This reading group guide forLone Wolfincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jodi Picoult. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Six years after he ran away from home, following a disastrous confrontation with his father, Edward Warren is still not ready to face his family. But when he learns that his father and sister have been in a serious car accident, he has no choice. He returns to find that nothing is as he left it. His mother Georgie is remarried with new children, his sister Cara has grown into a self-possessed teen who blames him for their parents’ divorce, and his father Luke, a renowned wolf expert, lies in a coma with little chance of recovery. A decision must be made about Luke’s life—whether to keep him alive or let him go—but Edward and Cara are deeply divided over what their father would want and who should make the decision.
How far will each sibling go to do what he or she thinks is right? How far can the bonds of family be stretched by guilt, anger, and impossible choices? Lone Wolf is a story of the ways a family can both know and misunderstand one another.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Edward and Cara strongly disagree over whether to keep Luke on life support. Which character did you think was most likely to know Luke’s wishes? Did your opinion change over the course of the novel?
2. What emotions, such as guilt and anger, influence Edward and Cara’s decisions about how to handle their father’s coma? In your opinion, how much weight should the paper Luke signed before he went to Canada have carried? Should Cara’s age have prevented her from being next-of-kin?
3. Cara sees her father as a hero whereas to Edward he is all too human. Why was Cara so much closer to her father than Edward was? Did this portrayal of a family’s dynamic remind you of any relationships in your own life?
4. At the scene of the accident, an EMT tells Cara that if it wasn’t for her, her father might not be alive. She thinks: “Later, I will wonder if that comment is the reason I did everything I did…Because I know her words couldn’t be farther from the truth.” (p. 8) When you learn what Cara means, does it justify her actions, including accusing her brother of attempted murder? If she hadn’t felt such guilt, do you think she would have been less opposed to ending her father’s life? Why or why not?
5. What motivates Edward to arrange for the termination of his father’s life after Cara says, “I can’t do this. I just want it to be over.”? (p. 143) Why does he overlook her earlier objections? How did you react to the scene in which Edward pulls the plug on the ventilator?
6. Luke is the most enigmatic character in the book—a man in a coma, a man torn between the wolf and human world. How do his chapters balance what you learn about him from the other characters? How would the novel and your understanding of Luke and his relationship with wolves have been different without those chapters?
7. Georgie knows Luke is unusual from the moment she meets him, and she’s attracted to his rawness and vigor. Was it fair of Georgie to expect Luke to live a conventional life? Was it unfair of Luke to expect Georgie to sacrifice her own hopes?
8. Luke seems torn between his love for his wolf family and for his human family; and ultimately his human family suffers. Do you think he loved his wolves more, as Edward believed? Do you think he ever could have found a happy medium between the two worlds?
9. Consider the role each member of the Warren family plays in the family unit both before and after the family dissolves. How does the family compare to a wolf pack, where “everyone has a position in it; everyone’s expected to pull his own weight.”? (p. 14) Do you think the Warrens know and understood each other as well as the wolves seem to know each other? Is there one person to blame for the family’s break-up? What could the family have done differently to prevent the collapse?
10. Discuss the Warrens’ family issues that have long gone unspoken or misunderstood, such as Edward’s reason for leaving. What other issues have the Warren family avoided? What were the repercussions of doing so? How would you characterize the way they relate?
11. Why do you think Edward kept his reason for leaving a secret for so long? When he reveals the truth in court, how do Cara and Georgie react? Do his revelations about Luke have a bearing on the hearing?
12. Georgie says of her children, “You may never admit it out loud, but the one you love the most is the one who needs you more desperately than his siblings.” (p. 271) Do you agree? Discuss why and how she favors each of her children at different points in the novel. How does it affect her relationship with Joe to be on the other side of the aisle during the hearing?
13. The moment when Luke opens his eyes and seems to follow Cara is a compelling one, but Dr. Saint-Clare explains that it is merely a reflex. Did you agree with Cara’s perception or the doctor’s? Did it change how you felt about Luke’s chances?
