DISCUSSION QUESTIONS – COTTON AND SILK

  1. Since storytelling began, storytellers have used the device of fate to add to the burden their characters must confront. Macbeth not only has to defeat Macduff, he has to battle fate. Shakespeare used witches, who predict Macbeth’s future with delectable equivocation, as his agents of fate. In Cotton and Silk, how does an Indian legend (the story of Coyote, Eagle, and Moon, page 12) spell out, even predestine, what’s in store for Nik, Eri and Deb? What other books or films you love use the story-telling device of fate?
  2. Aunt Hattie’s Coyote, Eagle, and Moon story also serves the time-honored function of foreshadowing (hinting to the reader at what’s to come). Foreshadowing immerses readers in the story and invests them in the characters. You see its power in Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly when Butterfly sings hopefully about the day her husband will return to her (the aria, Un bel di). The musical scene grabs you because you know Butterfly’s dream isn’t going to come true. You have the urge to jump onto the stage and protect her from her delusion. It bonds you to her. What events in Cotton and Silk are foreshadowed by Aunt Hattie’s story? What effective uses of foreshadowing have you seen in other books or films?
  3. Many of the characters in Cotton and Silk speak and behave in ways that most contemporary readers find insensitive or even downright racist. Reading dialogue laced with prejudice makes today’s readers cringe. Is that a sign of progress? Is right for authors to use crude or racially-charged language in novels when it is authentic to the time period depicted?
  4. At the start of WWII, U.S. Naval officers (like Admiral Retzlaff, in Cotton and Silk) were under pressure to come up with something to counter the high effectiveness of the Japanese Zero fighter. In the early days of the war, it truly did have the reputation of being almost supernatural. A key issue Cotton and Silk addresses is the problems that result when science (embodied by Professor Perry Newman) is put under pressure by authority (the Navy’s top brass) to come up with an answer immediately—when the emphasis is on a quick answer over a real solution. Can you think of examples in American history when coming up with a convenient answer took priority over getting the right answer, with disastrous results?
  5. Like everyone, Nik has been formed by his upbringing. His life has been pretty homogeneous, and he is uncomfortable with difference. He’s unsympathetic to the mixed race couple abused on the train (in the chapter He’s Just Like You). When he first meets Eri, he finds her physical attributes unappealing, because they are different. By the time they get to Siberia, that difference has begun to charm him. Do you find that as you get familiar with different people your opinion of them usually gets more positive?
  6. In the Prologue, Hiroshi promises that the events surrounding Eri’s birth “never…be disclosed.” Was he right to stick to that when Eri came to him years later, an adult, pleading for the truth?
  7. Was Eri wrong to put so much stock in her father leveling with her? She already knew the facts surrounding her birth from her mother, so why did her father’s lack of candor/dishonesty matter so?
  8. Hiroshi lost his eye in the events of June 10, 1916. His lover, Lin-hwa, lost her life. For Sumire, Hiroshi’s wife, that incident seeded guilt that would eventually consume her, leading to her suicide on June 10, 1941. Then on June 10, 1942, Hiroshi lost Eri (in a hostage-taking, he thought). June 10 was for him a cursed date. What is the author’s purpose in having three such significant events happen on the same date? Do you believe in unlucky (or lucky) dates, like Friday the 13th? Do you ever go out of your way to avoid something unlucky, like stepping on a sidewalk crack or taking a hotel room on the 13th floor?
  9. One character appears in both Cotton and Silk and An Owl’s Whisper. This male character has a secondary, speaking role in both novels. Can you name him?
  10. When he is flying to Japan, Nik spots a disabled Japanese submarine and, disobeying orders, he attacks it. He could have jeopardized his mission. But perhaps the sub would have gone on to do something huge that would have changed the course of the war. Was Nik wrong to do it? Does the outcome determine the rightness or wrongness of an action?
  11. In An Owl’s Whisper, the mother-daughter relationship is a central feature of the story. Cotton and Silk spins on the relationships between fathers and their children. What were the “problems” in the relationships between Eri and Hiroshi and between Nik and his papa, Rup?
  12. Ideally a book’s title should “work” on several levels. Consider Cotton and Silk. In what ways does the title connect to the novel’s story.
  13. The theme of Cotton and Silk is, What is loyalty/What is betrayal? Nik “abandons” Deb, even though she’s pregnant, because he loves Eri. Do you condemn him for that? Eri “abandons” her father, who she knows needs her, in hopes of finding her son. Also because she chafes at the expectations Japanese society has for her (remember Little Hyozan?), and because she feels ties to Korea which Japan had abused. Was she right to leave? Even if you fault Nik and or Eri, do you feel they deserve the happiness they find with each other in the end?