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Reading Guides

Miss Harper Can Do It
Jane Berentson
Hardcover

 

INTRODUCTION

Grace in His Absence. Dear John. Donít You Call Me a Hero. These are some of the many titles that Annie Harperóthird-grade teacher, devoted friend, and loving girlfriendóconsiders for her memoir. Quirky, candid, and charming, Annie spares no details as she writes (and rewrites) her book, a glimpse into her life after her boyfriend, David, has been deployed to Iraq. Dotted with digressions and footnotes, this manuscript is the basis for Jane Berentsonís sparkling novel, Miss Harper Can Do It, a chronicle of Annieís 392 boyfriend-less days as she aims for stoic, selfless devotion but occasionally misses the mark.

Itís not for a lack of trying, but Annie isnít like the other wartime girlfriendsóshe doesnít join their knitting club support groups, she doesnít write a heartbreaking blog, and she certainly doesnít want strangersí overbearing sympathy and awkward hugs. She canít figure out why she doesnít feel like she expected to or like she feels she should. And, whether in spite of their separation or because of it, Annie begins to develop a life beyond simply waiting for Davidís return: work is satisfying; a camping trip and a vacation to Boston bring new friends into her life; and most of all, there are the hours spent with her best friend, Gus. It slowly dawns on Annie that shared experiences bring people closer, and time away from one another can pull people apart. E-mails become brief, phone calls less exciting. She loves David, but as the days tick down to his return, Annie begins to worry about their reunion.

Miss Harper Can Do It is an offbeat and clever look at romance and identity, friendship and family, and how all these threads are woven together in our lives. Berentsonís Annie is a loveable blend of bizarre neuroses and a kind heart as she shares the thoughts that everyone has but no one wants to admit to. Often self-deprecating, occasionally melodramatic, but always well-intentioned, Annie records the roller coaster of her year on her own as she begins to grasp the real predicament of her heart. Berentson has an eye for the comic and complicated nature of romance, especially the ups and downs of long-distance love, and her novel is the sweet self-examination of a young woman struggling to be true to herself, even when she isnít quite sure what she wants. A long-distance relationship, a growing friendship, a memoir in progress, and a new pet chickenócan Miss Harper do it? The fun is in following Annie through it all.


ABOUT JANE BERENTSON

Jane Berentson

A junior high school Spanish teacher, Jane Berentson is currently working on an MS in adolescent Spanish education. She holds a BA in Spanish and English, and an MA in publishing and writing. She grew up in Washington State and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.


A CONVERSATION WITH JANE BERENTSON

Q. You dedicate your book to soldiers and teachers everywhere. Did this story stem from life experience (yours or that of someone you know)?

I was not yet a teacher when I wrote the book, but Iíve always valued the ones Iíve had and the education I received. I get pretty sappy at 6:30 in the morning when I see fellow teachers on outbound Brooklyn trains. They sometimes look a little weary, but always tough and devoted. Or Iíll see them at coffee shops on Sunday afternoons, planning lessons and grading papers. I usually want to hug them and thank them and buy them drinks. I think a career in education and a career in the military have much in common; they are important, oftentimes grueling, selfless jobs.

As for the story, it stemmed from an amalgamation of things, but mostly from curiosities I developed while watching my brotherís military career unfold. He was a U.S. Marine Corps officer for about five years and served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. While there isnít too much concrete shoplifting from his story embedded directly into Miss Harper Can Do It, I definitely nicked many of his anecdotes, details, and observations. And itís certainly because of him that I started thinking critically about the strains and challenges tied to the unique circumstances of a military career. And yes, I did date an army soldier for a short stint back in 2004. But it was nothing long and full-bodied like Annie and Davidís relationship.

Q. The frame of Annieís writing the book as the book itself is a fun idea and gives Miss Harper Can Do It an intimate, chatty feeling. How did you choose this approach?

Throughout the process I was rather self-conscious and almost shy about the fact that I was attempting to write a novel. At times it felt like such an indulgent and presumptuous thing to do with my spare time. Who am I to make up some grand, fake story and yap about it on paper for three hundred pages? Tied to that discomfort was a reluctance to go prancing around a story as the narrator myself. So I made my protagonist do it. I put her in charge of her own project. Anything terribly inane or annoying in the text is purposeful and all her fault. Also, I was preoccupied with questions like, Why should this book exist? What will make it seem most authentic? The confessional, book-in-progress format naturally leant itself to that raw, uncensored feeling.

Q. How closely does Annie Harperís experience writing her book match your own?

I think we were both astounded at ourselves for actually finishing something. Iíve never been the type of person who could complete long projects (read thousand-page novels, train for marathons, finish games of Risk), so Iím extremely proud of the fact that I simply didnít quit. Unlike Annie, Iíd spent much time writing and thinking about writing before jumping into a book-length pursuit. Conversely, she starts writing on more of a whim and is lucky to find the project therapeutic and amusing. Even though I wanted the narrative to feel rough and unplanned (and there were definitely moments where I let my imagination go cuckoo bananas), I also hashed things out in Excel spreadsheets. Annie and I both use writing as a place to seek some semblance of order and control in our lives.

