5 reviews

Amaryllis in Blueberry
by Christina Meldrum

Published: 2011-02-08
Paperback : 368 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 2 of 5 members
In the stirring tradition of The Secret Life of Bees and The Poisonwood Bible, Amaryllis in Blueberry explores the complexity of human relationships set against an unforgettable backdrop. Told through the haunting voices of Dick and Seena Slepy and their four daughters, Christina ...
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In the stirring tradition of The Secret Life of Bees and The Poisonwood Bible, Amaryllis in Blueberry explores the complexity of human relationships set against an unforgettable backdrop. Told through the haunting voices of Dick and Seena Slepy and their four daughters, Christina Meldrum's soulful novel weaves together the past and the present of a family harmed--and healed--by buried secrets.

"Maybe, unlike hope, truth couldn't be contained in a jar..." 

Meet the Slepys: Dick, the stern doctor, the naive husband, a man devoted to both facts and faith; Seena, the storyteller, the restless wife,  a mother of four, a lover of myth.  And their children, the Marys:  Mary Grace, the devastating beauty; Mary Tessa, the insistent inquisitor; Mary Catherine, the saintly, lost soul; and finally, Amaryllis, Seena's unspoken favorite, born with the mystifying ability to sense the future, touch the past and distinguish the truth tellers from the most convincing liar of all.
When Dick insists his family move from Michigan to the unfamiliar world of Africa for missionary work, he can't possibly foresee how this new land and its people will entrance and change his daughters--and himself--forever.
Nor can he predict how Africa will spur his wife Seena toward an old but unforgotten obsession.   In fact, Seena may be falling into a trance of her own. . . .

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


West Africa
Dick is dead. Seena knows this, of course: her husband is dead.
Yet she keeps expecting him to barrel in, his enormous, gangling
self plodding along, a spectacle unaware that he is one.
Was one, she thinks. Was one. Still, she finds herself waiting for
him to call out, make some pointless point, make it clear to
everyone that he just doesn’t get it. She anticipates the annoyance
she so often would feel around him. She almost longs for
it—this longing he’d disappear, shut up, let her be. Because he
has disappeared, shut up, let her be. He is dust from dust. Ashes
from ashes. As dead as a doornail.
And she has the devil to pay.
Like Dick would say, “The devil take the hindmost.”
Dick’s moved on, and she’s left to pay. Alone.
Because he did get it, more than she did—she knows this.
But the recognition came only after the trigger was pulled, so
to speak, after the poison went flying, when it pierced his pale
chest, when it was long past too late. Now she understands she
was the spectacle unaware: she was the fool.
And she wonders, How can you live with someone for years—
know the softening ring around his still-thin waist, the changed texture of his graying stubble, the scent in the hollow beneath
his Adam’s apple—and see only your imagination reflected?
Seena is on trial in a village in West Africa, in a “customary
court.” The courthouse is the schoolhouse, transformed. The
village elders—one a witch doctor, one a queen—are her accusers,
judge and jury. She was indignant when she learned this,
sure it couldn’t be. She’s an American, she’d said. She’s entitled
to due process. “These customary courts, they must be illegal.
There are laws—aren’t there?—even here, even in this hell?”
But she’s a murderer, the elders said: she’s entitled to nothing.
“Our courts are based on our traditions, which are different
from yours. Americans think they alone make laws, but we
have our own rule.”
They have their own rule.
“Christina Slepy?” the witch doctor, this so called “wise
man,” says. He speaks to Seena, and watches her. Every person
in the crowded room watches her; she feels this. And she knows
if she were to look up at them, she would see only the whites of
their eyes, and perhaps a shock of color from clothes that now
seem mocking. They’ve told her the reasons women kill, and
they’ve told her no matter her reason, she had no right. Still,
they demand to know her reason, and she wonders which to
choose. Which would they believe, or not? Which would solicit
less loathing?
Even as she ponders these questions, she is aware she has no
idea what they would believe, or not—no idea of the seed of
their loathing, the fruit of their pity, whether they ever would
feel pity for her. This is a world of rules turned inside out, a
world where all she took for granted has been stripped away.
... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the author:

Amaryllis In Blueberry is told from the viewpoints of Seena, Dick, their four daughters, their neighbor Clara, and finally the priest Heimdall. How do the varied perspectives affect you as a reader? The final chapter is the only one told from Heimdall Amadi's perspective. Why do you suppose the author chose to give him the last word?

