Book Group Guide

The questions that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of THE INTERPRETER by Alice Kaplan


1. For French writer Louis Guilloux, being an interpreter was much more than just a wartime profession. What did serving as an interpreter mean to him, and how did he embrace this role both during the courts-martial and throughout his life?

2. At their core, both the James Hendricks case and the George Whittington case are about two “trigger-happy drunken soldiers” (132). The two men, however, experience wildly different fates. Do you think the American authorities acted with good intentions in both trials, of Hendricks and Whittington? Was there any bad faith involved, or is this a story of good intentions gone awry?

3. In an Army that was only 8.5% black, an astounding 79% of the enlisted men executed for capital crimes during World War II were black (7). What conditions in the Army — and in the world — at that time help us account for that appalling statistic? Do you think that those conditions influenced the behavior of James Hendricks on that disastrous night? Were you aware before reading The Interpreter that the soldiers fighting in World War II were segregated by race? With all the attention given to the civil rights movement in the American South, why is so little known about segregation in the Armed Forces?

4. In the Army’s handbook for interacting with civilians, U.S. soldiers were informed that French women were “naturally erotic” (21). Where did that kind of misinformation originate? What do you think the effect of that teaching was on the soldiers’ subsequent dealings with French women?

5. Kaplan refers us to philosopher Thomas Nagel’s essay, “Moral Luck,” which describes three kinds of luck: “luck in our upbringing or personal attributes, luck in our life circumstances, luck in the outcomes of our actions” (28). Discuss these three kinds of luck as they apply to James Hendricks and George Whittington.

6. Of the men who served on the Court Martial in Morlaix, who was most vivid to you: Joe Greene? Ralph Fogarty? James Craighill? Juan Sedillo? Louis Guilloux himself? Whom did you identify with, and whom did you dislike?

7. What does it mean that “the U.S. Army was both visionary and reactionary in its sensitivity to rape” (154)? More than fifty years later, where does the U.S. Army stand on the issue? Have things changed for the better?
8. Why was the issue of national identity such an important factor in the Whittington case? Do you think that if Francis Morand’s nationality had been more certain Whittington would still have been exonerated?

9. One of Guilloux’s more sensitive assignments was soliciting explicit details from Noémie Bignon about her attempted rape. Why did this task in particular make it difficult for Guilloux to remain impartial?

10. The image of James Hendricks as a sexual predator was repeatedly introduced in his trial. Do you think that if Hendricks had shot Victor Bignon through the door but had not assaulted his wife that he still would have been sentenced to death? Numerous scholars have argued that enforcing the death penalty for the crime of rape was “a form of racial control” (85). How do you explain that argument?

11. American soldiers sentenced for crimes of rape and murder of French civilians during the Liberation were hanged in public, in the communities where their crimes had taken place — this was ten years after public executions had been outlawed in the States. Why did the Army believe it was important to punish criminal soldiers with French witnesses on hand? Do you agree or disagree with the policy? Even today, does the military need different standards of sentencing and punishment than civilian courts?

12. Guilloux wrote his novel about the trials, OK, Joe, in 1964, a tumultuous time and the height of the civil rights movement in the States. How do you think this time period, as well as the events of Guilloux’s life after the war, helped shape the novel?

13. In his novel, Guilloux omitted several key elements of the Hendricks case, including the attempted rape and the fact that Hendricks served under a black commander. Why do you think he left these details out? How would their omission affect the story?

14. Why do you think that Guilloux ultimately decided to shape his experiences into a novel instead of a memoir? Why do you think Louis Guilloux gave his novel the title OK, Joe (a strange choice for a book written in French)? What did the way Americans talked to one another tell him about the American character?

About the Author

Alice Kaplan was born in 1954 in Minneapolis, the youngest of three children. She studied as an undergraduate at Vassar College and at the University of California at Berkeley, and received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1981. Her thesis was published in 1986 as Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life in the prestigious “History and Theory of Literature” collection at the University of Minnesota Press. In 1988, Kaplan published a French book-length critique of Céline’s first anti-Semitic pamphlet, Bagatelles pour un massacre. The 1993 French Lessons, an autobiographic account of her passion for the French language, became a best-seller for the University of Chicago Press. The book was chosen as “Notable Book of the Year” by the New York Times and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Written on a Guggenheim Foundation grant, Kaplan’s next book, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (2000), was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. The Collaborator was chosen as a “Notable Book of 2000” both by the New York Times and the American Library Association and ultimately won the 2000 Los Angeles Times Book Award in History.

A Professor of Romance Studies and Literature at Duke University, Kaplan founded Duke’s Center for French and Francophone Studies and served as its first director. She has been a member of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary since 1997 and serves on the editorial board of the South Atlantic Quarterly journal. In addition to her original writing and scholarship, she is also a translator, most notably of the French writer Roger Grenier, of whom she has translated three books: Le Pierrot noir, Les Larmes d’Ulysse, and Partita. Currently, Kaplan divides her time between Durham, North Carolina, and Paris.