This reading group guide for THE GREAT TRANSITION includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nick Fuller Googins
. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
For fans of Station Eleven
and The Ministry for the Future
, this richly imaginative, immersive, and “profound” (Alice Elliott Dark, author of Fellowship Point
) novel is the electrifying story of a family in crisis that unfolds against the backdrop of our near future.
Emi Vargas, whose parents helped save the world, is tired of being told how lucky she is to have been born after the climate crisis. But following the public assassination of a dozen climate criminals, Emi’s mother, Kristina, a possible suspect, disappears, and Emi’s illusions of utopia are shattered. A determined Emi and her father, Larch, journey from their home in Nuuk, Greenland to New York City, now a lightly populated storm-surge outpost built from the ruins of the former metropolis. But they aren’t the only ones looking for Kristina.
Thirty years earlier, Larch first came to New York with a team of volunteers to save the city from rising waters and torrential storms. Kristina was on the front lines of a different battle, fighting massive wildfires that ravaged the western United States. They became part of a movement that changed the world—the Great Transition—forging a new society and finding each other in the process.
Alternating between Emi’s desperate search for her mother and a meticulously rendered, heart-stopping account of her parents’ experiences during the Great Transition, this novel beautifully shows how our actions today determine our fate tomorrow. A triumphant debut, The Great Transition
is a breathtaking rendering of our near future, told through the story of one family trying to protect each other and the place we all call home. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Compare and contrast Emi’s parents, Kristina and Larch. How do they define the future? What are their different priorities for their daughter and themselves?
2. Emi often listens to music (specifically the “oldies”) when she is worried about the planet and wondering what she can do now that the crisis is over. What does this tell us about humanity in the post-Transition future? Do you find yourself using music to cope with anxiety in your life? Do you ever turn to music to grapple with with the big problems facing society?
3. The field producer Joanna Lee reminds Larch that Corps Power
was propaganda: “The good kind. Hearts and minds.” Do you believe Culture Corps had good intentions in televising positive content about fighting the climate crisis? Do you think there such a thing as good propaganda?
4. Larch and Kristina have different ethnic backgrounds. How does race and immigration play a role in their individual worldviews and their outlooks on the future?
5. Kristina says, “School isn’t the only place to learn . . . School can’t teach you how to live with hunger, or go weeks without a shower. The greatest lessons come from life experience.” Do you agree with Kristina’s view? Why do you think the author, who is an elementary school teacher, would include this perspective in his novel?
6. We get to witness the progress of Emi’s North American History paper for Mrs. Helmandi’s class. What do these drafts reveal to readers? How was this component necessary for the novel?
7. Larch’s best friend, Lucas, is Puerto Rican. However, he views the Transition differently from Kristina, who was born and raised in central Mexico. If Lucas and Kristina are both refugees from the Global South, why don’t they share similar views? How do they interpret their experiences differently?
8. “A revolution is not a tea party” is thrown into conversations multiple times throughout the book, a variation of the famous saying coined by Mao Zedong. What does this phrase mean to you? Can a revolution be peaceful? Give examples of historic revolutions that emulate, or contradict, that slogan.
9. Why do you think Indigenous people are exempt from extraction duty? What does this tell readers in regard to the relationship between Indigenous people and North American land post-Transition?
10. Kristina abruptly leaves Emi and Larch to work for the Furies. Later, Kristina tells Larch that she did it to keep her family safe. How does Kristina view parenting, in comparison to how Larch views it? Do you consider Kristina to be a good mother? How do traditional parenting roles play into this conversation?
11. Reena and Angel, who befriend Emi in New York, want to join the Furies and participate in the revolution. Do you think children and young adults have a place in this revolution? In what ways do children and teenagers today become involved in political conversations, such as those about gun control or the climate? Should they be involved? Why or why not?
12. Socioeconomics play a huge role in this book. We learn that the Furies are targeting rich officials whose actions led to the climate crisis. In a conversation between members of Larch’s deconstruction crew, his coworker Ellen says “The rich are coming off a two-hundred-year rager that burned our planet to the ground. We’re the cleanup crew. The moment we’re done the party will be back on. And if you think you’re getting an invite, Larch, I just feel sorry for you.” What are your thoughts about the class gap? Do you believe, if given the chance, the rich will relinquish their lifestyles and accept a lower standard of living? Is there a chance that a new, more equal “normal” can be instated?
13. Larch is vocal about Emi enjoying her youth and participating in celebrations. Are celebrations essential to society? Can joy be defined as another form of resistance? In what ways do you practice active joy?
