Thursday, January 19, 2012

Resistance by Owen Sheers: Book Club Facilitating Notes

1. Book summary and comments by Owen Sheers on Resistance.
2. Poem: Not Yet My Mother
3. Owen Sheers Biography and Bibliography
4. Discussion Questions, with concordance to relevant quotes
5. More Discussion Questions
6. List of Characters and Concordance to the book (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday edition; 2008)

1. Book summary and comments by Owen Sheers on Resistance

I was privileged to hear Owen Sheers speak at the Hay Festival in Cartagena in 2011. His book, Resistance, published in 2007, has just been made into a film, apparently scheduled to open in the UK on November 25, 2011.

Staying true to the advice offered to every author, Sheers has written a story about what he knows: a landscape and the people of a secluded valley in the Welsh countryside. What he creates is the story is an alternative reality: an account of how a successful German invasion of England might have unfolded.

The inspiration for the story came from a real life valley neighbour who confirmed that he had been recruited for the "Auxiliary Units" that would have constituted an underground civilian resistance force in case of a German invasion and occupation.

The story is told in the voice of Sarah, a 26-year-old sheep farmer's wife, who wakes up one morning and finds that her husband is gone. The husbands of all the women in the valley are missing. The understanding that their men have been involved in some sort of secret war effort comes as a shock, as well as the realization that they must now fend for themselves and manage their farms and families on their own.

A German patrol arrives in the valley, on a special mission that is not revealed for most of the book. When a severe winter forces the two groups into co-operation, a fragile mutual dependency develops. The group commander, Albrecht Wolfram, provides a counterpoint voice and alternative perception of the situation. Gradually Albrecht takes over as the main narrator and the reader is gently lulled into the illusion that his perceptions accurately reflect the dynamics of the German soldiers' relationship to the valley women. As the war beyond presses in on them, the valley’s delicate state of harmony is increasingly threatened.

Historically, the winter of 1947 was especially harsh. Sheers laughingly admits that he transposed the records about survival during that winter into the year 1944, to fit the purposes of his story. The women and the German soldiers are trapped in the isolated valley, and this inability to escape is what forces the story to its logical, emotional, and thematic climax. Personal resistance is about what we are willing to sacrifice, and how through this sacrifice we are ultimately true to ourselves.

The resistance is that of the civil forces, ideological resistance, and resistance of the heart. Sarah has steeled herself to "do the right thing," but she wins the sympathy of the readers, who want her to do "the wrong thing." The ending of the book is left deliberately ambiguous, although Sheers himself says that he has no doubts about how it ends.

Sheers worked closely with screenwriter Alan Gupta to develop the script for the film, a process he likens to a marriage, which he describes as a "prolonged period of mutual gentle criticism." Whereas many authors express deep dissatisfaction with the film adaptations of their books, Sheers is pragmatic. His book is safe from change, he notes; the film is an opportunity to change and experiment. He has not yet seen the final product, but he expresses the hope that it will retain the voice of the novel. The process of working on the screenplay may him rethink the elements that make up the heart of the novel. He stresses that these are the things that must be retained; other things can change.
Sheers acknowledges that novel writing and screenwriting are disciplines that require dedicating blocks of time. Poetry, his primary vocation, can be written in smaller snatches, he says.

In response to a question about dealing with writer's block, he defends these false starts as a necessary part of the process, likening them to a rocket launch in which you have to jettison the burnt out earlier stages in order to get to the place where you need to be.

2. Sheers ended his presentation by reading one of his poems:

Not Yet My Mother

Yesterday I found a photo
of you at seventeen,
holding a horse and smiling,
not yet my mother.

The tight riding hat hid your hair,
and your legs were still the long shins of a boy's.
You held the horse by the halter,
your hand a fist under its huge jaw.

The blown trees were still in the background
and the sky was grained by the old film stock,
but what caught me was your face,
which was mine.

And I thought, just for a second, that you were me.
But then I saw the woman's jacket,
nipped at the waist, the ballooned jodhpurs,
and of course the date, scratched in the corner.

