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The House of Eve
by Sadeqa Johnson

Published: 2023-02-07T00:0
Hardcover : 384 pages
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“Amazing…I was completely surprised by the ending of this beautifully told and written book.” —Reese Witherspoon

“A triumph of historical fiction” (The Washington Post), an instant New York Times bestseller, and a Reese’s Book Club pick, set in 1950s Philadelphia and ...

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“Amazing…I was completely surprised by the ending of this beautifully told and written book.” —Reese Witherspoon

“A triumph of historical fiction” (The Washington Post), an instant New York Times bestseller, and a Reese’s Book Club pick, set in 1950s Philadelphia and Washington, DC, that explores what it means to be a woman and a mother, and how much one is willing to sacrifice to achieve her greatest goal.

1950s Philadelphia: fifteen-year-old Ruby Pearsall is on track to becoming the first in her family to attend college. But a taboo love affair threatens to pull her back down into the poverty and desperation that has been passed on to her like a birthright.

Eleanor Quarles arrives in Washington, DC, with ambition and secrets. When she meets the handsome William Pride at Howard University, they fall madly in love. But William hails from one of DC’s elite wealthy Black families, and his parents don’t let just anyone into their fold. Eleanor hopes that a baby will make her finally feel at home in William’s family and grant her the life she’s been searching for. But having a baby—and fitting in—is easier said than done.

With their stories colliding in the most unexpected of ways, Ruby and Eleanor will both make decisions that shape the trajectory of their lives.

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Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. Consider the epigraph from Toni Morrison. How does this set the tone for the opening section? Who do you think are the monsters in this story, if any?

2. The novel takes place before the Civil Rights movement in the mid-50s and 1960s. Discuss how racism affects both women and their families, such as when Ruby goes stocking shopping with Aunt Marie or how she’s treated at the House of Magdalene. Would these instances be surprising today? Why or why not?

3. One of the biggest shocks for Eleanor is the colorism amongst Black people in Washington, DC. This is highlighted in particular when Eleanor meets William’s family and describes it as being “a room filled with white-faced Negroes.” How does colorism play out in the novel for both Ruby and Eleanor?

4. Both Ruby and Eleanor have mentors in their stories; Ruby with Mrs. Thomas and Eleanor with Mrs. Porter. How do these women support their mentees, and how would the story have played out if they weren’t a part of Ruby and Eleanor’s lives?

5. Both Ruby and Eleanor fall in love with men who are off limits and essentially forbidden. Shimmy is Jewish and William is upper class. How do these conflicts affect their relationships, and shape each woman’s decisions throughout the novel?

6. William and Shimmy may seem like opposites, but how are they similar? What prejudices do both of them face?

7. The second epigraph of the book (“Sometimes there are no words to help one’s courage. Sometimes you just have to jump.”) comes from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, an American poet, psychoanalyst, and post-trauma specialist. Why do you think Sadeqa chose this quote, from this author, in the novel? How does trauma affect the characters?

8. The role of a mother is a strong theme in the book. How do the actions of Rose, Eleanor’s mother-in-law, and Mrs. Shapiro, Shimmy’s mother, affect Eleanor and Ruby and what happens to them? Would you consider them cruel and abusive or justified and reasonable in their actions?

9. Both William and Shimmy propose to Eleanor and Ruby upon hearing of their pregnancies, but each woman reacts differently. Ruby says to Shimmy, “Your mother will crush our love. The world will stomp out our fire.” Could Eleanor have said the same thing to William? Why or why not?

10. Consider the other young women and the nuns at the House of Magdalene. How does religion both inside and outside of the House use Christianity to bring shame to what happened to them? How does this stigma of shame and unwed mothers affect the women, and does it still exist today?

11. Despite the hardships that each character undergoes, there remains a sense of second chances and hope. How do Ruby and Eleanor find hope, even in their darkest moments? What keeps them going?

12. How are women’s reproductive rights portrayed in the novel? How is this struggle and lack of access reflected in today’s society, and could this story have taken place in modern day?

13. In the end, Ruby notes that Mother Margaret was right: “The only way forward was to forget.” Do you think this could be said not only of Ruby, but of this forgotten history of unwed homes for mothers? What are the harms in forgetting?

14. Discuss the last chapter of the novel, which is the only time in the story the two women meet in person. How did it make you feel? If the book continued, would you want the women to connect over what happened, or remain simple acquaintances?

