The Celestial Jukebox

A Novel by Cynthia Shearer

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About the book

Set in the invented Mississippi Delta town of Madagascar, Cynthia Shearer’s The Celestial Jukebox depicts a rural South dependent on agribusiness and the fruits of some less attractive forms of capitalism—gambling and other vices. Into this world comes Boubacar, a fifteen-year-old African boy joining friends from Mauritania already living in the area. They are new African blacks not especially noteworthy in a town filled with Chinese emigrants, African Americans within memory of slavery, and straggling members of the original white families of the area. Presiding over Madagascar is Angus, the second-generation Delta Chinese proprietor of the Celestial Grocery, with his vintage jukebox and its treasure of Slim Harpo, Sam Cooke, and Wanda Jackson songs.

The ties that bind the lives in this community together are American roots music and the desire to make a home in the rural South. The purity and beauty of Cynthia Shearer’s writing—like the purity of music that exists within this story, an imagined soundtrack of more than thirty songs—marks The Celestial Jukebox as that most rare book, a novel as historically expansive as it is intimate, filled with music, wisdom, and spontaneous joy.

About the author

Cynthia Shearer is the former curator of Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, and holds an M.A. in English from the University of Mississippi. She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her first novel, The Wonder Book of the Air, received the 1996 prize for fiction from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.

For discussion

  1. What is Boubacar’s legal status as he enters the United States from Mauritania, a country where slavery is still practiced?
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  3. How do the various characters in the novel differ in their backgrounds and experiences that bring them to reside in Madagascar?
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  5. What are some of the mistaken impressions Boubacar forms about American culture, and what causes these impressions? How does the Wastrel attempt to control the boy’s reactions to American culture? How seriously does the boy take his comments, such as his anti-Semitic remarks?
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  7. What is the basis of the longstanding friendship between Angus Chien, Dean Fondren, and Aubrey Ellerbee? How do the events of Aubrey’s childhood bind them together when Aubrey is an adult?
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  9. What attracts Angus Chien to Consuela, the Honduran immigrant? What are her reasons for arriving in Madagascar?
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  11. The character “Bebe Marie” was inspired by a work of art by the same name done by Joseph Cornell, the reclusive avant-garde collage artist whose primary medium was found objects. In what ways does she employ found objects in her art? Self-taught artists often begin their most productive periods after experiencing deep trauma. What is the trauma that Bebe Marie has experienced, and how is it related to the French surrealist exhibition of 1938? Are her works of art pure expression or are they social commentary?
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  13. Why is the character Raine Matthews so deeply affected by Bebe Marie’s birdhouses? How is Bebe Marie the catalyst that brings Raine to a romantic attachment with the Jukebox Man?
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  15. What is the significance of the vintage (1938) National steel guitar in The Celestial Jukebox? What does the guitar represent to the African boy Boubacar, and how is that different from what it represents to the American boy Chance? Why does Raine not attempt to reclaim the guitar at the end of the novel?
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  17. What does Boubacar’s visit to the African American church service reveal to him about the merging of Muslim and Christian faiths in America?
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  19. What do Dean Fondren’s thoughts about and behavior toward Peregrine Smith-Jones reveal about his character? Do they compromise in any way his love for his wife?
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  21. Why does Boubacar want to get to Rush, New York, after September 11?
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  23. Is there a double meaning to the title The Celestial Jukebox? Is the jukebox a symbol?
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  25. Why is so much of the music mentioned in this novel not contemporary or very well known at the time the characters are hearing it? How is the African boy’s valuation of music different from the Wastrel’s, and how is his interest in music different from the American boy Chance’s interest in music?
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  27. Why is the fate of each character still unknown at the end of the novel?