All of which told me again,
that this was you at seventeen, holding a horse
and smiling, not yet my mother,
although I was clearly already your child.

3. Owen Sheers Biography and Bibliography (Taken from Wikipedia)

Owen Sheers was born in Suva, Fiji in 1974 and brought up in Abergavenny, South Wales. He was educated at King Henry VIII comprehensive school, Abergavenny, New College, Oxford, and at the University of East Anglia where he did an MA in Creative Writing.

The winner of an Eric Gregory Award and the 1999 Vogue Young Writer’s Award, his first collection of poetry, The Blue Book (Seren, 2000) was short-listed for the Wales Book of the Year and the Forward Poetry Prize Best 1st Collection, 2001. His debut prose work The Dust Diaries (Faber 2004), a non-fiction narrative set in Zimbabwe, was short-listed for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize and won the Wales Book of the Year 2005.

In 2004 Owen was Writer in Residence at The Wordsworth Trust and was selected as one of the Poetry Book Society’s 20 Next Generation Poets. Owen’s 2nd collection of poetry, Skirrid Hill (Seren, 2005) won a 2006 Somerset Maugham Award. 'Unicorns, almost' his one man play based on the life and poetry of the WWII poet Keith Douglas was developed by Old Vic, New Voices.

Owen’s first novel, Resistance' (UK Faber, 2007/ US Nan Talese/Doubleday 2008) has been translated into ten languages and was short listed for the Writer's Guild of Great Britain Best Book Award 2008 and won a 2008 Hospital Club Creative Award. The film of this novel, which Owen co-wrote, is due to go into production in Autumn 2010. In 2007 Owen collaborated with composer Rachel Portman onThe Water Diviner’s Tale, an oratorio for children which was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms. In 2007/8 Owen was a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library.

In 2009 Owen published the novella 'White Ravens', a contemporary response to the myth of Branwen Daughter of Llyr, written as part of Seren's series of 'New Stories from the Mabinogion. He also published an anthology of British landscape poetry to accompany his TV series of the same title, 'A Poet's Guide to Britain.

Owen has also written journalism and reportage for Granta, The Guardian, Esquire, GQ, The Times, The Financial Times, and a play for BBC Radio 4 about the WWII poet Alun Lewis, 'If I Should Go Away'.

In 2011, Owen wrote the script and novelisation of The Passion for National Theatre Wales and WildWorks.

He will also be partaking in the Bush Theatre's 2011 project Sixty Six where he has written a piece based upon a chapter of the King James Bible.

Actor & TV Presenter
He has played Wilfred Owen on stage and has presented arts programmes for BBC Wales.

In 2009 he wrote and presented the BBC 4 series about poetry and the British landscape, A Poet's Guide to Britain.

He has also presented 'The Art of the Sea' for BBC 4 and several programmes for BBC Radio 3 and 4.

In 2008 he presented two episodes of BBC Radio 4's 'Open Book' programme.

Awards and honours
1999 Vogue Young Writer’s Award
1999 Eric Gregory Award
2000 short-listed for the Wales Book of the Year (for The Blue Book)
2001 short-listed for Forward Poetry Prize Best 1st Collection
2005 Wales Book of the Year (for The Dust Diaries)
2006 Somerset Maugham Award (for Skirrid Hill)
2008 Hospital Club Creative Award (for Resistance)
2008 short-listed for Writers' Guild Best Book Award for Resistance

The Blue Book (2000) poetry
The Dust Diaries (2004), a travel memoir through Zimbabwe, following the life of his great great uncle Arthur Shearly Cripps (Welsh Book of the Year)
Skirrid Hill (2005) (Somerset Maugham Award) poetry
Resistance (2007), His first novel, published by Faber & Faber (Hospital Club Creative Award)
White Ravens (2009), The second novella in Seren Books' 'New Stories From The Mabinogion' series
A Poet's Guide to Britain (2009) poetry anthology

4. Discussion Questions, with concordance to relevant quotes

The ending
1. How do you think the story ends? Does Sarah meet up with Albrecht? p.251

2. Sarah writes the date of her death in the family bible. What does this mean? p. 255

3. What happens to the women in the valley? p.79, 140

Narrators and perspective
4. Whose voice narrates most of the story?

