Exile Music

September 1, 2019

Based on an over­looked part of World War II his­to­ry, Exile Music tells the sto­ry of a fam­i­ly of Jew­ish Vien­nese musi­cians who flee the Nazis in 1939 to find refuge in the moun­tains of Bolivia. There, they are con­front­ed with alti­tude sick­ness, new lan­guages, new cul­tures, and even­tu­al­ly, some of the Nazis they sought to escape. While young Orly and her father use music to weave togeth­er their past and present lives, Orly’s moth­er aban­dons singing. She grows increas­ing­ly dis­tant, har­bor­ing a secret that could put their entire fam­i­ly at risk again. When unex­pect­ed vis­i­tors arrive in their new home­land, they force Orly to choose where she ulti­mate­ly belongs. Between 10,000 and 20,000 Jew­ish refugees found their way to Bolivia dur­ing the war years, many of them artists and musi­cians. Very lit­tle has been writ­ten about this com­mu­ni­ty. Jen­nifer Steil lived in Bolivia for four years, meet­ing some remain­ing sur­vivors and their descen­dants. Their sto­ries inspired her book.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Pen­guin Ran­dom House and Jen­nifer Steil

  1. As chil­dren, Anneliese and Orly imag­ine a com­plex and ever-evolv­ing fan­ta­sy world that they inhab­it togeth­er, with their plush rab­bits. How does this world reflect or serve as a retreat from what is going on in the world around them? How does their play help them digest or adapt to the grow­ing men­ace around them? How does this sto­ry­world serve the book as a whole? What do you remem­ber about the games you played as a child? Child­hood games vary wide­ly by cul­ture. Why do you think our imag­i­nary friends or child­hood games shine so bright­ly in our memories?
  2. Did you know that Jew­ish refugees fled to Bolivia dur­ing WWII before read­ing Exile Music? Many Jew­ish cit­i­zens sought refuge in South Amer­i­can coun­tries, yet those expe­ri­ences aren’t as promi­nent in our his­to­ry books as the expe­ri­ences of refugees who escaped to North Amer­i­ca, Scan­di­navia, or sur­vived hid­den in Euro­pean coun­tries. Why do you think these expe­ri­ences aren’t as com­mon­ly discussed?
  3. Many chap­ters begin with an epi­graph that acts that as sort of news flash.” Why do you think Steil decid­ed to include these his­tor­i­cal head­lines? What pur­pose do they serve in the narrative?
  4. Music is, from the begin­ning of the nov­el, a means through which Orly under­stands her world. Her par­ents’ work as musi­cians defines how she under­stands Vien­na, and the music of Bolivia — the way her father engages with his stu­dents there, her moth­er con­tin­ues to keep music out of her life, and Miguel shows her the sounds of his coun­try — shapes the way that Bolivia becomes home. What oth­er ele­ments of Orly’s life give her the sen­sa­tion of home? Or help her to con­nect her past to her present? What activ­i­ty or rit­u­al has for you act­ed as a lens through which you under­stand your life? Or that helps you find your way for­ward through grief?
  5. In moments of stress or frus­tra­tion, Orly often takes two seem­ing­ly uncon­nect­ed things — places, peo­ple, or expe­ri­ences — and fig­ures out a path that con­nects them, often in the ser­vice of cre­at­ing a poem. How does that act of defin­ing con­nec­tion help Orly? How does the book itself act as a path con­nect­ing two seem­ing­ly uncon­nect­ed places?
  6. Jen­nifer Steil is the wife of an ambas­sador, and has lived in many dif­fer­ent places around the world, includ­ing Bolivia. As a moth­er, in each new place her fam­i­ly moved it was imper­a­tive that Steil find a way to estab­lish a steady day-to-day rhythm and that often meant learn­ing a new lan­guage, mak­ing new friends, adapt­ing to new foods and ways of shop­ping, and learn­ing the rhythms of dai­ly life in a new place. How does her expe­ri­ence as an out­sider mak­ing home in a new place influ­ence the way she wrote this book? How do you think the skills she’s learned in her trav­els help her in research for this book?
  7. Over the years, Orly’s under­stand­ing of her con­nec­tion to Anneliese trans­forms. But the trans­for­ma­tion of her feel­ings isn’t the first time that sex­u­al­i­ty is explored in Exile Music. How does this sto­ry broad­en or change our under­stand­ing of sex­u­al­i­ty in the 1930s? Steil says that she, pur­pose­ly avoid­ed label­ing Orly’s sex­u­al­i­ty.” Why do you think she made this choice? What role does Orly’s sex­u­al­i­ty — her attrac­tions and her pas­sions — play in Exile Music and how does it shape her expe­ri­ences and the way the plot unfolds? Do you think we have a ten­den­cy to white­wash the sex­u­al­i­ty of past generations?
  8. Orly’s moth­er starts a bak­ery in Bolivia, and return­ing to the recipes that they loved in Vien­na is at first a sign to Orly that her moth­er has found hope and pur­pose at last. But her mother’s bak­ing dis­guis­es a dark secret. Even before this secret threat­ens those clos­est to her, Orly dis­ap­proves of her mother’s choic­es. What do you think? Has her moth­er earned her revenge? Does revenge ever solve a prob­lem or resolve pain?
  9. The Andes of Bolivia are the most promi­nent geo­graph­ic fea­ture in Orly’s new home, and their pres­ence on the hori­zon com­fort her, amaze her, and give Steil ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to describe the beau­ty of this coun­try. Steil says, Many of the things that struck me about La Paz are also the things that struck Orly. First, the moun­tains. Which are spec­tac­u­lar­ly present every moment of the day, and at the end of every street. I couldn’t get over the joy I felt every time I looked at them.” How do the geo­graph­i­cal fea­tures of where we live shape our emo­tions? Have you ever felt a deep con­nec­tion to a geo­graph­i­cal fea­ture — the sea­side, a lakeshore, a val­ley, for­est, or even a city block? How did that feel­ing of con­nec­tion shape your mem­o­ry or attach­ment to a place? What do you think the steadi­ness or omnipres­ence of the moun­tain ranges in Bolivia rep­re­sent to Orly?
  10. How did you feel about the end of the book? How would the sto­ry have been dif­fer­ent if Orly had made a dif­fer­ent deci­sion? Why do you think she didn’t feel that was an option?
  11. Why do you think the author chose to tell the sto­ry from the point of view of a young girl?
  12. Music pro­vides both the struc­ture and the over­rid­ing theme of the book. What role does music play in each of the character’s lives? Why is music impor­tant to them? How does it help them adjust to their new lives? What is the sig­nif­i­cance of Orly’s moth­er Julia refus­ing to sing once they leave Europe?
  13. What role does poet­ry play in help­ing Orly con­nect her past to her present?
  14. Did you know the sto­ry of the chil­dren of Izieu? Why do you think that piece of his­to­ry was includ­ed in the book?
  15. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of Orly’s rela­tion­ship with the Aymara girl Nayra? Why do you think Orly was par­tic­u­lar­ly attuned to the dis­crim­i­na­tion against the indige­nous peo­ples of Bolivia?