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Book Club Kits: Out of the Easy

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Book Summary

 It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street.

Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.

Discussion Questions

  1. Throughout the book, the author uses language in unexpected and original ways. Two examples include her depiction of a dejected Patrick on page 140 where she writes that his "shoulders frowned," and her description of Miss Paulsen's "taffied scalp" (p. 152). What do you think each of these phrases means? What are some other examples of imagery created by the author? Why do you believe she made these choices as an author?


  1. Unlike many of the people in her life, Josie is an avid reader. How does her love of reading bring her closer to certain characters and further separate her from others? Cite specific examples from the book.



  1. Why does Josie become obsessed with Forrest Hearne, a stranger she met only once? How do her thoughts about him change after his death? Cite specific evidence to support your answers.


  1. What role does the setting—the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1950— play in the story? How might the story be different if it were set in the present in your hometown?



  1. Why do you think Willie would only pay for Josie to go to college in New Orleans?


  1. The author includes a number of literary references throughout the text, incorporating titles and quotations of both classic literature and books that were popular during the time period in which the book was set. Why do you believe she chose to include these references?



  1. On page 41, Josie remembers a line written by Keats: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." Josie's life and her surroundings are filled with ugliness, but there are also things of beauty that bring her joy. What are some of those things?


  1. On page 260, a policeman questioning Josie says, "I told him he was going to a goat's house for wool." What does that mean? How does it make Josie feel?



  1. On page 211, Josie and Willie have a conversation in which they compare each other to characters from Cinderella. What do you think Willie means when she says Josie is like "Cinderella with the stepmother heart"? How does this comment make Josie feel?


  1. Josie says about herself, "No matter how I parted my hair, I couldn't part from the crack I had crawled out of" (p. 258). Why can't Josie see the good in herself the way others do?



  1. Josie and Jesse are both characters with very difficult pasts who could have easily chosen a lifestyle of "hustle and blow" like many of the other people in their lives. Why do you think each of them is able to choose a different path?


  1. While John Lockwell is not a sympathetic character, Josie essentially blackmails him to get what she wants. How do you feel about that decision on her part and why?



  1. Josie often reflects on the concept and elements of family. How would you define family and what are some things that create feelings of family for Josie?


  1. Josie makes a decision to do something abhorrent to her in order to get the money she needs from John Lockwell but is not able to go through with her plan. What is your reaction to that scene? How does the author create those feelings in you as a reader?



  1. Patrick has a secret that is never explicitly stated in the text. What is his secret? How does the author use foreshadowing to reveal it? What are specific clues from the text that illuminate what he is hiding about himself?


  1. How does Patrick feel about the part of himself that he is keeping secret? How do you know this?



  1. What happens when Patrick tries to explain his secret to Josie? Why do you think she never confronts him with the fact that she understands what he is hiding?


  1. On page 284, Josie recalls the following quote from Keats: "I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else." How does that quotation apply to Josie's relationship with Patrick?



  1. Josie's mother is an extremely unlikeable character. Does she have any redeeming qualities? Cite specific examples from the text that influenced your feelings about her. (Reading Standard 3)


  1. Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice , "The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children." In Josie's case, she is punished for her mother's sins in a number of ways. What are some of Josie's mother's sins for which Josie is punished and in what ways is she punished?



  1. Why does Josie choose to change her name? What is the significance of the name she chooses?


  1. The author chose to write this story solely from Josie's point of view. How did that choice affect you as a reader? Select another character from the story and describe how your reading experience would have been different if the story had been told from her/his perspective?


  1. On page 237, Josie muses about how John Lockwell displays his history publicly in family photographs, how Willie keeps hers hidden in a drawer, and how she keeps her own history and dreams "on a list in my desk and, now, buried in the back garden." What does she mean by each of these statements? Where do you keep your history and dreams? 


  1. Out of the Easy is a work of historical fiction. Any author of this genre must do extensive research to ensure that all the historical details included in the text are accurate. Ruta Sepetys describes some of the resources she used in writing this book in the "Acknowledgments" included at the end. What historical details did she include that sparked your curiosity as a reader? How might you go about finding out if a specific detail is factual or fictional?



  1. Josie quotes David Copperfield by Charles Dickens on page 265. Why is this quote significant? Is Josie the hero of her own life? What would you have done if confronted with some of the circumstances she faced?


  1. Josie wants desperately to escape from New Orleans because she wants to use her mind "for study and research instead of trickery and street hustle" (p. 267). Do you think she accomplished that goal? Why or why not? Cite specific evidence from the text to support your opinions. 



  1. Were you surprised by the outcome of Josie's decision to apply to Smith College? What do you imagine will happen to Josie after the story ends? 

