Book Club Questions: Sadie by Courtney Summers

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

Both of us were pretty blown away by this novel. The way in which the story is told – podcast transcripts alternating with first-person narration – could have been absolutely awkward and clunky in the hands of a lesser author, but Courtney Summers’ subtle hand and complex approach to character results in a novel that is a simple and quiet masterpiece.

Although the book is touted as a thriller in its marketing, I would disagree. It’s certainly a page-turner, as many YA novels are (readability being a thing that YA authors tend to strive for, for some reason), but to me “thriller” connotes a sense of cheapness, of base tricks employed to keep my interest going until the last page. Sadie is remarkable for its respect of its subject matter, and for the way in which it makes us confront our reliance on established narratives to explain away the people who get lost in the margins of our world.

Discussion questions below the cut!

An immediately noticeable and unusual feature of Sadie is the alternating Serial-style and first-person perspective chapters. Why do you think Courtney Summers chose this format for her book? Imagine the book without the radio show chapters; how would this change your understanding of the story if all we received was Sadie’s perspective? How about the other way around, all radio show and no Sadie?

Young Adult has always been a rather loosely defined genre. If you had read this book without knowing whether it was “young adult” or “adult,” to which group would you have assumed it belonged? Why?

When Sadie begins to dance with Javi at Cooper’s, she thinks, “I know your name […] I know your name and you have no idea who I am.” Consider the relationship between West McCray and Sadie. Of these two people who never actually meet, who has the most power, in any sense? What do you think a journalist, regardless of their medium, owes to the people who feature in their stories–or do they owe nothing at all? Justify your answer.

When Sadie thinks back to Mattie’s birth, she thinks, “Here was the promise of something. I knew that I could be her world. I knew she was definitely going to be mine. I just wanted to matter to someone.” When I read these words, I was reminded of Love at Goon Park by Deborah Blum, in which the author says, “Sometimes it seems that this is the hole in the dike, the chink in the armor, of our very successful species–our need not just to be loved, but to feel loved, when no one is guaranteed either.” Do you think Sadie is loved? Do you think Sadie feels loved? If your answer to these questions was different, do you think Sadie’s story would have turned out differently? Why or why not?

When Paul Good is speaking to West McCray, he says about Claire, Sadie, and Mattie that he always felt “like the three of them were doomed. I guess I always knew there wasn’t going to be a happy ending for ‘em. When you called me, caught me up on what happened to all of them… I don’t know. I want to say I was surprised but I’m not. But it’s sad. It’s damn sad.” How much of Sadie’s story do you feel was inevitable? How much control did Sadie have over her own story? How about Claire or Mattie? Justify your answers.

When West McCray speaks to Claire Southern, she says, “You know what everyone likes to forget about me? I was a kid. I was a kid when I got into all that shit. I was a kid addict. I was a kid when I had Sadie. And my mother–my mother dying. I was a kid for that too. I was an orphan. I’m not making excuses but I don’t understand why Sadie was too young for everything I put her through, but I… I was just somehow old enough for the shit that got thrown at me.” What do you think differentiates Claire from Sadie, as far as how much we condemn the former while feeling sympathy and understanding for the latter? Do you think Claire could have done better in dealing with the circumstances life gave her? Do you think Sadie could have done better?

When Sadie is arguing with Ellis at the Bluebird Motel, she thinks, “I can’t describe how bad it feels, this inability to communicate the way I want, when I need to. My eyes burn, and tears slip down my cheeks and I can’t even imagine how pathetic I look. Girl with a busted face, torn-up arm, begging for the opportunity to save other girls. Why do I have to beg for that?” What do you think the presence of Sadie’s stutter does to further the story that Summers is telling? How does it shape our understanding of Sadie as a person? When Sadie briefly hears West McCray speaking on the radio, she describes his voice as “distractingly clean and gentle, sort of smooth in the exact same way Silas Baker’s was.” How would you describe Sadie’s narrative voice in this book, in comparison to West McCray’s? What kind of story are each of them telling you, and in what way?

When Sadie is talking to Nell and sees her Baby-Sitters Club book, Sadie thinks, “I remember that one and it’s strange to remember it. I forget that at times, I was a kid, that I did kid things. That I read about the girls I dreamed of being. That I did things like play in the dirt and make mud cakes. Drew pictures myself. Caught fireflies in the summertime.” A frequent subgenre of films and contemporary fiction novels is “coming of age” stories. What are the hallmarks of a “coming of age” story? Have you ever read a book or watched a movie with a “coming of age” story for a character of Sadie’s background? If your answer is no, why do you think that is? If your answer is yes, consider ways in which the story you saw differed from the standard “coming of age” narrative, and why that would be the case.

When West McCray goes to May Beth’s home for the last time, he first meets Claire in the kitchen and says in his radio narration, “We’re silent for a while, as though we’re both holding out hope Sadie will miraculously show up, will appear, walking up the drive, disrupting the narrative one final time.” What is the set narrative to which West McCray refers? Do you think Sadie’s plausible death disrupts it or supports it? Why do you think Summers does not give us a first-person chapter from Sadie which would make her death explicit in the book, rather than strongly suggested?

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