5. Who do you identify with most in the book? Sara, Maggie, Albrecht?

6. Why does Albrecht's voice seduce us into believing his version?

7. What does Albrecht believe? (About his role in relation to his men, about the women, about Sarah). Albrecht makes a number of assumptions about things he believes he knows, not all of which turn out to be correct.
Albrecht quotes Landor: "More people are good because they are happy than happy because they are good." p. 206. Is Albrecht good?

8. What does Sarah believe? (About Tom, about Albrecht, about her likely fate)

9. What does Maggie believe?

10. How do the local people feel about the resistance movement? Are they like sheep? P.157 What about George?
The local people's rejection of both the resistance fighter and collaborators.P.223, 229 History of the Welsh king and his underground army.

11. How is the advice in Sarah's school certificate followed or not followed in the story? p. 115-116

Some Themes

Resistance and fidelity
Love of land and country, love and hate of nations, love and suspicion among people, fear and war and common decency.


The Sheep
Giving up
The rejection of the newborn lamb
Introducing the dogs, so that the instinct to protect their own kind will kick in.

Maps, representing an understanding of the world. The geography of the valley.

Putting on clothing to assume a new role.

5. More Discussion Questions

BookBrowse Reading Guide

1. Discuss the ways in which the very specific landscape and setting of the novel not only allows the isolationist plot to develop but also lends the narrative both an important historical and thematic context.

2. To whom or to what does the novel's title, Resistance, apply?

3. To what extent does Albrecht fulfill the literary figure of the “Good German?” Is he, in fact, a “good” man? p. 206

4. What does the development of Sarah's diary entries to Tom tell us about her personal development across the arc of the novel? p. 68, 188, 214, 251

5. Towards the end of the novel Bethan thinks to herself “better by far to live in the truth and know it, however bad it might be, than hide yourself away behind ignorance and habit.” Don't some of the characters prove otherwise?

6. Two particularly striking “hinge” scenes in the book are the playing of a Bach cello suite and the shooting of a horse. What are the overall significance of these scenes within the book as a whole?

7. Who or what is George aiming at in his final scene in the book?

8. Is Maggie a collaborator or a defender of her way of life and the other women?

9. Discuss the significance of the quotations used to lead into each of the three parts of the novel.

10. The German invasion of Britain was a very real threat during the early part of World War II in 1940/41. Does Sheers’ re-imagining of the invasion in 1944 seem believable? Why do you think Sheers chooses to set his invasion in 1944, as opposed to the more likely 1941?

11. What do you know about the real Resistance movement in Britain?

12. To what extent is Resistance an anti-war novel?

6. List of Characters and Concordance to the book (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday edition; 2008)


Sarah Lewis, 26. M to Tom for four years. No family. Mother died two years ago.
"The scared, feral young wife, wearing her husband's clothes."

Maggie Jones. M to William for 30 years. Eldest son killed in war.
"The old, stubborn one."

Mary Griffiths. M to Hywell. Middle aged. Fragile. Two sons at war. Daughter Bethan.
"The worn, worried-looking one."

Menna Probert. M. to Jack. Tudor-3, Emma-1. Simple, illiterate.
"The ignorant, confused young mother."

Edith at The Gaer. Lost husband to accident, son to training accident.

George Bowen – recruited for intel
Tommy Atkins – hates recruiting, "Too much like fattening lambs for slaughter." P. 18

Cap. Albrecht Wolfram, 33. Four years at war. He's tired. Studied medieval history and literature in Oxford, London before war. Thesis 13th century Ebstorf World Map. P.148

Steiner – young radio operator

Sebald – experienced older medic

Alex Klepper – young but experienced soldier

Pvt Otto Mann – small, slight, broken by the experience of killing so many men with the machine gun.