14. Larch and Kristina’s love story is one with many obstacles and much turbulence. Towards the very end of the book, we witness the conversation between the couple about having a child. Why do you think Kristina changed her mind about having a child? Do you think young people today have valid concerns about bringing children into the world, given the ongoing climate crisis? Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Great Transition
emphasizes the importance of environmental and climate activism. Research local climate or environmental groups, an environmental cause in your area, or other ways you can incorporate climate activism into your life. Share these ideas with your book club members.
2. Emi’s love of music, especially “oldies,” is very present throughout the novel, with a particular emphasis on musical artists from the 1990s and 2000s. Visit https://sptfy.com/thegoldenoldies
to enjoy Emi’s playlist with your book club!
3. To learn more about Nick Fuller Googins, visit nickfg.com. A Conversation with Nick Fuller Googins When did you start writing the manuscript for The Great Transition? What inspired you to write this plot centered around the climate crisis?
I started seriously thinking about the novel in 2018, when I was installing solar panels in rural Maine. At the time there was a lot of exciting momentum for big climate solutions, primarily the Green New Deal, a plan to put tens of millions of Americans to work saving the climate, installing solar and wind infrastructure, building public transportation, and so on, transitioning us away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. I felt a glimmer of real hope. Here was a concrete roadmap that we could afford as a country. The only thing preventing it was politics, meaning we could, theoretically, with a lot of work and organizing, make it a reality. So there I was, lugging solar panels up ladders, scrambling around scorching rooftops, and wondering what a mass mobilization to save the planet would look like, and what if I could be a part of it? How might it feel to be one small character in a movement so big and hopeful and transformative? Those were the first seeds of The Great Transition
. Do you think your role as an educator influenced the way you wrote this book and Emi’s character?
I’ve had the fortune of working with children for almost two decades. Now I teach fourth grade, but I’ve taught kids as young as kindergarten and as old as college freshmen. I’ve come to see teaching as emotional and social work first, with academics second. Kids are smaller humans learning how to navigate the joys and traumas of life on our planet (just as most of us bigger humans are still figuring out!). I’ve taught some of the wealthiest children in America, as well as incarcerated children and victims of abuse and devastating poverty. All of them, regardless of background, are simultaneously anxious, sarcastic, silly, hopeful, vulnerable, eager, and present, just like Emi. Emi emerged as a character from all the wonderful kids I’ve worked with, each of them beautifully complex, like her, trying to figure out how to best live life. Kristina and Larch view the future so differently. Between the two, who do you see yourself more in?
I do aspire to Kristina’s passion, her commitment to justice, her belief that the struggle is never fully won. Her mentality was a driving force in my twenties, when I did more activist work. These days, I write in the morning, teach, then maybe go to my book club, or take a walk with my wife, or we’ll stretch, play guitar, see friends, watch TV. I’m involved with some local climate and environmental groups, right now trying to stop my town from giving four acres of our public forest to a developer, but overall I’m in more of a Larch phase, enjoying life. Yet I can’t shake that voice in the back of my head: What am I doing to stop the climate crisis? Why aren’t I doing more? This is a real dilemma of our time, something that so many of us struggle with. Many of us would do anything to save our one and only planet. But we also want to enjoy our short time here. We want to come home from work and go walk in the woods, watch a fun show, wrestle on the couch with our niece and nephew, share a meal with the people we love. So this is my big struggle: figuring out a way to do both, to be Kristina and
Larch. Music is important to Emi in this novel. Why did you choose music as Emi’s coping mechanism?
I used to work as a tutor in Maine’s juvenile prison, where the children were prohibited from using personal electronics, meaning they had almost zero access to music. Of the many daily humiliations and injustices these kids faced, the deprivation of music sometimes felt like the most egregious. Music is essential to our species—no human culture has ever developed without it—but music feels all the more vital during adolescence, when we are bursting to assert our agency, yet still living very prescribed lives. I have a memory from age thirteen, in bed late at night, listening to the Counting Crows, the same song over and over (“Mr. Jones”), rewinding the cassette, playing it again and again, determined to memorize every last lyric. Looking back, obsessing over “Mr. Jones” was probably a way for me to have control over some small part of my life at that age. Emi, who worries there could be another climate crisis, whose mother is always making her feel guilty for being privileged, whose basketball teammates never invite her to anything, turns to Britney, Beyoncé, Taylor, Prince for a sense of comfort, a degree of control. The readers learn about Kristina’s Mexican background and how her immigrant experience impacted her family. Why was it important to you to write in these details? Do you feel that the topic of identity often intersects with the topic of the climate crisis?