Consider how truth and reality are portrayed in the novel. What besides individual perspective contributes to each character's view of truth and reality?

What are your thoughts on the narrative structure of the novel, which begins with The End—Seena on trial for murder—and intertwines scenes from the past and present? How does knowing about Dick's death at the beginning of the novel affect your perception of him throughout the book? How does it affect your view of the other characters, particularly Seena and Yllis? If the story had been told in a more linear fashion, do you think you would have felt differently about the story and/or the characters?

Consider the significance of storytelling and myth-making in the novel. The author interweaves Greek mythology, African mythology and Catholic doctrine into the storyline of Amaryllis In Blueberry. How are these myths/faiths similar? What purpose do they serve? How does religion relate to storytelling and myth-making in the novel?

The title refers to a Greek myth—the myth of Amaryllis, and Seena summarizes the myth on page 317. What parallels do you see between the myth of Amaryllis and Yllis's story? In chapter two, Seena explains the myth of Pandora (pages 17-18). What parallels do you see between the myth of Pandora and the novel's characters, story and structure?

Yllis is the only character who tells her story in past tense. Why do you think the author chose to give Yllis this unique perspective? Although Dick, Seena, the Marys, Clara and Heimdall all tell their stories in the present tense, each looks back on past events. How do you think their present circumstances impact their memory of those past events? How does their memory of these events impact their sense of the present?

Discuss the role of religion in the novel. What drives Dick's strong Catholic faith, including his affinity for the Virgin Mary? Mary Catherine says, "seeing God, believing in Jesus, is like believing in air" (page 53). How does Mary Catherine use religion to construct her identity? How does Dick? How do their experiences in Africa challenge their self-perceptions?

Compare the two different settings portrayed in the novel, Michigan and West Africa. For the various members of the Slepy family, how are their expectations of Africa different from the reality they encounter? How does each setting affect the way each character constructs his/her sense of identity and reality?

What role does names and naming play in the novel? Yllis in not a Mary. Tessa, Grace and Catie all share the name Mary. Seena does not use her given name, Christina—except when Dick insists on calling her Christina. Each of the girls receives a West African day name. Mawuli's name has meaning. Addae's name has meaning. Are the characters empowered by their names? Confined? Do any of the characters use naming either to empower or to disempower others?

"How can you live with someone for years...and see only your imagination reflected?" wonders Seena (page 3). Seena's comment suggests she came to realize her perception of Dick was built on imagination—on myth. Was it? Seena claims she never loved Dick, but do you think she did? Does he love her? To what degree are Heimdall, Seena's daughters and Clara also Seena's "imagination reflected"? What role does imagination play in the formation, nourishment and/or undermining of the other relationships in the novel?

Is the "Day of the Snake" (page 90) a turning point in the life of each of the Slepys? Seena seems to think it may be, but is Seena's perception of the announcement's significance fueled by her own needs? Is this another moment when Seena sees only her "imagination reflected"? Do you think a single statement can have the power to irrevocably alter the course of people's lives?

Obsession affects several of the characters in Amaryllis In Blueberry. Why is Dick obsessed with Seena? Why does Seena become "Seena the Stalker"? Is Mawuli merely a replacement for Mary Catherine's lost obsession, her faith? How important is the theme of secrecy in the novel, and why?

What are Seena's strengths and weaknesses as a mother? How does your perception of her as a mother affect your view of her as a person? How does each of her children see her? In what ways is Seena's relationship with Yllis different from her relationship with her other daughters?

What are Dick's strengths and weaknesses as a father? As a husband? As a human being?

What is the significance of Yllis being a synesthete? In a sense, her gift results in her "carrying the sins of the world," given she is the recipient of others' unspoken confessions. And in the end, it is she who sacrifices her innocence to save her mother. Do you think the author intended to make a parallel between Yllis and Father Amadi? Yllis and Christ? What other metaphors or symbolism do you detect in the novel?

"Grace isn't the same. That Dipo meant something to her. Standing before all those people, stripped inside and out, she found something inside herself she forgot she had" (page 321). What reaction did you have to the Dipo ceremony? Do you think it has redeeming cultural value? Why do you think it is important to Grace? Does the Dipo ceremony make you reflect at all on our own cultural practices related to puberty and youth coming-of-age?

