Prairie Sonata

September 1, 2020

Prairie Sonata is a sto­ry of jour­neys. It’s told from the per­spec­tive of a woman look­ing back at her­self when she was a young adult and fol­lows her pas­sage from inno­cence to experience.

Mira Adler grows up in post-World War II Cana­da, in a close-knit com­mu­ni­ty found­ed by sec­u­lar East­ern Euro­pean Jews. The heart of her jour­ney is her friend­ship with her Yid­dish and vio­lin teacher, Chaver B, a recent immi­grant from Prague who is mys­te­ri­ous and intrigu­ing and who Mira believes har­bors a secret that seems to be woven into every fiber of his being.

Lit­tle by lit­tle, Mira chips away at Chaver B’s past. What she learns out­rages and sad­dens her, yet she can­not stop her­self from uncov­er­ing the truth about his life. And despite what she learns about Chaver B, her­self, and the world around her, when she is old­er, Mira yearns for the chance to go back to her childhood.

Rich­ly tex­tured and lyri­cal­ly writ­ten, Prairie Sonata is a com­ing-of-age sto­ry about music, love, friend­ship, com­mu­ni­ty, and religion.

Prairie Sonata received a Starred Kirkus Review that called it a com­pelling work…poignant and elo­quent”. It is the win­ner of the Inde­pen­dent Press Award for Best Fic­tion and has been named a Dis­tin­guished Favorite by the New York City Big Book Award.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Sandy She­frin Rabin

  1. Prairie Sonata is in part a com­ing-of-age sto­ry. Dis­cuss in gen­er­al Mira’s pas­sage from inno­cence to experience.

  2. When Chaver B is first intro­duced to Mira’s class, she imme­di­ate­ly views him as an intrigu­ing and mys­te­ri­ous char­ac­ter. She spends at least the first half of the nov­el try­ing to fig­ure out who the real” Chaver B is. Who do you think the real” Chaver B is? Dis­cuss the var­i­ous facets of his per­son­al­i­ty. How do forces through­out our lives change who we are and what we lat­er become? How does this relate to oth­er char­ac­ters in the novel?

  3. Chaver B is a com­plex indi­vid­ual, and like Mira, he is also on a jour­ney. Dur­ing one of the vio­lin lessons, he teach­es Mira about the sonata form. Mira believes that the sonata form is a metaphor for his life. Do you agree? If so, dis­cuss how Chaver B’s life fol­lows the sonata pat­tern. Does Mira’s per­son­al jour­ney from inno­cence to expe­ri­ence also fol­low the pat­tern of a sonata? If you were to divide the book into the parts of a sonata, where would you start each section?

  4. The idea of Sur­vival of the Fittest is a bio­log­i­cal term that orig­i­nat­ed from Darwin’s the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion, but which was actu­al­ly coined by Her­bert Spencer, a biol­o­gist and anthro­pol­o­gist, in ref­er­ence to Darwin’s the­o­ry of nat­ur­al selec­tion. Mira first uses this term in ref­er­ence to her teach­ers, Mrs. Pirsnan­sky and Mrs. Camp­bell. Dis­cuss oth­er char­ac­ters to whom this term would apply.

  5. Most peo­ple who were deport­ed to the con­cen­tra­tion camps in World War II died there, either in the gas cham­bers, from dis­ease, mal­nu­tri­tion, abuse, or some­times at their own hands. Why did some sur­vive? Was it because of luck, because of their wits, on pure deter­mi­na­tion, or because of some­thing else? Why do you think Chaver B sur­vived? Dis­cuss Chaver B’s ambiva­lent feel­ings towards the vio­lin in rela­tion to this question.

  6. After World War I, we said sol­diers suf­fered from shell shock. After World War II, we called it bat­tle fatigue. Nowa­days, we refer to vet­er­ans who have trou­ble read­just­ing after return­ing from war as suf­fer­ing from Post Trau­mat­ic Stress Dis­or­der. In fact, it is now acknowl­edged that many peo­ple today, not just vet­er­ans, are suf­fer­ing from PTSD relat­ed to var­i­ous per­son­al trau­mas. We could say that Chaver B suf­fered from PTSD, too. Why are some peo­ple bet­ter able to cope with tragedy and move on with their lives, while oth­ers are not? In regards to the Holo­caust, why did some sur­vivors seem­ing­ly learn to live again,” while oth­ers were bare­ly able to sur­vive? The char­ac­ter, Mr. Naz­er­man in The Pawn­bro­ker, is a clas­sic exam­ple of the lat­ter, while Elie Wiesel would exem­pli­fy the for­mer. For those who learned to live again, was their hap­pi­ness only a façade? Can any­one tru­ly extri­cate them­selves from their past?

  7. Music is an inte­gral ele­ment of the book and at times becomes its own char­ac­ter. Chaver B imbues the pieces that he teach­es Mira with per­son­al qual­i­ties. Mira uses music to define her world. Apart from the sonata metaphor, dis­cuss how music shapes the novel.

  8. In the last year or two, there has been much dis­cus­sion about how music sus­tained peo­ple in the ghet­tos and in the camps. The Vio­lins of Hope” project and oth­er works seemed to empha­size the sus­tain­ing and heal­ing pow­er of music. Do you agree that music sym­bol­ized hope for the vic­tims and Chaver B? What were his views on the role music played in the camps?