Interview with Ruta Sepetys

Born and raised in Michigan, Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. She holds a B.S. in International Finance from Hillsdale College. While in school Sepetys also studied at the Centre d'études Européennes in Toulon, France and at the ICN in Nancy, France

Her debut novel Between Shades of Gray, describes the genocide of Baltic people after the Soviet occupation in 1941, when nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia disappeared from maps, not to reappear until 1990. As this is a story seldom told, Ruta wanted to give a voice to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives during Stalin's cleansing of the Baltic region. The book was met with broad critical acclaim, and was translated into over 22 different languages.

Ruta currently lives with her family in Tennesse.

Interview with Ruta Sepetys

Q: How did you create Josie Moraine?

A: Years ago I was part of a mentoring program for young women. I met girls who were swept into the dysfunctional current that surrounded their home life. But I also met young women who made difficult decisions and divorced themselves from a negative environment. That's incredibly hard. Those girls inspired me. They taught me that we can learn to fly, even if we're born with broken wings. The idea of that broken, yet beautiful bird became Josie Moraine.

Q: Why New Orleans?

A: My introduction to New Orleans came through a vintage pair of opera glasses I received for my birthday. The glasses, still in their original case from the jeweler in New Orleans, were engraved and dated as a gift from someone named Willie. I'm nuts about history, so I hired a researcher to trace the origin of the glasses. I learned that Willie was a woman in the French Quarter. And the jeweler who sold Willie the glasses? Poisoned. He ate a dozen oysters in the Quarter and kicked the bucket. My fascination with New Orleans was born.

Q: And what about brothels?

A: One rainy day in Los Angeles I jumped into a book store to avoid getting wet. I saw The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld by Christine Wiltz on display. I snapped it up. The book chronicled the life of New Orleans madam, Norma Wallace. I read it in one sitting, fascinated with every detail. Fast forward twelve years and I was standing under the Spanish moss in front of Christine Wiltz's home in New Orleans. We spent a long day discussing madams, gangsters, and how Norma ran her business. Meeting Christine was such a highlight and inspired me on so many levels!

Q: How did you research the book?

A: I took several trips to New Orleans and spent many days at the Williams Research Center. I also combed library archives. I walked Josie's paths that I describe in the book. Christine Wiltz connected me with people who had intimate knowledge of the underbelly of the city. My meetings were both fascinating and terrifying. I couldn't sleep at night. Scandals, murders, crooks and crime–all beyond your wildest imagination. And as a writer, I loved it!

The most incredible part of my research was being allowed into Norma Wallace's former brothel. I based Willie's house on Norma's. Standing in Norma's old bedroom, I imagined how Josie would bring Willie her coffee, where she'd count the money. I saw the girls' rooms upstairs, the hiding places, and the escape route through the courtyard when the cops would show up. I could hear the voices of the characters in my head so clearly. I hope their personalities come across in the book.

Q: Why 1950?

A: I chose the historical setting of post-war America because it's complex and often misunderstood. Following WWII, the U.S. experienced unparalleled prosperity. But "The American Dream" for some became the quiet nightmare for others. Societal pressures to conform were severe and deep tensions developed across social, racial, and gender lines. People escaped these pressures in various ways and the alluring "come hither" of New Orleans was one of them. But for some, "The Big Easy" was more than they could handle. People kept a lot of secrets back then. Illness and family troubles were often hidden from the public. Sometimes, what looked perfect on the outside was quietly rotting on the inside.

Q: Did the time period inspire the creation of the characters?

A: Well, the more I researched the time period, the surface sparkle faded to reveal a fair amount of pain. Learning of that pain helped me create characters like Willie, Patrick, Jesse, and Josie, who are all full of secrets, yet also quietly full of love. I then tried to contrast that pain with people like Cokie, Forrest Hearne, Charlotte, and Miss Paulsen – beautiful souls whose kindness and encouragement plant seeds of hope that eventually sprout courage.

Q: And why Smith?

A: When I was fourteen I visited my older sister who was doing her undergrad at Smith. I was impressed not only by the incredibly intelligent women, but by the varied backgrounds they came from. My preconceptions had been all wrong. The diversity made an inspiring impression on me, so much so that decades later I wove it into this novel.

Q: So how would you sum up the book?

A: I'd say it's a story about decisions and how they shape our destiny. Teenagers are constantly facing difficult decisions and are often worried about being perfect. But some of the most interesting people are those we can't categorize. Those are the characters I love to create, those who remind us that beauty can be perfect in imperfection. So I put a character who is perceived as broken in a situation of decision making. Sometimes, small acts of kindness and respect can impact young people more than we'll ever know. It could be a teacher, like Miss Paulsen, who believes in a student. Or it could be a David Copperfield, like Forrest Hearne, who inspires someone to dream big. Right now there's a teenager somewhere who is about to put on shoes that will take them in the wrong direction. We all know how easy it is to make bad decisions. But who knows, maybe they'll decide to put on the brown loafers…and step out of the easy.