Jesus Land

Julia Scheeres

About the Author:
Julia Scheeres, is a journalist and nonfiction author. Born in Lafayette, Indiana, Scheeres received a bachelor's degree in Spanish from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a master's in journalism from the University of Southern California. Now living and working in San Francisco, California, she has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Wired News, and LA Weekly. She is a 2006 recipient of the Alex Awards.  (Wikipedia)

Julia and her adopted brother, David, are sixteen-years-old. Julia is white. David is black. It is the mid-1980s and their family has just moved to rural Indiana, a landscape of cottonwood trees, trailer parks, and an all-encompassing racism. At home are a distant mother—more involved with her church’s missionaries than her own children—and a violent father. In this riveting and heartrending memoir Julia Scheeres takes us from the Midwest to a place beyond imagining: surrounded by natural beauty, the Escuela Caribe—a religious reform school in the Dominican Republic—is characterized by a disciplinary regime that extracts repentance from its students by any means necessary. Julia and David strive to make it through these ordeals and their tale is relayed here with startling immediacy, extreme candor, and wry humor.  (From the publisher)

Discussion Questions:

  • Throughout Jesus Land, Julia oscillates between close identification with David (referring to "our color," for example), involuntary alienation from him (as when he and Jerome are pitted against the rest of the family), and intentional attempts to separate herself from him (as she does during high school).  Does her perception of her relationship with David affect her perception of herself?  How?
  • Julia and David have very different attitudes toward the concept of "family."  What does it mean to be a family?  Is Julia's cynicism about it ever belied by any of her family relationships?  Are any of them a source of strength for her?  Does David's enduring hope for an accepting, united family harm him?  Is his faith in the concept ever justified?
  • Julia has a number of very different sexual encounters in the course of the memoir.  How does each of them shape her views about sex?  Why do you think she doesn't tell David about Jerome?
  • Julia and David encounter a great deal of talk about faith.  What do they have faith in?  How does their faith differ from that of the adults around them?
  • People's reactions to David's race are a source of abuse -- both voluntary and involuntary.  What are Julia's attitudes toward race and how do they affect David?  Is race ever used as an excuse by characters in the book to justify other issues?
  • Do Julia and David learn anything worthwhile from their time at Escuela Caribe?
  • How do horseplay and humor figure into Julia and David's relationship?  What about fantasy? 
  • Does the effect Christianity has on the predominant culture differ between Indiana and Escuela Caribe?  How is the religion interpreted to enforce the status quo?  Does the rigidity of the Christian culture of Escuela Caribe ever make it easier to subvert?
  • Throughout the book, Julia describes and names the music she is hearing.  How is music used by Julia, her mother, and the people at Escuela Caribe?
  • Jesus Land is written as a memoir focused around the relationship between Julia and David.  How does the form affect your reaction to the story?  How would you respond differently if it had been written as a novel based on real events, an expose of Escuela Caribe, a documentary on racism in Indiana, or some other format?

(Reading Group Guides)