Pvt Gernot Ehrhardt – young, easy laugh

Part I Sep-Nov 1944

Sarah confused at her husband's absence.
p. 11 Maggie immediately understands what is going on.
p. 22 Albrecht notices human details about his men. He is tired and wants to go back but he is being sent forward.
p.23 he is a respected troop leader
p.38 the valley experienced a Passover that took their men.
p.45 Since their husbands had kept their involvement in the underground secret, the wives resolve not to tell too
p.68 Sarah doesn't want to let herself stop missing Tom.
p.70 November. Albecht and the patrol arrive. Expect that they will be staying a week or two.
p.77 The great "of course" of National Socialism… on course.
Sarah goes back to reading at night
Albrecht delighted in the books at Oxford.
p.79 Resistance groups rarely operated near their own homes.
Eventually the women will be sacrificed. "It was always bound to happen as soon as their husbands left them." Albrecht blames the husbands for the wives' eventual fate.
p.81 Shrapnel hit Alrecht's nose, can't taste or smell
p.82 He's looking for a map. He wants the war to end, to stop being a soldier.

Part II Nov 1944 – Mar 1945

p.91 Maggie goes to visit Albrecht to lay down the "terms of coexistence," like two generals. She really wants to know if he knows anything about the men.
p.94 Albrecht starts walking for his health (parallel to Sarah's discomfort while walking to Maggie's)
p.99 Steiner spying on Sarah. Albrecht intervenes. Stops rape before it happens. Seeking to recover his humanity.
p.100 Although he doubts he can stop the course of war and its consequences.
p.107 Atkins has been caught.
p.110 The snowstorm that buries the sheep. Albrecht and Alex arrive to help dig them out.
p.112 Sarah understands how the sheep could let themselves give up and die gently.
p.117 In the kitchen Albrecht asks her about the family names in the bible and tells her his family name. Sarah doesn't want to know anything about him. Alex thinks it is inappropriate.
p.119 Sheep give up too easily.
p.120 The valley is cut off by winter, no visitors, no radio.
p.124-28 Sarah and the poet.
The story of the Welsh king and his army hiding underground like the insurgents and their bunkers.
p.132 Sarah remembers making love to Tom but conjures Albrecht's face.
p.133 Albrecht has already decided that he and the men would not leave
Sends the men to work on the farms to keep them from getting bored, from asking questions.
Sebald - Maggie
Silent Otto – Edith, both fractured souls
Albrecht and Alex – Sarah
Gernot and Steiner – Mary and Menna
Discover Bethan
"What else could the women be hiding?"
p.135 Edith accepts Otto as replacement for her son.
"If this was going to work at all, it had to look as natural as possible, a consequence of the vagaries of war."
p.137-8 Albrecht's lie. Although their mission was already complete "they were to remain in the area as a temporary observational outpost. They were to await further instructions."
p.139 Sarah doesn't understand why Maggie agrees to Albrecht's plan. Sarah says she doesn't need help. Mary calls it treason. Maggie needs help.
p.140 Under protocol of warfare, the women would be taken hostage because their husbands are insurgents.
p.141 Coping. Germans self-sufficient at The Court, Gernot cooks
Alex helps Maggie with the milking
Edith moved to Maggie's
Mary reading Bible
Bethan helping Menna, aware of wasting youth, fascinated by Gernot
p.142 Maggie's two objectives: "to continue as they always had and to keep the women of the valley alive, both physically and mentally."
She feels that William is not coming back.
Sarah still believes Tom will return, and she resists accepting help.
But she thinks of the Germans and wishes they would appear for Christmas.
p.145 No mail. Radio only communication. Slowly revealing the end of war, although BBC still broadcasting
p.146 life results from "alternative tipping of countless moments of chance."
Allies' elaborate deception plan, cardboard and inflatable army in Dover facing Calais, when real target was Normandy
p.150-51 Sebald tells Albrecht about Hermann, the doctor who killed himself rather than follow the order to kill the patients. Moral: his duty is to his men.
p.152 Albrecht tells them his duty is to them, they will not rejoin war
p.155 Albrecht meets George delivering post. Writes "deceased, return to sender on them." Burns his own men's letters. George relays report of man who looks like William being dead.
p. 157 desire for peace, safety vs. freedom from the Nazis
p. 161 Albrecht: "Well, maybe that's just what we are, Mrs. Jones" he'd said, "all of us here. Refugees." Her look had cut him dead. "Oh no, Captain Wolfram," she'd said, all humour pared from her tone. "This is our home. This is where we live. We're not refugees from anything, an' don't you forget that."
p.163 Spring has come and Albrecht finds himself thinking of Sarah every day.
Brings her music: Bach – The Allemand. She is offended. Asks why he doesn't leave, why they came there in the first place.
He takes her to the cave where the Hereford Mappa Mundi is hidden, that Himmler wanted for his private treasure collection.
p.172 The English hid treasures from the bombings
p.174 Atkins escapes, makes it to the valley, mistakes the German for farmers