14. Picoult writes: “Hope and reality lie in inverse proportions inside the walls of a hospital.” (p. 70) How do Cara, Georgie, and Edward’s experiences give truth to this statement? Did Dr. Saint-Clare’s testimony affect your belief in the kind of medical miracles Cara hoped for?
15. Ultimately, both the advocate and the judge reach the same conclusions about whether Luke would want to live or die. After reading the chapters from Luke’s point of view, what do you think he would have wanted? In a situation such as this, can there be an answer that is wholly right or wholly wrong? Discuss. Enhance Your Book Club
You have eighteen books under your belt, many of them focused on ethical and moral issues. Why this story and this issue now?
I first thought about writing about the right to die when I was on a plane over a decade ago. I was sitting next to a neurologist who dealt with these sorts of issues all the time. His name was James Bernat, and time flew by (pardon the pun) because I was so intrigued by what he was telling me. I said, “I’m not ready to write this book now, but one day I will be, so remember my name…because I’ll come calling!” Sure enough, when I started mulling over the fact that we often hear about parents and spouses who differ in their opinions about life sustaining care for a victim of a serious brain trauma, we rarely hear about two parties who have an equal claim to that decision. That led to wonder what would happen if two children were fighting over whether or not to terminate life support for their parent. So I called James Bernat and said…“Remember me?” Luckily, he did!
What came first—the ethical dilemma or the characters?
They sort of evolve together. I knew I wanted to write about the right to die, but I needed characters who made the choices a little muddier. I knew right away that Edward would be a prodigal son with a secret in his past; and that Cara would be the more faithful child…but one who was too young to have a legal say.
Luke’s work with wolves is so fascinating and seemingly unusual. How did you come up with his character—was he based on anyone? What sort of research did you do on wolves in order to prepare to write Lone Wolf?
I thought I had created a unique character—a man who wants to study wolves not by observing them but by LIVING with them. Then I found out about Shaun Ellis, a British man who did just that for a year, living with a wild wolf pack in the Rockies. He wanted to study how they lived, instead of shaping how they live. I went to visit him in Coombe Martin, at the wildlife park where he now keeps several captive packs of wolves, and got to meet him and his wolves up close and personal. His job, as he sees it, is to bring people the truth about wolves, because they’ve gotten a bad rep. They aren’t cold blooded killers; they are very intelligent animals for whom nothing matters more than family.
The first thing he taught me is the rankings of a wolf pack. The first wolf you’ll encounter is not the alpha, but a beta—tough, comes rushing up to you, responsible for discipline in the pack. Betas are expendable; they are the thugs in the mafia family. The alpha will hang back. Wary. The brains of the group, and too valuable to put him or herself in danger—he’s like the king not going into battle. The alpha is the one who tells everyone—including the big tough beta—what to do. An alpha can hear the change in the rhythm of your heart rate from six or seven feet away. An alpha female can terminate her own pregnancy if she feels that it’s not a good time for breeding in the pack. She can keep the other females in the pack from coming into season, so that she is the only one breeding. She can create a phantom pregnancy, which puts all the adult wolves on their best behavior, trying to be picked as nanny—and then when everyone’s acting on their best game, she reveals that she isn’t pregnant at all. The way she directs her pack: gland on the tail, which is as individual as a footprint. That’s what dogs are always sniffing. By moving her tail one way or the other, she directs her scent, and it’s like an arrow for the wolves in her pack to follow.
Next is the diffuser wolf—which used to be called the Omega or the Cinderella wolf. This is the low man on the totem pole, the one who eats last, the one who seemingly is picked on by the other wolves. They actually serve a purpose in the pack—to diffuse tension. Whenever there’s bickering, they jump in like a jokester, rolling on their backs and howling or licking—immediately doing something to bring down the tension level. They are the peacemakers who will jump between two wolves fighting to the death, greet one, draws attention to itself, clowns around, and suddenly both the animals are very placid and no one gets hurt.
