No One is Here Except All of Us
It’s 1939 and the inhabitants of a remote Romanian Jewish village, Zalischik, are growing more aware of the impending danger from the expanding European war. On a rain-soaked day, a stranger, the sole survivor of a Nazi pogrom in her own village, washes up on their river’s edge, and the villagers’ false sense of isolation from the world is halted.
Soon the stranger and Lena, a sensitive and spiritual eleven-year-old girl, jolt the villagers to start their world anew. Naively believing they can rewrite history, the community vows to build a new temple, designate new religious leaders, swap wives if necessary, and even give away their children in the name of rebirth. The consequences are spiritually arresting and identity-altering. Before long Lena becomes a victim of the new world she helped create, her previous identity forcibly shed in the name of communal rebirth.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One Is Here Except All Of Us reads at once like a fable, a dream, a poem, and a prayer. The result is breathtaking in both its exquisiteness and its horror. Lena’s story is unforgettable in the way it evokes parts of our lives today, as we all, at times, experience our own tragedies. Readers will fight for Lena and her village to persevere through the darkest of moments, and meanwhile remind themselves that the answer is always, one way or another, to choose life.
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1. In the opening of the novel, Lena says to Chaya in her letter “maybe, when the world began, everything had been clean and pure.” When the villagers start their world over, does the world begin “clean and pure” or are the seeds of its destruction built into its founding?
2. When the villagers start their world over, they begin with storytelling. What importance does storytelling have for the novel? What is its power? How do each of the characters employ storytelling? What do these uses tell you about each character?
3. One of the bonds that is the most transient in the novel is that between parent and child. How does the author depict this bond? Think about the situations in which children are transferred in the novel: do you think the parents were right to let their children be adopted by others? What do you think about the motivations of the adoptive parents?
4. What is the stranger’s role in the re-creation of the world? Do you think the villagers could have done it without her? Why do you think she decides to help protect the village from the outside world? What eventually makes her allow it back in?
5. Igor is the only character who gets captured, yet his imprisonment ends up insuring his safety, while the characters who remain “free” must fight for their own survival. What does this say about the concept of freedom? In this novel, is personal choice a gift, a burden, or both?
6. With the reinvention of the world, time gets upended. Lena is made to grow up at an unusual rate. Do you think she really does age faster? Do you think she and the other villagers realize the truth but allow Hersh and Kayla to believe their own story? What about when Lena does get married and bears a child—has the story about her aging process had a real and actual effect?
7. How do you think Lena knows what happened to the other characters? Considering the role that imagination and storytelling play in the novel, does it matter whether Lena has outside information? Would that make her version any more or less true?
8. Many unfair things happen to Lena during the course of the book. From her parents giving her away, to losing her sons. How does she cope? Do you think she forgives the other characters? What role does forgiveness play in the novel?
9. What do you think the title No One is Here Except All of Us means?
10. In the end of the book, Lena writes to Chaya, “Someday, your children will ask what happened, and you will tell a new version, and in this way, the story will keep living. Truth is not in facts. The truth is in the telling.” What do you think she means by this? Is there a difference between truth and accuracy?
Twitter Book ClubRead a transcript from the May 23, 2012 Twitter Book Club with Ramona Ausubel.
Ramona Ausubel on No One is Here Except All of Us
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