Queen of the Underworld Cover
Queen of the Underworld

1. On page 117, Emma thinks it is “utterly spellbinding” that she is actually standing by the gurney of this former madam, “the Queen of the Underworld,” she has been dying to meet. “How thankful I was that I’d headed straight for the hospital after the tornado. In a way, I realized, this amazing scene had been my creation.” What does Emma mean by this? Can you cite other examples in the novel of Emma’s resourcefulness?

2. This story takes place in 1959. Does the novel feel “historical” to you? How so? How not? How has the world changed since then?

3. Imagine Emma’s story if it were unfolding today. How would this different era affect her chances to realize her ambitions? Would she have the same chances? Better? Worse?

4. On page 59, when Emma is in the newspaper morgue reading the news clips about Ginevra Snow, she thinks, “In some strange way I felt she offered an alternative version of myself. To follow her story would be to glimpse what I might have done had I been trapped in Waycross in her circumstances.” Now go to page 335, where Emma again thinks of the Queen of the Underworld: “She was the worthy subject I had been waiting for, the opposite of the old maid who had died in her flyblown hamlet as my train passed without ever setting off on her own adventure. . . . She was my sister adventurer, another unique and untransferable self who had been places I hadn’t and who had returned with just the sort of details I craved to imagine further.” What are some “alternative versions” of yourself ? Are there figures in your life, people you have glimpsed–or known–who embody some aspect of what you don’t want to become (like Emma’s imagined old maid)? And what about people who make you question what you would be like if you had been brought up in their history? And what about people who “have been places” you haven’t and who “have returned with just the sort of details” you crave to imagine further?

5. Queen of the Underworld is dedicated “to the exiles, wherever you are now.” Do you think the author refers to the Cuban exiles Emma meets in the summer of 1959, or does she mean it in a broader sense? Have you ever been an exile? From your homeland? From a life you felt was rightfully yours? How did your specific form of exile change your life?

6. The word “usurp,” Emma tells us, has become her adversarial banner (page 9). She goes on to elaborate: “And the more I meditated on it, the more the ‘usurp’ word compounded in personal meanings. Not just kingdoms and crowns got usurped. A person’s unique and untransferable self could, at any time, be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces.”What are your definitions of “usurpation”? What forms of it have you experienced?

7. Do you believe a person has a unique and untransferable self ? Or not? Discuss how Emma’s “story so far” might have been different if she had not believed in her unique and untransferable self.

8. Queen of the Underworld is a very populated book. How many of the characters can you recall? Which were your favorites? Which reminded you of someone you know–or of yourself? Which ones did you dislike? Which ones did you feel could have been left out? Which ones would you have liked to know more about?

9. Were there things about Emma that you disapproved of ? If she had been a male character, would you have felt the same?

10. Were you surprised or disappointed by Ginevra’s choices at the end of the book? Do you think Emma will ever write her novel inspired by “the Queen of the Underworld”? How might that novel be different from Ginevra Brown’s story?