PIGS CAN’T SWIM

Helen Peppe

With everything happening on Helen Peppe’s backwoods Maine farm: ferocious sibling rivalry, rock-bottom poverty, feral male chauvinism, sex in the hayloft—life was out of control, even for the animals. Despite the chaos, in telling her family’s story, Peppe manages deadpan humor, an unerring eye for the absurd, and a touching compassion for her utterly overwhelmed parents. While her feisty resilience and candor will inevitably remind readers of Jeanette Wall or Mary Karr, Peppe’s wry insight and moments of tenderness with family and animals are entirely her own.

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With everything happening on Helen Peppe’s backwoods Maine farm: ferocious sibling rivalry, rock-bottom poverty, feral male chauvinism, sex in the hayloft—life was out of control, even for the animals. Despite the chaos, in telling her family’s story, Peppe manages deadpan humor, an unerring eye for the absurd, and a touching compassion for her utterly overwhelmed parents. While her feisty resilience and candor will inevitably remind readers of Jeanette Wall or Mary Karr, Peppe’s wry insight and moments of tenderness with family and animals are entirely her own.

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  • Da Capo Press
  • Hardcover
  • February 2014
  • 272 Pages
  • 9780306822728

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$15.99

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About Helen Peppe

Helen Peppe, writer and photographer, lives near Portland Maine, with her two children, four dogs, eight rescued rabbits, four guinea pigs, and two destructive kittens.

Author Website

Praise

“A writer and photographer’s wry but poignant account of her hardscrabble childhood and adolescence in rural New England…Unsentimental in its character portrayals and forthright yet humorous in its depiction of devastated innocence and family dysfunction, Peppe’s book is a celebration of difference, resilience and the healing power of love.”Kirkus Review

Discussion Questions

1. Peppe identifies most locations by descriptions, and most people by characteristics (Blustery-and-favored Brother, Sister-who-holds-grudges-longer-than-God, Hair-twirling-pretty sister, tough-yet-admirable sister, Sad-tittering sister, and Sister of poor choices). Why do you think she chose to describe locations and people in this way? Did this help you connect to the characters better?

2. Helen is an oddity in the family. She is the youngest, a vegetarian, an avid reader, and an animal lover. How do her siblings and parents treat her and communicate with her because of these differences?

3. We are shown a detailed view of rural Maine. The description comes from a child’s perspective that is often light-hearted and humorous. Does the humor hide the depressing nature of how the family lives? Does the parent’s love for their children outweigh the moments of neglect?

4. Helen is always immersed in a book, and mentions that the fictional worlds of Stephen King always seemed so much safer than her own reality. What was it about her own reality that seemed so unsafe to her?

5. Peppe creates an insular world for her family, and only when the outside world intrudes, do problems emerge. If this is the case, why are Helen and her siblings always trying to escape?

6. The title, Pigs Can’t Swim, relates to Waterboro, the pig her brother picks up on their road trip. Even after the family sees Waterboro swimming, they still decide pigs can’t swim. What does that show about the family? Do they have the time, desire, or means to really examine this type of question?

7. Throughout the first half of the book, the tone is humorous and the child’s perspective provides an innocent view of a life she has yet to question. As darker experiences are described – the hair-twirling-pretty sister’s abusive relationship and Helen’s molestation – the tone shifts. Did you notice this shift? Do you still see humor? How does the tone throughout relate to Helen’s resiliency?

8. Freedom is a main theme. The siblings are constantly trying to find ways to escape. Dakota provides Helen with physical freedom, books provide a mental escape, and Eric provides companionship and support. Where else does Helen search for freedom? Does the support she receives from other characters connect to her search for escape?