There’s a tester wolf—the quality control dude. He’s a nervous wolf, always on edge, who makes sure that everyone is doing his job. So for example, he’ll fight the beta to make sure the beta can still protect everyone. He’ll challenge an alpha’s decision to make sure that the alpha is still the smartest animal in the pack. A lot of people mistake the alpha for the tester because there’s a fine line between a nervous, suspicious animal and a self-aware, self-preserving alpha.
Then come the numbers wolves, which fill in the pack with strength of size, and nanny wolves—older alphas and betas who are now like great-grandparents and are given the role of teaching the new wolf pups how to survive.
Shaun also explained to me how diversity in food is really important to a wolf since differint foods do different things for them. Social foods help them remember pack structure. An example of this would be the entire pack feeding off the same bison, but alpha gets the organs, beta gets the muscle meat, diffuser gets the stomach contents, etc., based on ranking. Emotional foods are given when the alpha wants the pack to recall a time in their life that was placid. So for example since milk products remind wolves of being pups and calm them down, an alpha might direct her hunters to kill the one lactating deer in a herd so that her pack, when feeding, becomes more easygoing before the arrival of pups.
But most importantly, Shaun shared with me his experience living in the wild with wolves. After working as a traditional biologist for a Native American group of researchers, he decided he wanted to try to live with a wild pack. He spent months in the forest, tracking them, getting adjusted to their schedule, and moving at night. One day a beta came up and nipped at him. He stayed still, and they vanished. Eventually they returned. Finally they began to sleep, play beside him, and treat him like a member of the pack—a numbers wolf. The pack clearly knew he was human, but the human world is encroaching on the wolf world, and they need to learn about us as much as we need to learn about them. So gradually, they accepted him. They wouldn’t normally let him hunt because he was so slow compared to wolves, but they would bring him back meat from a kill to eat, which he said tasted like a warm, slimy scotch broth. Occasionally he’d hunt in ambush situations, when they needed strength in numbers to surprise prey. He told me the hardest part of living with the wolves was not the cold, rain, or starvation. It was losing the emotional ties to the human world. When Shaun returned from the wolves, at first, he couldn’t be in a grocery store—the smells were overwhelming. Horses twenty-five meters away would shy away when he passed by. He could see, hear, and smell better in the dark.
One of the things he taught me to do was to howl, so that I could communicate with wolves. Howls are like wolf email. They use them to communicate with other packs, telling them how strong their pack is. This helps the alpha figure out what the pack needs—i.e. how many pups need to be bred; what sort of food she needs to get the pack to eat to keep them stronger than the rival packs, etc. The different wolves in a pack have a different role in the howling. The alpha is strategic; the beta has that iconic Hollywood howl; and the numbers wolf creates the illusion that there are more wolves in the pack then there actually are. Shaun showed me that there are three types of howls: a rallying howl, which is a vocal beacon to bring back a missing member of the pack; a locating howl, which is like a voice message to give the placement of any pack that’s in the area—not just where my family is, but others as well; and finally, a defensive howl, which is much deeper, and used to protect your territory. With my son and my publicist in tow, Shaun taught us the melody that an alpha, a beta, and a numbers wolf would use, and how to sing them in concert. I started as the alpha—a deep intermittent tone, howling for five or six seconds and then listening to make decisions based on what I heard. My son’s beta howl was three times longer than mine—it was all about strength, to let those listening know how tough he was. Finally, my publicist, as the numbers wolf, created the illusion that there were many of her, with a howl that circled and pitched between the tones my son and I were using. The most amazing thing happened: the packs all around us began to howl back. It was the coolest feeling to know that we had “sent” out our position and were getting responses because we were speaking their language.
Could you talk a little about Georgie and Luke’s marriage? Given the circumstances in which she met Luke, a conventional home life was unlikely, yet the lack of it is a disappointment to her. The course of their relationship is moving and in the end, heartbreaking.
