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

  1. As chil­dren, Anneliese and Orly imag­ine a com­plex and ever-evolv­ing fan­ta­sy world that they inhab­it togeth­er. How does the inten­si­ty of their games dis­tract them from the changes hap­pen­ing in their world? How does their play help them digest or adapt to the grow­ing men­ace around them?

  2. Before read­ing Exile Music, did you know that some 20,000 Jew­ish refugees fled to Bolivia dur­ing World War II ? 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? Why has no oth­er nov­el in Eng­lish addressed this par­tic­u­lar pop­u­la­tion of refugees?

  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 by which Orly under­stands her world. (The book itself is struc­tured in six move­ments, mir­ror­ing Mahler’s Third Sym­pho­ny). 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. How does music serve as a bridge between the old and new worlds of these char­ac­ters? How does each char­ac­ter unique­ly use music to cope with their sur­round­ings? What oth­er ele­ments of Orly’s life give her the sen­sa­tion of home? What activ­i­ty or rit­u­al has for you act­ed as a lens through which you under­stand your life?

  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. 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 moves it is imper­a­tive that Steil find a way to accli­mate, and that often means learn­ing a new lan­guage, mak­ing new friends, adapt­ing to new foods and ways of shop­ping, and learn­ing the cadences 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 helped her in her 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?

  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 Boli­vian Andes are the most promi­nent geo­graph­ic fea­ture in Orly’s new home, and their pres­ence on the hori­zon com­forts her, amazes her, and gives 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 moun­tains 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 decid­ed to return to France with Anneliese? Why do you think she didn’t feel that was an option?

  11. Why do you think Steil decid­ed to cen­ter the sto­ry on Orly, rather than her par­ents or an old­er character?

  12. Some peo­ple are able to find ways to cope with trau­ma and go on with their lives, which oth­ers can­not get past it. What do you think makes a per­son resilient? What makes Orly and her father more resilient than her mother?

  13. In the first move­ment of the book, Orly learns the Greek myth of Iphis and Ianthe, two women who fall in love, and how the gods change one of them into a man so they can be mar­ried. Orly rejects this and says, if the gods are so pow­er­ful why can’t they sim­ply let the two women be hap­py togeth­er as women? How do you feel about this state­ment? What does it say about Orly? Did you think about things like this read­ing myths when you were young?

  14. About halfway through the book, Orly is talk­ing with her Aymara friend Nayra, and she notices that Nayra always ges­tures in front of her when talk­ing about the past, and behind her when talk­ing about the future. To explain this, she says, The past is right in front of us, where we can see it. It’s the future we can’t see.” This is at a point in the book where there are so many unknowns for Orly, in the same way there are so many unknowns for all of us. How would you describe Orly’s rela­tion­ship to the unknown? How would you describe your own?

  15. One of the book’s epigraphs comes from Edwidge Dan­ti­cat, who said, Re-cre­at­ing your entire life is a form of rein­ven­tion on par with the great­est works of lit­er­a­ture.” How does this relate to the sto­ry of Exile Music? How does it relate to refugees all over the world? How do you feel about that assertion?