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Welcome to the February edition of the HerKentucky Book Club!
This month's book, Fred Minnick's Whiskey Women, was absolutely fascinating to me! The history of women as distillers and marketers and merchants was so richly constructed by Mr. Minnick, and, of course, I loved the way that Kentucky bourbon played such a huge role in the conversation!
Here are our book club questions for the month. Feel free to answer in the comments below, and raise any other discussion you'd like!
1. In a weird way, I felt that, if I had to distill (pardon the pun!) the theme of the book down to one word, it would be comfort. The earliest distillers were making concoctions intended to heal. Kate Kearney nourished people with her poitín during the Irish famine. A hundred years later, moonshiner Maggie Bailey of Harlan County offered beans and cornbread to her customers, just like any other Appalachian lady would. Bessie Williamson nurtured her Laphroaig distillery family and was a beloved philanthropist. In one way or another, so many of the whiskey women offered warmth and comfort. Did you see comfort shining through as the main theme of the work? What word would you use to describe the whiskey women?
2. I once had the opportunity to interview Peggy Noe Stevens, whom Mr. Minnick references frequently in the book, about her Bourbon Women association. Her words stood out to me that, for years, only fruity cocktails or wine were considered "appropriate" drinks for women, and that female bourbon drinkers really only resurged in the early 21st century. I was kind of fascinated to see the way that 20th century viewpoints about alcohol -- from the woman-led temperance movement to the female distillery work during WWII to the sexist attitudes toward women in alcohol advertising and women working as bartenders -- seemed to regress in the second half of the twentieth century. In your experience, has it been considered "unladylike" or otherwise unseemly for women to drink whiskey?
3. Were you familiar with the stories of Margie Samuels' contributions to Maker's Mark? I feel that the Maker's Mark Distillery Tour does a great job of discussing Mrs. Samuels' influence on the product marketing. What did you think of Heaven Hill's Kate Shapira Latts' claims that women are inherently better suited to whiskey PR and marketing than men?
4. As a Kentuckian, I've always envisioned a huge geographical dividing line between the white whiskey of the mountains and the brown spirits of Central Kentucky. Moonshine represents the hardscrabble way of life we often associate with Appalachia, while bourbon tends to have a little more refined and history. I grew up hearing stories of my great-grandmother being assigned a shift to watch the family moonshine still when she was 8 years old. What is your family's history with spirits?
5. I feel that, since Whiskey Women's 2013 publication, there are even more high-profile women in bourbon roles. Woodford Reserve has a female master taster, Elizabeth O'Neill. Marianne Barnes is Master Distiller for the revival of the Old Taylor Distillery. Do you feel like the bourbon glass ceiling is shattering as the spirit enjoys renewed popularity?
Thanks for reading along, y'all. March's book is The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett.
Thanks to everyone who's been reading along with The Undertaker's Daughter by Kate Mayfield! Two weeks ago, we talked about the Kentucky themes in the novel. Today, I thought I'd share the Simon & Schuster Reading Group Questions, to get your opinions on these themes. If you're new to the Book Club, please feel free to refer back to the first post, and we'd love to hear your comments on both sets of questions!
1. In what way does the prologue story of the bridge game set the tone for the book? What themes are foreshadowed here? Discuss specific examples and how they relate to later scenes.
2. On page 14, Kate contrasts her father’s appearance and comportment with the stereotypical view of “mortician” or “undertaker.” What images do those words conjure up for you? Did Kate’s father live up to your expectations? Why or why not? Can you imagine yourself in that profession?
3. Discuss Kate’s descriptions of her father’s reverence for death, the dead, and the paraphernalia of death. When did this reverence cross the line to affect his family? In what ways was Frank both selfless and selfish in the sacrifices he made for his business?
4. On page 24, Kate describes a typical family dinner, at which she was admonished not to talk about death at the table, even as her parents “spoke of nothing else.” How was death a taboo in Kate’s family, even as it permeated all aspects of their lives? What other taboos were there among the Mayfields and in the town of Jubilee? What are Kate’s contributions to these secrets, and how do they later lead her to feel as if she is “two people” (page 249)? Are there any ways in which you similarly lead a secret life?
5. Kate experiences funerals from evolving vantage points as she grows up, beginning with her secret perch on the stairs, and later as the organist. Describe the things Kate notices most at different points in her life. What details stand out to you from funerals you’ve attended? What is the main reason Kate agrees to fill in as the organist?
6. Much of what Kate knows about her father’s secrets she learns from family members, friends, and, later, historical records. Why doesn’t Kate simply ask her father these questions? What is the reason Kate eventually learns her father chose his profession? What other events impacted his choice?
7. Kate had several hiding places while growing up. Describe these getaways. What was the most unusual, and why was that her favorite? Share your own secret getaways as a child and why they were important to you.
8. Kate describes only one close childhood friend, a girl named Jo who moves in two doors down from the Mayfield funeral home one summer during their early teens. Why are she and Jo are drawn to each other? How is Jo different from other girls in town? What deeper secrets do we later learn Kate and Jo share? Why does Kate feel she is closer to Jo than to her own siblings?
9. How does the “business of death” (page 43) differ from how we experience death as mourners? How is this underscored by Frank’s description of the different views people have on selecting a casket? How is money sometimes just as much a taboo as death?
10. Frank spends “thirteen years toing and froing” (page 94) Miss Agnes around town, taking her meals on holidays, and seeking her counsel. What effect does this relationship have on the Mayfield family? Why does Lily Tate agree to their arrangement? How does Miss Agnes help Frank’s business, particularly concerning the Old Clan? Why do you think Miss Agnes chose to develop a special relationship with Kate, out of all the Mayfield children?
11. Kate weaves stories of the lives and deaths of the townspeople of Jubilee into her memoir. How do these stories contribute to the flow of the book and our understanding of Kate’s experiences with death? Which one evoked the strongest feelings for you? Choose your favorite of these stories and share the reasons why with your group.
12. The strong reaction to desegregation displayed by adults in her life was incomprehensible to young Kate. Discuss the differences between how blacks and whites in Jubilee lived, died, and grieved. What were the consequences of the intersection of these two worlds? Identify some of the ways that both Frank and Kate cross over this line.
13. Kate first feels the contrast between the smallness of Jubilee and the “great expanse of America” (page 175) during a family trip to the beach. How does Kate’s desire for the freedom of a larger world manifest? Revisit the afternoon where Kate and Jo discover the musician Charles Mingus (page 209). How does this experience solidify Kate’s idea that she might visit or even live in a place far different from Jubilee?
14. On page 274, Kate calls the funeral business “the most segregated business in Jubilee and in the whole of the South.” Do you agree with this claim? Why or why not? Identify other social institutions that Kate observes as heavily segregated in Jubilee during her time there.
February's book club selection will be Whiskey Women by Fred Minnick!