Kristina is one of the 1.2 billion people that the climate crisis is projected to displace by 2050. Climate refugees, environmental justice, frontline communities: these are all terms that remind us that the climate crisis is not only polar bears and ice caps but people. Human beings. Families. The crisis will affect us all, but those most harmed will be (and already are) the “frontline communities,” made up primarily of individuals like Kristina: people of color, immigrants, refugees, the poor, those living in the Global South. So Kristina’s background was vital for two reasons; first, to have a broad coalition of all types building a movement large enough to truly transform society, and second, to acknowledge the reality that the people most affected by the climate crisis are often the ones leading the charge, just as many frontline communities are doing in our time, most famously with the Indigenous-led protests of Standing Rock. Kristina is not waiting for some nonprofit or government program to save her. She is not counting on those in power to suddenly do the right thing. She is leading the charge to take power for regular working people and create a better world for all. She lives very much in the spirit of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s famous words: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Why did you choose Greenland and New York as your two settings?
New York and Greenland became central in the fictional world of The Great Transition
because of their real geographic importance given the very real, very bleak climate projections that we are not doing nearly enough to prevent. I happened to be teaching fourth grade in New York City during Hurricane Sandy. I remember lower Manhattan turned off like a light switch. As ocean temperatures rise, storms like Sandy will become stronger and more common in New York, bringing untold suffering and destruction. The utopian in me, however, wanted to imagine a “best worst-case scenario,” and after some searching, I came across a group of amazing urban planners and designers who had rendered a future New York, reconfigured not for permanent habitation, but as an “extraction city” that could capture storm-surge energy. As for Greenland, a mass migration to the poles is inevitable as the planet gets hotter. Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk, is perched on steep cliffs, making it an ideal urban center in a future world with much higher seas. During my research, I was both inspired and dismayed to learn that urban planners are already thinking about long term adaptation, planning decades ahead into the climate crisis. To acknowledge that we aren’t doing a fraction of what’s required to stop the crisis is a bitter truth to swallow, but I’d rather us plan for a best-case future scenario than pretend everything will somehow be fine. Your characters have different outlooks on hope. How do you define hope?
I found inspiration for Kristina’s character in reading oral histories from the Soviet Union, hundreds of stories of regular working people who had lived through purges, famine, World War Two, Chernobyl, and expressed all the bitterness you would imagine yet still believed deeply in the collective project of the Soviet Union to create a better, more equal world. That is Kristina: a generally pessimistic person who has experienced unspeakable traumas and learned to expect the worst from people and systems; yet she is also a hero of the Transition who fights harder than anyone for a future that she doesn’t expect to ever see herself. Larch, on the other hand, embodies more of a classic American optimism, a sort of cheerful, if naive, belief, that things will generally turn out okay on their own, whether we work for them or not. Writing Kristina and Larch helped me come to think of hope as a special kind of verb that must be earned, through action and struggle, in the face of harsh realities that often make success seem impossible. Optimism is a passive state, an adjective requiring no action and contributing nothing materially to any positive outcome. To put this in terms of the climate crisis today, optimism is believing that some corporation will invent a miracle carbon-capture technology to save us, or that the president and Congress will pass the Green New Deal out of the goodness of their own hearts. Hope, on the other hand, is acknowledging that we face an extremely dire situation, with hostile corporate control on almost every lever of power, yet we can still fight like hell. A better future is possible, but we have to actively hope, and work, for it. What takeaway do you want your readers to get out of this story?
One, there is always a future worth fighting for, no matter how bleak things may seem in the present. Two, justice is a human need just as vital as love and respect and self-actualization. And lastly, the 1990s are, objectively, the Indisputable Golden Age of Music. If you were Emi’s teacher, what advice would you give her and other children her age post-Transition?
I’d point out to Emi the same thing that I point out to my fourth graders now, and which they love pointing out as well: look at all the mistakes I make, as an adult, every single day. How many times this year have I forgotten to call in attendance? How many times have I misspelled the word equivalent
on the board? As a teacher, I’m most concerned for the kids who make no mistakes, who are terrified at taking the tiniest risk. Mistakes are how we grow. I’d remind Emi of this: adults mess up daily. It’s mostly what we do. So make some mistakes. Rebel a little, cause some mischief, blow past that No Skateboarding sign. When you’re older, you can fight for the world. For now, enjoy life. Mess up. Have some damn fun.