In the Shadow of the Ark Discussion Guide
- Grades: 9–12
About this book
"In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened."
About the Book
In the Shadow of the Ark takes its inspiration from the Biblical account of the Flood. Re Jana and her family leave the rising waters of the marshess for the desert, where it is rumored that the largest vessel of all time is being built. It seems an absurd undertaking, but as a boatbuilder, Re Jana's father is able to convince Noach (the Builder) and his three sons of his expertise and establish a new home for his family. A forbidden love blossoms between Re Jana and the Builder's youngest son, Ham. As work on the ark progresses, more and more questions are raised about its purpose, and the Builder can no longer hide the fact that the vessel is not for everyone, but only for animals and a select company of human beings. When the Flood actually arrives, everyone wants to get aboard, but the. With the help of Ham, Re Jana is able to smuggle herself aboard as a stowaway. Life on the ark is gruelling and dangerous. Shifting power relationships, betrayal and rejection and finally starvation threaten to prove fatal to those on board. But then the ark runs aground and Re Jana's son can become the founder of a new dynasty in a new--though not necessarily better--world.
Overall Discussion Points
1. Re Jana and her father are constantly comparing the Rrattika with their own people, saying, for example, "[Their god] is fed up with this roaming people… [who] hardly show any progress." (p. 150) The Rrattika always come out on the worse end. Why does the author set up these two "camps" (Re Jana's family and the Rrattika) as opposites, and why do the Rrattika always fare so badly?
2. In Chapter 32 we learn Neelata's story. How does it compare to the greater story of the flood and the Ark? How can the Unnameable be compared to the King?
3. There are a number of different views of death in IN THE SHADOW OF THE ARK-Alem's death, Re Jana's mother's death, the death of the masses trying to get on the Ark, Zaza's suicide. Are any of these deaths more noble or more tragic than the others?
4. Anne Provoost writes (p. 163): "For the sake of the children, the elderly, the sick, and the weak, it would be better not to talk about it," and "Because there was no new information to confirm the old, the usual happened: Messages of doom were forgotten." This motif of "messages of doom" being forgotten runs throughout the Hebrew Bible. Can you think of some examples? Why does this usually happen?
5. The chapter titled "The Incident in the Cave" contains the most significant theological discussion in the novel. Re Jana's father challenges the Builder with rational arguments and the Builder responds with faith-based arguments. Which argument seems more valid to you, and why?
6. When Re Jana is hidden in the dodoes' cage on the Ark, she says at one point that the voyage "felt like an imprisonment, like a trial or a trick." Interestingly, at no point does she call the journey a salvation. Consider which one of these (imprisonment, trial, trick, or salvation) each of the voyagers would use to describe his or her experience. How does the attitude behind that choice affect the character's destiny?
7. Re Jana hangs from a rope off the Ark and begs her father to take her on to his papyrus boat, but he refuses. Why, ultimately, do you think he turns her down?
8. The flood is only ever referred to in the novel as a calamity, not a miracle. Why?
9. Re Jana has a number of guesses as to the purpose of the Ark before she learns its true function. All of these guesses assume, in some way or another, that the contents of the Ark are meant to be a sacrifice to the Unnameable. In the end, is she right?
10. The second-to-last sentence of the novel is: "The flood did not wipe out evil." What kind of statement is the author making? Do you agree?
Discussion Points - Character
1. The Builder calls Re Jana "the dwarf in a new shape" (p. 335). What does he mean by that? How has Re Jana's role changed, in the Builder's eyes, from the time when she was dressed as a boy and first questioned his actions until the moment when he tells Ham to leave her behind with him?
2. Re Jana's mother and the Unnameable are two characters who do not speak and yet make their wants known-Re Jana's mother to Re Jana and her father, and the Unnameable to the Builder. How are their wishes understood? Are they always understood accurately?
3. Of the central characters in the novel, there are three mothers and three fathers: Re Jana's mother, Zaza, and Re Jana herself; and Re Jana's father, Alem, and the Builder. What sacrifices do each of them make for their children? Which do you think is the greatest sacrifice?
4. Ham is very different from his brothers Shem and Japheth and he is the one the novel treats the most sympathetically. How? What actions or words sway the reader to his side?
5. When there is tension between Re Jana's parents it has "an unexpected effect on Put…He behaved like a cornered animal" (p.194). Compare his actions in this passage to the descriptions of him at the end of the Ark's voyage.
6. Neelata, Zedebab, and Taneses-three different women, three different wives. Why are they chosen as helpmates to the Builder's three sons and mothers to the future generations?
7. Compare the descriptions of the Builder when we first encounter him (p. 79) and after Zaza's suicide (p. 332). What is the reader's perception of him by the first description? Does it change over the course of the novel?
8. Aside from the main characters, the book describes very few people among the masses working on and living near the Ark. There is one notable exception, however: Camia, to whom a whole chapter (albeit a short one) is dedicated. Why her?
9. The Builder addresses the people in two very short speeches on pages 135 and 273. They aren't very explanatory, and yet the Builder seems to think they're sufficient. Does this indicate a disconnection between the Builder and the people? The Unnameable One and the people? If you were one of the people there hearing these speeches, what would you think was going to happen?
