For the month of March, TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager chose "Groundskeeping," by Lee Cole as her Read With Jenna pick.
The novel is set in 2016 Kentucky, just before the election, and an aspiring writer, Owen Callahan, finds himself back home. In exchange for writing courses, he becomes a groundskeeper at his local college, where he starts a secret relationship with the writer-in-residence Alma Hazdic.
"It’s a story about love and identity and where we are from," Jenna said. "It is about what makes us a family. I feel like it will lead to a lot of important conversation about what brings us together and what divides us."
Cole, who is from rural Kentucky, drew inspiration for the novel from his own lived experience.
"While the events of the book are fictional, they do have their basis in my own experiences of homesickness, working as a tree trimmer and just trying to navigate my relationship with Kentucky," said Cole.
Discussion questions for "Groundskeeping"
Use the questions below, provided by the publisher, to spark discussion about the book among family and friends.
- Owen says in the opening lines, “I’ve always had the same predicament. When I’m home, in Kentucky, all I want is to leave. When I’m away, I’m homesick for a place that never was.” How would you describe your own relationship to home?
- Discuss the community in which you grew up. To what extent do you feel the place you were raised in made you the person you are today?
- When Owen is in his writing workshop, his instructor says, “Literature is not a way of escaping life but of seeing it clearly. I want that to be the foundation of our class. Good literature is supposed to give us a shock of recognition.” Where in Groundskeeping did you feel a shock of recognition?
- On the outside, Owen and Alma’s lives feel like opposites: she’s a published writer, daughter of liberal Bosnian immigrants, Ivy league-educated; he’s working as a groundskeeper on campus, living with his grandfather and Trump-supporting uncle. How do you think their differing backgrounds impact their relationship with one another over the course of the novel?
- Groundskeeping is set in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a time when politics have become increasingly personal. How does Owen reconcile the love he has for his family with their political disagreements? Is this something you’ve experienced yourself?
- A variety of songs and musical artists are woven throughout the novel. What might the motley assortment of musical styles – Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris alongside New Order and Solange – say about Owen’s contradictory feelings about home?
- Owen admits to using writing as a way to avoid life’s discomforts. What other “compulsions and delusions and elaborate, tortuous strategies” do you see the characters using to avoid real life? Can you relate?
- Groundskeeping was in part inspired by the author’s own experience as a tree trimmer. How might this activity of pruning trees, pulling weeds, and trimming hedges symbolize Owen’s coming of age?
- Owen observes that “it was only when a story ended that you could begin to see its shape.” Having finished reading, what shape has this novel taken for you? What are your biggest takeaways? Are you surprised at all by its resolution?
For more book recommendations, check out:
- Jenna Bush Hager selects Kentucky-based love story for March 2022 book club pick
- Jenna announces the latest chapter of her book club: A new production company!
- All of Jenna Bush Hager's book club picks
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