The Survivors Cover
The Survivors

1. As you were reading about the rage between Pierre and Nils (severe enough for Benjamin to call the police in the opening scene), what were your impressions of the reasons for that rage? Who else and what else did the boys seem to be angry at, besides each other?

2. In chapter 2, “The Swim Race,” we learn about Dad’s attempts to instill competitiveness in his sons. What did he teach them about his definition of manhood?

3. What personality distinctions did you observe in Benjamin, Pierre, and Nils? As they grow up, are their differences the result of nature or nurture, or a combination of both?

4. Interwoven with idyllic images of the natural world are grim scenes, such as the moment in chapter 4 when Pierre fries the perch. How do the brothers each react to suffering? What are the limits of compassion and kindness in their boyhood?

5. Discuss the contents of the time capsule and the process by which those items were obtained. Which aspects of the family dynamic are preserved in the time capsule? What artifacts would be the best representations of your childhood?

6. Part 2 of the book, “Beyond the Gravel Road,” describes Dad’s final illness, followed by Mom’s. As the gravel road transports the brothers to a place on the map, how does it also transport them to the past—and to their new lives in full adulthood?

7. How does Nils’s experience of school compare to that of his brothers? How was he affected by his parents’ high expectations? For all three siblings, how did school reveal various truths about their home life?

8. As a child, Benjamin was afraid of the hens known as the Larsson Sisters. As an adult, he confronts a red deer on the roadway but finds the courage to put his hand on the creature’s muzzle. In what way do his interactions with animals reflect his wavering sense of security?

9. What is the effect of the novel’s timelines, which oscillate between present day and flashbacks? How does the author create a realistic portrait of a family’s shared (and sometimes conflicting) recollections?

10. When Mom dances in chapter 19, “The Birthday Present,” what is she communicating about her true self? Based on their experiences with her, what might her sons believe about women and power?

11. How did the revelations in Mom’s closing letter change your perception of her? What does the aftermath indicate about the nature of memory and the consequences of denial?

12. Gathering to pay tribute to their mother, the brothers are of course her survivors. Who are the other survivors in the novel? What does this family’s story show us about the process of grief and the ability to endure?