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Book Club Recommendations

There is both Black and White Privilege
by thewanderingjew (see profile) 02/23/23
The House of Eve, Sadeqa Johnson, author; Ariel Blake and Nicole Lewis, narrators On the surface, this is the story of two young, black, teen-aged girls who find themselves “in trouble”, during the mid-1950’s. However, it is about so much more. It is about racism, white and black, it is about white and black privilege, and it is about the rights of women. It is also about the “industry” of adoption, and perhaps, it is also about abortion. For certain, the book will encourage discussion about each of those subjects. Eleanor Quarles’ parents worked hard to enable her to be the first in the family to go to college. Her roommate, Nadine, nicknamed her Ohio, for the small town there, where she lived. Eleanor’s mom was a strong woman who sold her baked goods to earn the money needed to help Eleanor get a higher education. She was at Howard University, in Washington, DC, working hard to maintain her school payments and to maintain her grades. She wanted to make her parents proud. When offered a job to help the library archivist, she accepted immediately. This was a particularly interesting part of the book because the history of black success and ancestry is explored as her job is explained. While working in the library, she met William Pride, a student at Howard University’s Medical School. His mother, Rose, could do with a little less pride. It made her an arrogant woman. She was part of the Negro community that had made it, that thought of themselves as different from, and superior to, most black people. These upper-class Negroes believed they were better than those who were darker skinned or poor or less educated. William came from a family with two prior generations of doctors, his grandfather and his father, and he would make the third. Eleanor was introduced to a different lifestyle when she visited his home for the first time. There was a butler, there was a maid, there were guests who were so fair-skinned she mistook them for White folk. They were haughty and rude to her, just as the sorority girls were, from the sorority she had hoped to pledge, but Alpha Beta Chi had rejected her. She was too dark and her hair was not straight enough. These Negroes were lighter skinned, were part of a “black privileged”, class and they had their own caste system. Nevertheless, Eleanor and William were drawn to each other even without his mother’s approval. Rose had wanted Greta to marry her son William, and she was not gracious to Eleanor, at all. She was openly rude and made inappropriate comments as she questioned her about her background. Eleanor overheard her telling her friends that she was basically beneath William’s station. As she and William grew closer, so did their passion. Soon she was in a family way. How would her problem be solved? Ruby Pearsall was born out of wedlock. She lived in Philadelphia. Her mom, Inez, didn’t really want her around. Ruby cramped her love life and her lifestyle. Inez’s boyfriends also seemed to be attracted to fifteen-year-old Ruby. Although those incidents were far more upsetting to Ruby, her mother blamed Ruby and threw her out. She went to stay with her Aunt Marie. Aunt Marie took bets and worked in clubs. She did what she could to make ends meet and help Ruby. She kept her home and her belongings neat and clean. Ruby was a very good student as well as a talented artist. She was in a special program, “We Rise”, that would offer her a full scholarship to Howard University if she was one of the 2 chosen from the group. She wanted to be a doctor, an Optometrist. She wanted to make her family proud. She wanted to feel proud. She wanted a loving family. One day, at her aunt’s apartment, the landlord’s young son, came to fix the plumbing. Shimmy Shapiro and Ruby discovered they were drawn to each other, even though it was very dangerous. Shimmy, was a White Jewish boy whose parents were not only the landlords, they were very prejudiced. Shimmy convinced Ruby to secretly meet with him. As their relationship grew, so did their lovemaking. Soon Ruby discovered she was pregnant. Shimmy wanted to marry her, but he was young, naïve, unaware that it was illegal, and he was just a freshman in college. His parents went berserk when they found out. Ruby was called all sorts of terrible names. Shimmy was sent away to keep them apart. Mrs. Shapiro arranged for Ruby to go to a home for unwed mothers. The home was supposed to be a decent place, a place that helped the young women who went “astray”, to find redemption. They also arranged for the adoption of the babies. It was run by the Catholic Church. When Ruby got there, she discovered they were forcing the girls to give up their babies and overworking them as penance for their sins. Basically, they were selling the babies to “better families”. Terrible things happened at The House of Eve. This book is about the injustice of race bias. It is about women in the fifties who had to deal with it. Through the eyes of Eleanor, we learn about a class of Negroes that exhibited “black privilege”. We also see the very real incidents of “white privilege” through Negro eyes. It is hard to reconcile their treatment with regard to its injustice. In the home for unwed mothers, run by the church, although all the girls were in the family way, the white girls were treated far better, and the Negroes were kept isolated. Man’s inhumanity to man was alive and well. Both Eleanor and Ruby allowed a moment of passion to potentially ruin their lives, but for the men involved, little changed. William continued to study Medicine and Shimmy went off to college. Both were relieved to have their mothers handle their situations and solve their problems. What becomes very obvious, through the pen of this author, is that prejudice is alive and well in both the Black and White community. However, the Negro had been largely powerless. The two women of the novel had to make a choice. For one of the women, marriage could be her salvation, and for the other, not getting married could allow her to achieve her goals for her future. However, what about the babies? As the years passed, Ruby and Eleanor’s lives went in different directions, one in the lap of luxury, and the other in the world of struggle. Their lives would one day intersect. I wondered if justice would ever be served. The Gingerbread House, as the girls called the home for unwed mothers, or The House of Eve, as the Church preferred to call it, is not a name I would choose. I prefer The House of Horrors, myself. I have read books about these homes before, but never one that featured women of color so prominently. This book exposes so much about how difficult life was for the Negro then, but it also exposes “white and black privilege”, something that has not been addressed as honestly before, to my knowledge. We are all subject to the forces of evil and racism.

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