Q. The standard depiction of wartime wives and girlfriends is as faithful and long-suffering women. Lorettaís story, as opposed to Annieís, hews closer to such conventional thinking. Why do we so rarely see the doubt or confusion that such a situation must engender? Were you worried about maintaining readersí sympathy for Annie, considering the changes in her feelings for David?

I was a little worried about sustaining the readerís sympathy for Annie, and Iím not sure why more stories like hers donít surface. I know from the research I conducted while writing the book that loads of similar stories do exist. Perhaps we donít hear them simply because they are often uncomfortable and tied quite closely to the complexities of patriotism. While patriotism has its constant values, itís still somewhat fluid and perpetually evolving with history, current events, and generational differences. That makes it a delicate issue. I wanted Annieís positive attributes to round the edges of her flaws. I wanted the reader to love her like they would a little sister who keeps screwing up, but not necessarily trying to hide it from the family. I find that the imperfect, honest characters that I can love unconditionally are often the ones I remember the most.

Q. Annie Harper is such a finely drawn, detailed characteróher likes and dislikes are so particular and inventive. In what ways are you and Annie alike?

Annie and I share many of the same insecurities, a giddy love for children and animals, and a propensity to make up dumb words even though actual, more precise language exists. Weíre both prone to fretting and sometimes whining. But the differences between us are still pronounced. I gave her the ability to think and speak on her feet far better than I do. I like to think Iím less melodramatic, and I know Iím more easily distracted. While writing this answer, I somehow ended up looking at pictures of old trains on the Internet.

Q. How did your background as a teacher inform your characterís attitude and approach to teaching? Has one career affected the other?

I didnít actually start teaching until after I wrote the novel. (What a backward way to conduct research!) While Iíd long harbored fanciful but serious aspirations to teach, it wasnít until after the book was under contract that I began to critically consider a career in education. My experiences so far as a teacher have caused me to emote and to reason in new, complicated (often foggy and overwhelming) ways that will certainly exert some force on my writing. At the same time, the responsibilities of the job do not accommodate as many hours for me to snuggle up with my computer. As a result, I very seldom do my laundry. Nor do I cook as much as Iíd like to. But the escapism and the quiet that writing provides are certainly worth all the dirty socks and peanut butter sandwiches. Teaching is difficult in a way thatís far more urgent than writing. If I have a problem while writing, itís a lousy sentence or a scene that I canít quite flesh out. I sit on it, think on it, ask for help, let it smolder or fester as needed. If I have a problem in the classroom, itís with a child. Itís important and immediate and needs to be dealt with promptly. Teaching is helping me learn how to think and act in a flash; writing still permits me to set the pace of my discoveries. Iím trying to get better at both.

Q. As a first-time author, what has been the most satisfying experience in writing and publishing this book? The most exciting? The most nerve-wracking?

The editorial processes with both my agent and my editor were enormously satisfying. Since they both understood Annie Harperís character and the essence of the story so well, their counsel was like getting a perfectly appropriate gift and a challenging homework assignment at the same time. But more like top-secret homework assignments that I felt lucky and privileged to tackle.

The most exciting experience was telling my parents that the book would be published. They were in a horrific car accident in May 2007, so selling the book that December was such a jubilant message to share with my whole family after some really difficult months. As silly as it is, I was also quite nervous for them to read the book. While they certainly know me quite well, allowing anyone who you admire a deep peek into your potentially wacko brain is a tad frightening.

Q. Are you still teaching junior high school Spanish in Brooklyn? How do you think your students will react to your having published a book? Will you let them read the novel?

Yes, I am still teaching middle school Spanish in a neighborhood called Brownsville, Brooklyn. To date, Iíve told just a few of my students about the book. Most first ask if itís written in Spanish or English. Naturally, I want them to see that our loftiest pipe dreams are attainable by hard work, so I say hyperbolic things like ďI didnít go to the movies or watch television for TWO YEARS while I wrote this book. But it was totally worth it.Ē If they ask to read it I tell them they must wait until they are seventeen because the book contains several words that Ms. B. would never say out loud at school. I think they find that alluring.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. How did you respond to Berentsonís technique of using Annieís memoir-in-progress to write the novel? What are the benefits and drawbacks to this approach? Find a section of the book that best demonstrates your opinion.

  2. What would this novel be like if the story were told from Davidís point of view? What about from Gusís perspective?

  3. What do you think is the turning point in Annieís relationship with David? In her friendship with Gus?

  4. Is Annieís treatment of David unfair? Should she have waited until he returned, or should she have taken action sooner? Look at their phone conversation in chapter 28. Does the fact that David initiated this conversation affect your feelings toward either Annie or David?

  5. Analyze Annieís circus daydream. What does the imagery suggest?

  6. Do you think Annie is too hard on herself or not critical enough? What advice would you give her?

  7. Although she is there when needed most, throughout the novel Annieís mother plays a secondary role in her daughterís life, especially in comparison to Loretta. What does Annieís friendship with Loretta provide that Annie doesnít get from her mother? What does she get from her mother that she canít get from anyone else?

  8. Both Annie and Loretta obscure or even lie to each other about significant details of their own lives. Why do they do this? Do you see any other parallels between the two women?

  9. If you were to write a memoir as Annie does, what time of your life or particular experiences would you focus on? What would the title be?

  10. Annie offers one definition of the meaning behind the title Miss Harper Can Do It. What is it? What other meanings can you see? Does she do it by the end of the book?