Why do you think Mary Catherine is drawn to Father Amadi? Why do you think she cuts herself and starves herself? Is it merely a plea for attention, as Seena suggests at one point? Is it possible Mary Catherine knows more about the relationship between Father Amadi and Seena than she is able to admit?

Tessa's family regards her as a "trouble-maker," and even Yllis says Tessa is "good at sick. And cruel" (page 15). Yet in many respects, Tessa is more sensitive to and affected by both the joys and sorrows of life in Africa than anyone else in her family. How is this seeming sensitivity consistent with her family's perception of her? How is it consistent with her perception of herself?

What role does Clara play in the novel? She is not part of the Slepy family, yet she still has a voice in the novel. Why?

Now that you know the novel's ending—that Yllis killed Dick—what new insights does it give you into the story and the characters, particularly Yllis? Would your foreknowledge of this and other events—particularly the true circumstances of Yllis's birth and Mary Catherine's meeting with Father Amadi—have altered your perception of the events themselves? How do you think a second reading of this novel would affect you?

Suggested by Members

How do u think Seena's past influenced her marriage
Do you believe parents favor certain children and how did that effect these children
by tkissin (see profile) 03/15/11

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from author Christina Meldrum:

When I was in my early twenties, between college and law school, I traveled and worked for a short time in West Africa. I lived in a village that was very similar to the village Avone, the village in AMARYLLIS IN BLUEBERRY. As I grew older and thought back on that time, I wondered how much of my experience of Africa and my memories of Africa were colored by the kaleidoscope of my own culture, values and expectations.

Although AMARYLLIS IN BLUEBERRY takes place partly in West Africa, partly in Michigan, the story is really less about West Africa or Michigan, more about the question: to what degree is each of our lives a myth of our own making? It is this question that led to my interest in the power of perspective, which led me to synesthesia and ultimately to my beloved character Yllis, who is a synesthete.

What is synesthesia? It is a very real condition when two or more of a person’s senses are conjoined; in other words, stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to an automatic, involuntary experience in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. For instance, a person with synesthesia might “hear” color or “taste” sound. She does not imagine she hears color; she truly hears it. She does not imagine she tastes sound; she truly tastes it. Hence, synesthesia raises some fascinating questions about the nature of reality. All of us must experience reality through our senses; our senses are the filter through which we must take in the world. But how do we know that our sensory experience of the world matches the sensory experience of our neighbor. And if it does not match, then who is right? Whose read of reality is the “right” read? It turns out, reality is far more subjective than most of us realize.

My character Yllis is an emotional synesthete. Her experience of different emotional states triggers an automatic and involuntary sensory experience. To Yllis, anger has a smell, joy has a sound, love has a taste—meaning it is very difficult for others to hide their emotions from Yllis. Yllis detects their emotions on a subconscious level then experiences the emotions through her senses. In a way, Yllis is forced to carry others’ burdens, whether the people want to share those burdens or not, because Yllis senses the unspoken. Most of us assume that, for the most part, when we see, hear, smell and taste, we are seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting exactly as those around us. Then come synesthetes like Yllis. Who experience the world differently. Not incorrectly. Differently.

Book Club Recommendations

by tkissin (see profile) 03/15/11
serve anything with blueberries. You may want to have a bible around if you like going in that direction

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Amaryllis in Blueberry"by Natalie K. (see profile) 05/30/11

Don't waste your time or money. This book is poorly written and
as a group we hated this book.

  "you should pass"by Chagit S. (see profile) 05/16/11

  "Amaryllis in Blueberry"by Valerie B. (see profile) 04/06/11

It was interesting to read about African culture. It was interesting, but didn't completely capture my interest.

  "Amaryllis in Blueberry"by Marty K. (see profile) 04/05/11

The book was informative, but it was slow and was confusing at points. It kept switching from the end to the beginning to the middle. The characters were a bit muddled and not well defined. There really... (read more)

  "Mankind Blindness"by Tema K. (see profile) 03/15/11

The author has a very insightful way of showing how we are influenced by the way we perceive our own reality. When circumstances change and a new reality is shown, our views of how we see ourselves and... (read more)

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