10. In most works of fiction one can argue that the setting acts as a character in addition to the rest of the characters in the work. Here the narrative begins in the marshes, moves to the desert, settles on the Ark, and then ends in the "paradise" where the Ark lands. In what way does the setting as character affect the rest of the characters in the novel?
Discussion Points -- Themes
1. The Unnameable One chooses to "cleanse" the Earth with water, and the author chooses in Re Jana a character who knows how to find water with a "divining rod" and who uses water to cleanse the Builder's family. Is the author suggesting a comparison between the Unnameable and Re Jana? Is her likeness to the Unnameable perhaps why Re Jana is saved? How does this comparison play out in other respects regarding Re Jana's fate?
2. On page 34, Re Jana's father states that to the Rrattika, "A woman's quality is judged by the taste of the water she brings." And so it would seem that Re Jana would be judged well. But Re Jana's father goes on to condemn her sharing her water with the Rrattika, saying it will make Re Jana the "slave of a thirsty man." Does his prediction come true in the end?
3. When the flood occurs, creation is undone: The waters of the Heaven and the Earth that were separated at the time of creation come together again (see pg. 273 and Genesis 1: 6-8). Are there other reversals that occur in IN THE SHADOW OF THE ARK? (Note, for example, the description of the Ark, pg. 107, as "a city turned in on itself.")
1. Compare the Builder's unquestioning faith in the Unnameable's plan to Ham's faith. By the end of the novel, after the calamity of the flood, how has each man changed or stayed the same?
2. Re Jana observes the Builder and says, "He has been abandoned by his god" (p. 329). Soon after Neelata comments, "Anything the boys and their father cannot understand they've called the Unnameable" (p. 338). Have they correctly observed and judged the faith of others? What do their comments indicate about their own faith?
3. Re Jana's father tells Re Jana: "Forget what I have taught you and abide by His wishes." Is he the only one who recognizes the power of the god who brought the flood?
1. Re Jana's mother wants her husband to finish his truss-boat and worries that time is running out. He tells her there'll be time because "we earned it in the cave" (p. 231), referring to his conversation with the Builder. What does he mean? What does this say about the process of questioning the Unnameable's commandments and actions?
2. The people believe their "obedience" in helping to build the ark will bring them "prosperity, not punishment" (p. 88). Why doesn't it?
3. For Zaza the reward of salvation is not enough: "I am too tired for [the Builder's] paradise" (p. 326). In fact, it seems, she doesn't really believe they will arrive in paradise and only supported the Builder's plan because "a dream is better than emptiness." Does everyone on the ark view their place on it as a reward? What about Re Jana's father and Put?
1. In true Shakespearean fashion Re Jana disguises herself as a boy and then "becomes" a woman again later on. What benefits are there to her being a boy? What does she lose by agreeing to the deceit and disguise?
2. Compare Neelata and Re Jana, the two "wives" of Ham. How do they treat others? How do their interactions with the brothers and the Builder differ?
3. When Zaza dies, the text reads, "all knowledge of motherhood had been lost with her," and yet by the end of the novel a new mother is "born"-Re Jana. How does Re Jana's example of motherhood and womanhood differ from Zaza's?
1. Ham builds a secret niche for Re Jana on the ark, hoping to hide her from the Builder. But it's the Unnameable who dictated the dimensions of the Ark and specified its occupants, not the Builder. Does Ham think he can hide the niche from the Unnameable One? What does this say about his faith? His deceit leads directly to the dwarf committing suicide-might that be Ham's punishment?
2. Consider all the voyagers' different kinds of deceit while on the Ark. Which ones, if any, come to a good end and which ones do not?
3. Re Jana and her father hide the truth of the calamity about to occur from Re Jana's mother because they fear her reaction. Was this a good decision on their part? Why or why not?
Other Books to Compare and Contrast
The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. Picador USA, 1998.
Queenmaker: A Novel of King David's Queen, by India Edghill. Picador USA, 2002
The Preservationist, by David Maine. St. Martin's Press, 2004.
About the Author
Anne Provoost was born in Belgium in 1964 and studied literature and education at the University of Leuven. She spent a year and a half in the United States after completing her studies, writing her first novel, My Aunt Is a Pilot Whale (Mijn tante is een grindewal), while living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The book was published in Dutch in 1991 and translated into English three years later. Her second novel, Falling (Vallen), was published in Dutch in 1994. It was translated into English by John Nieuwenhuizen in 1997 and later made into an English-language feature film. Provoost retold the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast" as The Rose and the Swine (De Roos en het Zwijn, 1997), transforming the familiar story into a saga of guilt and penance, mercy and justice. A similar metamorphosis occurs in In the Shadow of the Ark, published in Dutch as De Arkvaarders in 2001. It has since been translated into Swedish, German, Danish, and now English.
Together Anne Provoost's four books have been translated into ten languages and received practically every major literary award for works in Dutch. They have also been chosen for many international honors, including selection to the International Board on Books for Young People honor list. Provoost was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Dutch Language and Literature in 2003. With their complex themes and sometimes pointed points of view, her books would be expected to carry heavy messages; the author, however, denies this vehemently. "If you have to talk about a message, then I would like to limit myself to one thing: stretching the reader's empathic abilities," she says.
Anne Provoost lives with her husband and three children in Antwerp, Belgium.