May 16, 2017

Inspired by Neville Frankel’s per­son­al fam­i­ly his­to­ry, On the Sick­le’s Edge is a mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional Jew­ish fam­i­ly saga, told through the voic­es of three com­pelling char­ac­ters: the endear­ing, scrap­py South-African born Lena, trans­port­ed to Latvia and lat­er trapped in the USSR; her grand­daugh­ter Darya, a true Com­mu­nist believ­er whose grow­ing dis­il­lu­sion­ment with Sovi­et ide­ol­o­gy places her fam­i­ly at risk; and Steven, a painter from Boston who inad­ver­tent­ly stum­bles into the com­plex web of his fam­i­ly’s past. On the Sick­le’s Edge is a nov­el of assim­i­la­tion, resilience, and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty. An his­tor­i­cal nov­el, polit­i­cal thriller, and love sto­ry, it is steeped in Russ­ian his­to­ry and Jew­ish heritage.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Neville Frankel

  • What is the effect of reveal­ing the sto­ry through the nar­ra­tive of mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters? Did you relate to one of the nar­ra­tors more than others?

  • Many of the char­ac­ters suf­fer great loss­es. How do these loss­es impact their world­view and actions over the course of the story?

  • To some extent, we are all shaped by the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic times in which we live. In what way do polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and social cir­cum­stances affect the lives and iden­ti­ty of the three prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters in the book — Lena, Darya and Steven?

  • A key theme is the secrets var­i­ous char­ac­ters keep. What are the con­se­quences — for each indi­vid­ual, their descen­dants and loved ones — of keep­ing secrets? Of reveal­ing them?

  • How does the mys­te­ri­ous teapot become a metaphor for the secrets passed from one gen­er­a­tion to anoth­er? What is Steven’s role in sav­ing the teapot from destruc­tion? Giv­en his char­ac­ter, in what ways is that an appro­pri­ate role for him to play?

  • Art and paint­ing fig­ure promi­nent­ly in the sto­ry, espe­cial­ly in the lives of Lena, Vasi­ly and Steven. How does art man­i­fest itself as a sav­ing grace in the lives of these char­ac­ters? Are there times when art fails to pro­vide them a refuge?

  • This book has been called a fem­i­nist nov­el” because of its many strong female char­ac­ters. Do you agree? Why or why not?

  • Lena says, Boys want to grow up to be heroes. Girls want to grow up to be care­givers.” In what ways do the char­ac­ters in the book adhere to or devi­ate from these gen­der roles? In your own life expe­ri­ence, is this true? How so?

  • is some­times regard­ed as a com­ing of age sto­ry” in the case of the char­ac­ter, Steven Green. What events in the book push Steven to evolve? When he goes to Rus­sia to res­cue Darya and her chil­dren, what are the rea­sons that moti­vate him to act?
  • On the Sickle’s Edge

  • We learn a great deal from fam­i­ly let­ters in the book. Is this nar­ra­tive device effec­tive? Why or why not?

  • Do you think Esther’s deci­sion to change their family’s iden­ti­ty was a wise one? Why or why not?

  • Why does Lena’s daugh­ter, Klara, run away from home? Could this have been avoid­ed? How does Lena’s expe­ri­ence with her daugh­ter impact the way she rais­es her grand­daugh­ter Darya?

  • Explore the inter­play between Darya’s roman­tic rela­tion­ships and her sense of self. Why is she ini­tial­ly attract­ed to Grig­o­ry Yanov? What dri­ves her to final­ly see him for what he is? Why did she wait so long to leave Rus­sia — and once safe­ly in the U.S., why does Darya hes­i­tate to pur­sue her romance with Steven?

  • After emi­grat­ing to the U.S., Lena says she thinks hav­ing too much free­dom makes peo­ple slop­py.” What does she mean by that? Do you agree?

  • What scenes were most vivid or mov­ing for you?

  • Sev­er­al char­ac­ters must make deci­sions that could put them­selves or their loved ones at risk: Esther and Isaak con­ceal­ing their family’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty; Darya betray­ing her hus­band; Niko­lai liv­ing as a gay man in the Sovi­et Union. What oth­er exam­ples did you notice? How would you have respond­ed in their situation?

  • Did the book give you a bet­ter under­stand­ing of life in 20th-cen­tu­ry Rus­sia and the Sovi­et Union? Life in late 19th cen­tu­ry Latvia? In what ways?

  • What will you remem­ber most about ? Do any of the themes in the book have rel­e­vance today? Why or why not?