I think that Georgie is one of those people who falls in love with a man and doesn’t really realize what she’s in for. Luke, by definition, is always going to love his wolves more than he loves his family—it’s in fact what makes him so wild and attractive to her. But to domesticate him is to lose that essence that makes him Luke—so she is trapped in a catch-22. She is never going to stop loving Luke—but she also has to realize, eventually within the marriage, that he will never be the equal partner and father she needs him to be. This of course is the greatest irony for Luke. A man who studies the family of the wolf pack does so by neglecting his own children and wife.
Edward’s rash action in the hospital room may be the most shocking moment in the book…with the possible exception of Luke eating with the wolves! Why did Edward do it? What were you thinking as you wrote that scene?
I was thinking: OH MY GOD! I knew Edward was going to do it—and was going to convince himself what he was doing was for all the right reasons, because that’s Edward’s fatal flaw (a lack of ability to look before he leaps). And yet, it was completely shocking to “watch” him carry it out. I loved the idea of him doing what he thought was morally right in that moment, only to wind up having Cara twist his actions to help HER do what SHE thought was morally right.
When writing about characters whose actions may invite shock or disapproval—such as Edward’s moment in the hospital room or Cara accusing her brother of attempted murder—how do you balance an honest portrayal with maintaining the reader’s sympathy? Is it important to you that the reader not judge any character too harshly or find it easy to peg them as “right” or “wrong”?
I don’t think anyone is all good or all bad. People convince themselves of all sorts of things and what looks like heinous behavior to us might be, to them, something completely justifiable. Edward really truly believes he’s helping his sister remain a child by not having to make such an emotionally difficult decision; Cara truly believes that going to the county attorney is the only way to save her father’s life. The fact that both Edward and Cara are hiding something important from each other gives their characters a texture—and darker motivations—perhaps even darker than they can admit to themselves.
In your research, did you find that coma recoveries were less miraculous than we think, just as Luke’s doctor says? As Cara believes, do you think we need to hold onto the possibility of miracles?
There is a lot we still don’t know about traumatic brain injury—but it is very often misdiagnosed. For that reason, what looks like a “miraculous” recovery usually isn’t. If a patient truly has an unrecoverable brain injury, the best one can hope for is chronic nursing home care. That said, I’ve read a great deal about recent studies that indicate there are indications of awareness in some traumatic brain injury patients. I don’t know if medical science will continue to advance and change our perspectives about what “unrecoverable” means. Even if we can prove that a patient is aware, if the injury to the brain prevents accessing that awareness it doesn’t do much good—and I don’t think most people would want to live in that condition.
What I came away with after writing this book is to have the discussion with your loved ones. If you are the victim of a traumatic brain injury, what would you want to happen? It’s not something we like to talk about, but if we do, it makes the decision-making process that much easier for your loved ones, since they don’t have to make educated guesses.
Your books often feature siblings whose experiences within their family are dramatically different. What brings you back to the sibling relationship again and again? What makes it so relatable, even when the circumstances are unusual? Do you have siblings yourself?
I have one brother—who isn’t at all like Edward. In fact, I’m the older one! Jon is four years younger than I am and what I remember about growing up with him was that he was a total geek…until one day I came home from college and realized he’d grown up and was a very funny, smart guy. We’re quite close and I feel lucky to have a sibling like him. The interesting thing about a sibling relationship is that it’s a shared life experience —who knows the quirks of your parents better than your brother or sister? The fact that a sibling that grows up in the same environment may became someone radically different from you—or became a virtual twin to you—is a fascinating element to me.
Could you give us a sneak peek of what you’re working on now?
It doesn’t have a title yet, but it's about a young woman, Sage Singer, who befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach, and they strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses...and then he confesses his darkest secret: he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all—if Sage even considers his request—is it murder, or justice?