Joan Bauer

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Backwater: an isolated or backward place or condition. It was a favorite family expression of the Breedloves dating back to the 1700s and Oral Breedlove, a circuit-riding preacher whose loudest sermon began: " Brothers and sisters, are you stuck in the backwater of sin?" Ivy Breedlove is stuck in the backwater in her family's eyes. Backwater is a way to describe a person the family doesn't understand.

The Breedloves are a family of all lawyers now. It is expected that everyone will enter the profession. Ivy Breedlove doesn't want to study law but it doesn't seem that she will even be given a choice. No one goes against the family tradition ever. Her great-great-great-great-grandfather commands it from the grave through the inscription on his grave stone. The past is always watching and commanding the future. Ivy is interested in the past of her family and she is writing a family history for her Aunt Tib's birthday. But there are some things her family doesn't want to talk about and talk usually dominates this family.

It seems there is someone who recently defied the family tradition, but no one will talk to Ivy about Aunt Josephine her father's sister. It seems she just left the family. Her father and uncle say Josephine is crazy and she might even be dead.

But someone has planted holly bushes by her grandparent's graves-and it's not a member of the Breedlove family. The next door neighbor says the bird-woman did it.

Ivy finds tax records with the county clerk for a property named Backwater registered with a JP Breedlove high in the mountains. Ivy's determined to find out who Josephine is. So she hires a guide who's heard of a woman up in the mountains and sets off into the snow over the New Year's holiday.

Discussion questions

  1. Ivy reads the inscriptions on her family's gravestones as she is researching her family history. What do the inscriptions tell you about Ivy's family?
  2. Ivy names many Breedloves in early family history who weren't lawyers. Many of the people Ivy names are strong women. How is Ivy similar to these ancestors who weren't lawyers?
  3. Does Ivy have some characteristics that would make her a good lawyer?
  4. Do you think Ivy should follow her father's wishes to study law or pursue her own?
  5. Researching the past brings up all kinds of stories. Ivy, as the school historian, uncovers a past scandal about the Thickman Memorial Stadium. Do you think Ivy should tell the truth or leave the real story in the past?
  6. Ivy's family similarly wants to have the story of Josephine left in the past. Why?
  7. Ivy is afraid that she might be like Josephine. Why? Is Ivy like Josephine?
  8. Are there similarities between Josephine and Ivy?
  9. Does Josephine have characteristics that make her a Breedlove?
  10. Is Ivy a Backwater? Is Josephine a Backwater?
  11. Are there people in your family who do things differently than the rest of the family? How does your family react-like the Breedloves or not?
  12. Ivy learns some important lessons from Mountain Mama and Josephine. Are there similarities between Mountain Mama and Josephine? How are they alike and how are they different?
  13. Mountain Mama tells Ivy "Life is a how-to book, Breedlove-you take it one chapter at a time." What does she mean?
  14. Ivy realizes her family loves her and Josephine very much. How does the Breedlove family show it cares about its family members?
  15. Do you think the Breedlove family will be more accepting of people like Josephine and Ivy? Will Josephine and Ivy be more accepting of their family and its ways?

If you liked this book, try

  • Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer
  • My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George


Sunflower seeds, family recipes

Created in part with funds granted by the Oregon State Library under the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Oregon State Library.