Teacher's Guide: Mr. Was
ABOUT THE BOOK
To prevent his mother's death in 1993, Jack Lund travels back in time to the 1940s, only to find a love that can never be.
Growing up with an alcoholic dad and a frightened, abused mother in Skokie, Illinois is no picnic. But when Jack and his mother drive through a winter snowstorm to visit his dying grandfather Skoro in Minnesota, things soon get worse.
Skoro dies with his gnarled hands wrapped around Jack's throat. The next day, Jack and his mother move into Boggs End, Skoro's creaky, oversized house high on a bluff in the tiny rivertown of Memory, Minnesota. Jack's father drives up from Skokie for the funeral, and the three of them settle into Boggs End.
While exploring a closed-off section of the house, Jack comes upon a hidden metal door that leads into a narrow passageway. Jack follows the passage and emerges into a garden outside the house--but it is not the garden he remembers. In this garden, it is summer. Jack soon discovers that he has traveled back in time to 1941.
Frightened by his experience there, Jack returns to the present through the mysterious doorway and says nothing to his parents. It's his secret.
All too soon, Jack's father starts drinking again, this time with fatal consequences. Jack witnesses his mother's horrific death, and flees back through the metal door to 1941.
Jack's plan is to stay alive until 1993 and prevent his mother's death. Unfortunately, World War II is coming, and Jack soon finds himself fighting not only for his mother's life, but for his own.
· Family (dysfunctional)
· Time Travel
· Fate and Destiny
· Spousal Abuse
· Love, Friendship, and Loyalty
THEMATIC QUESTIONS for classroom discussion
No family is perfect, but when does a family become dysfunctional? Is the Lund family dysfunctional only because of Ron Lund's drinking? If Ron Lund had quit drinking, would his family have become less dysfunctional? What about the Skoro family? Did Betty Lund herself come from a dysfunctional family? How did her early experience impact the way she related to her husband and son?
Is time travel into the past possible? If it were possible, do you think one could change the past? Suppose you traveled back in time and your time machine landed on top of your great, great grandmother and killed her. Would you then cease to exist?
What are some of the problems created by Ron Lund's use of alcohol? How have these problems affected others? Can Ron Lund control his drinking? Can anyone else? How does Ron's drinking affect the way his son Jack views the world?
Ron Lund is violent and abusive toward Betty, his wife. What might be some of the reasons for his behavior? Why do you think she stays with him? Do you think he wants to change? What would it take?
Are human beings predestined to live and die according to a set plan, or do we have some control over the direction our lives take? Is there any such thing as fate?
Love, Friendship, & Loyalty
Jack, Scud, and Andie form a classic love triangle. Jack and Scud are good friends, but they both love the same girl. Scud was in love with Andie before Jack showed up. Has Jack betrayed Scud's friendship by loving Andie? Later, when Scud finds out that Andie and Jack are in love, he attacks Jack and leaves him in the jungle to die. Did Scud betray Jack's friendship? Is there any way that Jack and Scud could have remained friends?
Language Arts: Narrative and Metaphor
· Mr. Was is presented in a non-linear fashion. In other words, the events in the book are not told in the order in which they occur. Why did the author write the book that way? Does it have anything to do with the time travel element? Note that the book opens and closes with two ³author's notes.² Are these notes based on real events, or did the author make it all up? Note that the book was published in 1996, but the note at the end of the book is dated December 31, 1999.
· Mr. Was contains numerous metaphors. What (if anything) is represented by:
The metal door?
The cherry bombs?
The Memory Institute?
Science: Time Travel The light we see from the stars is tens or hundreds of years old. In a way, we are seeing into the distant past, but can we go there? And every day of our lives we travel through time into the future. But is it possible to jump minutes, hours, or years into the future? Is time travel really possible? If so, then why haven't we been visited by time travelers from the future?
Students interested in time travel could check out these excellent novels:
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein
Time and Again by Jack Finney
History: The Great Depression, World War II, and Small Town America
· During the 1930s America experienced an economic depression. Jobs and money were scarce. The depression was particularly hard on people in small towns. How did the characters in Mr. Was deal with hard times?
· Some of the most brutal and deadly battles of World War II were fought on the islands of the South Pacific such as Guadalcanal. What made the fighting there so deadly? Why were Japan and the United States so eager to control such a tiny island? If the Japanese had kept control of Guadalcanal, might it have changed the outcome of the war?
· When Jack first arrives in Memory in 1993, the population is 40. But when he goes back in time to 1941, the population is 880. Many other small town across America have lost most of their population. What social and economic forces are behind this trend?
Health: Alcoholism, Violence, and Dreams
· Ron Lund, Jack's father, can't control his behavior when he drinks alcohol. Why does he drink? Why can't he stop drinking?
· Both Jack's father and his grandfather resort to violence when they don't get their way. Is violence an effective way to deal with problems? Did either man get what he wanted?
· The author of Mr. Was was inspired to write the book because of a recurring dream he had as a teenager. Do dreams shape our lives? Are they useful? Have you ever made a decision in your waking life because of something you dreamed?
Dealing with the "Oedipus Question"
by Pete Hautman
Mr. Was was not conceived and written as a "kids book." I originally wrote the book for an adult audience, and as such it is quite complex both in terms of its narrative structure and its subject matter. It is not an easy reader.
To my surprise, it was teens who came to embrace the book. Mr. Was has been taught in classes as young as sixth grade, and is most commonly read by seventh- and eighth-graders. One thing that comes up often in classroom discussions is what I call the "Oedipus Question." Jack Lund falls in love with a girl who turns out to be his grandmother and they become romantically involved. Is this not wrong?
The question can lead to some interesting class discussions, to say the least. Often, when I visit middle schools some brave kid will ask me the "Oedipus question." In response, I make the following points:
1. When Jack meets Andie she is only sixteen, therefore she is not yet his grandmother.
2. Neither Jack nor Andie could possibly know of their future relationship, so how can it be wrong for them to have feelings for each other?
Occasionally a student will insist that Jack and Andie violated the laws of God or nature by having sexual relations. I point out that this never happened in the book, or if it did, it was never alluded to or mentioned. Falling in love does not necessarily imply immediate sexual congress--not even in books.
Another student might point out, "Yes, but in the end, even after they knew they were related, they go off to live together." That is true. Andy and Jack still love each other deeply, but their love has matured. They are not sixteen anymore. They are old. There is no reason to assume that they go off to live as man and wife.
We can't control everything that happens in our lives. We can't change the past, we are limited in our ability to alter the future, we can't stop people from being who they are, and we can't decide with whom we will fall in love. These are the tragedies faced by Jack Lund--and all of us.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
John R. (Jack) Lund, (aka Mr. Was)
Other main characters
Elizabeth (Betty) Lund
Ronald (Ron) Lund
Franklin (Scud) Scudder (aka Grandpa Skoro)
Andrea (Andie) Skoro (nee Murphy)
Pincus Q. (Pinky) Boggs
Hermie and Harry Gleason
Old Man Murphy
Mr. & Mrs. Tsurumi
Dr. Lazlo Groth
Robert (Bobby) Dennison
Pete Hautman (fictional)
Read the first chapter here.