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In Need of a Good Wife
Discussion Questions

The following questions are intended to start a discussion about In Need of a Good Wife. Click here to download a printable copy.

  1. The concept of “going west” figured large in late nineteenth-century American culture. Enthusiasm for the opportunity to leave the comfort of the eastern cities and forge new settlements embodied both pragmatic ambition and a kind of mythology about freedom and self-reliance that often fell short of hopes. What does going west mean to each of the main characters in In Need of a Good Wife? How are their expectations confirmed and upended?
  2. Friendship plays an important role for the characters in this novel, both among the women and between women and men. What does friendship have to offer that love and marriage cannot provide?
  3. Names are important in In Need of a Good Wife. Some characters change their names for various reasons (the new wives, Clara, and Ully); others are uneasy with the names they’ve been given (Rowena as “Mother” and Randall as “Mayor”). Even the name of the town requires an explanation. What do names signify for these characters?
  4. What were some of the reasons the brides had for pursuing the mail-order bride experiment? What do those reasons say about the kind of people who built the West in this country? About the kind of country the women settlers were hoping the United States would become?
  5. As Clara narrowed down the list of potential brides early in the story, she seemed to be screening for a particular type of woman. What kind of character traits was she looking for? What was she hoping to avoid? What do these criteria say, if anything, about Clara herself?
  6. How would you describe Elsa’s faith? Is it different from the sort of faith espoused by either of the two Manhattan City ministers who appear in Chapter One? What role does faith play in Elsa’s experience of the journey west?
  7. How does the birth of the lamb take on significance for Elsa throughout the story? What has changed for her by the time the lamb finally comes?
  8. Do you find Rowena to be a likable character? Why or why not?
  9. Why is Rowena drawn to Tomas? How does their relationship change her and the path she is on?
  10. Mayor Cartwright is preoccupied with the need to “be of use,” a tenet that has been for him both a saving grace and a source of frustration and disappointment. How does the need for purpose drive the mayor and the other characters in this story? How does it get them into trouble?
  11. The novel contains this description of the loss Clara and George suffered: “They shared a secret sorrow and it bound them together. What they had endured was stronger than anything—stronger than love or hate or disappointment or anger—and no matter how Clara tried to escape, to begin again, the sorrow pulled her back in like a tide.” How does loss and grief affect the characters in this story? How do varying responses to loss impact what happens to them?
  12. What do you think will happen with Randall and Clara after the story ends?