  9. A major les­son Mira learns while grow­ing up is that one should stand up for one’s beliefs. Dis­cuss the var­i­ous instances where Mira learns this les­son and how it is rein­forced through­out the nov­el. Does Mira demon­strate what she has learned, or per­haps you may feel that she has not lived up to her own expectations?

  10. The hol­i­day Purim looms large in the book. It brings togeth­er some of the themes that are woven through­out the nov­el. Dis­cuss Purim in rela­tion to these themes, to Mira, and to Chaver B.

  11. Both Chaver B and Mira had seem­ing­ly safe and secure child­hoods, but then are con­front­ed with the evil that exists in soci­ety. One of the tenets of kashrus is that Jew­ish peo­ple eat meat only from ani­mals with split hooves. This is to be a dai­ly reminder that each of us has the abil­i­ty to choose between good and evil. Chaver B’s aware­ness of the mag­ni­tude of evil in the world came on quick­ly and with great force in the shape of the rapid rise of Nazism. Mira’s grow­ing aware­ness was more sub­tle and insid­i­ous. Dis­cuss how over time, Mira becomes aware of the evil that lurks in her com­mu­ni­ty close to home and her reac­tion to how peo­ple make their choic­es between right and wrong.

  12. The beau­ty of Judaism is that there is no one way to be Jew­ish,” and yet we are con­nect­ed across gen­er­a­tions by an invis­i­ble thread. Some peo­ple remain stead­fast in their reli­gious beliefs through­out their lives, but many ques­tion the val­ue of reli­gion and the exis­tence of God. Mira grows up in a house­hold where her moth­er believes in God but her father doesn’t. Although she attends a Jew­ish school, it is a sec­u­lar school that teach­es about Jew­ish his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture, and tra­di­tions; there is lit­tle empha­sis on prayers and rit­u­als. She learns pri­mar­i­ly Yid­dish, the lan­guage of the com­mon man, not Hebrew, the lan­guage of the Bible. Dis­cuss how Mira’s reli­gious beliefs evolve and what she ulti­mate­ly comes to believe as an adult.

  13. The author devotes an entire chap­ter to para­dox­es. What oth­er para­dox­es do you see in the world?

  14. Each chap­ter is pref­aced by a quote. Choose one quote and dis­cuss how it fore­shad­ows and high­lights events in that par­tic­u­lar chap­ter and how it relates to the nov­el as a whole.

  15. The nov­el is in some ways an homage to the Yid­dish lan­guage. Although many Yid­dish words have become incor­po­rat­ed into the North Amer­i­can Eng­lish lex­i­con, Yid­dish is almost a lan­guage with­out a coun­try, with the num­ber of Yid­dish speak­ers dras­ti­cal­ly reduced after the Holo­caust and in the decades since. Like Mira, the author attend­ed a sec­u­lar Yid­dish day school (but in the 1960s), the only one of its kind in North Amer­i­ca, and one of very few in the world at that time. But her school, Peretz School, closed its doors about twen­ty years lat­er. Although there is renewed inter­est in Yid­dish, it will like­ly nev­er reach even close to the stature it once held. Do you think Israel made a mis­take by its fail­ure to acknowl­edge Yid­dish as a lan­guage of the Jew­ish peo­ple when Israel became a state?

  16. The themes woven through­out Prairie Sonata are time­ly and time­less. As an adult Mira ques­tions if things ever change or if in fact there is noth­ing new under the sun”. Is that why the Bible remains as rel­e­vant today as when it was first writ­ten? What is your take on the conun­drum of change?

The fol­low­ing ques­tions are geared towards class­rooms but are appro­pri­ate for all dis­cus­sion groups:

  1. The nov­el is filled with descrip­tions of nature. These descrip­tions serve to pro­vide a set­ting for the sto­ry, but also have oth­er pur­pos­es. The chang­ing of the sea­sons marks the pas­sage of time as Mira grows up. The weath­er some­times par­al­lels the moods of the char­ac­ters. At oth­er times, it is seem­ing­ly at odds with what is occur­ring in the nov­el. Often, the land­scape and the nat­ur­al sur­round­ings become char­ac­ters in them­selves. Please choose at least one of the above, pro­vide exam­ples, and dis­cuss how the author employs her descrip­tions of nature to enhance the story.

  2. Moon imagery is used through­out the nov­el. The moon is described as being a sym­bol of light and renew­al. The Jew­ish cal­en­dar is a lunar cal­en­dar, and Mira refers to the Jew­ish hol­i­days as being gifts that the moon brings. At times, the char­ac­ters are com­pared to the Man in the Moon. Pro­vide spe­cif­ic exam­ples and discuss.

  3. Many peo­ple in Mira’s com­mu­ni­ty are depict­ed as being car­ing and lov­ing, regard­less of their reli­gion or faith. Dis­cuss the val­ue of com­mu­ni­ty as expressed in the novel.

  4. Dis­cuss Mira’s rela­tion­ship with her par­ents, her broth­er, Sam­my, her grand­par­ents, and oth­er char­ac­ters in the nov­el. What does she learn from each of them?

  5. Dis­cuss one aspect of the nov­el and how it relates to the world today.