists, a spellbinding novel about love and betrayal, colonialism and revolution, storytelling and redemption.
The year is 1921. Lesley Hamlyn and her husband, Robert, a lawyer and war veteran, are living at Cassowary House on the Straits Settlement of Penang. When “Willie” Somerset Maugham, a famed writer and old friend of Robert’s, arrives for an extended visit with his secretary Gerald, the pair threatens a rift that could alter more lives than one.
Maugham, one of the great novelists of his day, is beleaguered: Having long hidden his homosexuality, his unhappy and expensive marriage of convenience becomes unbearable after he loses his savings-and the freedom to travel with Gerald. His career deflating, his health failing, Maugham arrives at Cassowary House in desperate need of a subject for his next book. Lesley, too, is enduring a marriage more duplicitous than it first appears.
Maugham suspects an affair, and, learning of Lesley’s past connection to the Chinese revolutionary, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, decides to probe deeper. But as their friendship grows and Lesley confides in him about life in the Straits, Maugham discovers a far more surprising tale than he imagined, one that involves not only war and scandal but the trial of an Englishwoman charged with murder. It is, to Maugham, a story worthy of fiction.
A mesmerizingly beautiful novel based on real events, The House of Doors traces the fault lines of race, gender, sexuality, and power under empire, and dives deep into the complicated nature of love and friendship in its shadow.
Wellness by Nathan Hill
This was Oprah’s last book club pick before Let Us Descend.
The book follows their journey from youthful dreams to married life, navigating challenges like parenting, cult-like mindfulness groups, and online conflicts. As they face these obstacles, they begin to lose sight of each other and their relationship starts to strain.
To save their marriage, Jack and Elizabeth must confront their personal demons and rediscover the love that once bound them together.
The novel explores themes of love, relationships, and the pursuit of happiness with humor and insight.
Feel free to distribute these discussion questions to your book club members before your meeting. Simply click the link below to download and print the PDF file.
Happy reading! ❤️