April – Jun 1945

*p.184 "The instinct of a ewe to protect one of its kind, the instinct that would force them, against the weight of all the years of war, to recognize their shared humanity."
p.187 Mary sends Bethan to her cousin's in Hay.
p.188 Sins of omission. Sarah writes to Tom but omits details of how the Germans are part of their lives. Leaves her feeling unfaithful, but better some words than none at all.
p.197 Dependence between the patrol and the women has its own rhythm and meter. Men washed up on their doorsteps.
p.195 Sarah's offer to show him the ruins at Landor gives him some hope.
p.201 disappointed that the house is a ruin
Sarah explains the history of the area. She doesn't want to appear ignorant. Albrecht has already read more about it at The Court.
p.204 Sarah still believes Tom will come back.
p.206 Albrecht no longer feels Germany is his home.
Quotes Landor: "More people are good because they are happy than happy because they are good."
p.210 Maggie wants to show the colt at the fair because this is what Will would have wanted.
p.214 Sarah running out of room in her ledger, and she knows she'll stop writing soon.
p.216 Albrecht allows Maggie to go to the fair because he recognizes fair permission as a sign of stability.
p.223 At fair Edna indirectly confirms fate of the insurgents "those lot had it coming anyway."
George figures out that the women are with the German and begins to spread the truth/rumor.
p.225 Sarah realizes that Tom is not coming back.
p.229 Part of George's assignment is to kill collaborators to send a message to the people. He harbours hope that the UK can rise up again, and he wants to play a part because he feels that he has been useless.
George shoots the colt.
p.236 Albrecht decides he's not going back and he's taking Sarah with him.
Gernot ordered to guard Mary and Menna. Mary orders him out. He decides to take Bethan's pony and find out who shot the colt. Gernot falls off pony, dislocates hip.
p.242 In Hay Bethan's cousin Eve was raped by two soldiers.
Bethan is disgusted by the tolerant behavior of the women in the valley.
Bethan leaves Gernot lying there.
p.248 Steiner has radioed out. The Gestapo will come.
Sarah refuses to leave at first, but Albrecht is right, there is nothing to stay for.
He asks her to go with him, West to the coast, to Ireland then America.
She says she'll go.
p.250 She says she'll bring him some of Tom's clothes because William's would not fit him.
He cannot stay; the patrol will be there soon.
To meet at Landor's ruin.
p.251 Sarah packs the accounts book, her pen, her wedding photograph, a book of matches.
Sarah resolved to go "She didn’t want to be left any longer, so she was going."
p.253 She sets fire to the Mappa Mundi
p.255 "The belief and the looking. These were all that were left now…"
Sarah has written her death date in the family Bible.

Sally with Owen Sheers at the Hay Festival, Cartagena 2011.

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