This reading group guide for The Stowaway includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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
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The spectacular, true story of a scrappy teenager from New York’s Lower East Side who stowed away on the Roaring Twenties’ most remarkable feat of science and daring: an expedition to Antarctica.
It was 1928: a time of illicit booze, of Gatsby and Babe Ruth, of freewheeling fun. The Great War was over and American optimism was higher than the stock market. What better moment to launch an expedition to Antarctica, the planet’s final frontier? There wouldn’t be another encounter with an unknown this magnificent until Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.
Everyone wanted in on the adventure. Rockefellers and Vanderbilts begged to be taken along as mess boys, and newspapers across the globe covered the planning’s every stage. And then, the night before the expedition’s flagship set off, Billy Gawronski—a mischievous, first-generation New York City high schooler desperate to escape a dreary future in the family upholstery business—jumped into the Hudson River and snuck aboard.
Could he get away with it?
From the soda shops of New York’s Lower East Side to the dance halls of sultry Francophone Tahiti, all the way to Antarctica’s blinding white and deadly freeze, Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Stowaway
takes you on the unforgettable voyage of a plucky young stowaway who became a Jazz Age celebrity, a mascot for an up-by-your bootstraps era.Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Shapiro paints a bustling portrait of New York’s Lower East Side at a time of great progress and innovation across the country. Discuss the theme of the American spirit as it is portrayed in this book. How do you think the term applies to the characters of Billy Gawronski, Rudy Gawronski, and Richard Byrd?
2. Billy’s father, Rudy Gawronski, created a successful business for his family that he intended to pass down to his son. What do you think of Billy’s taking to the sea instead of carrying on his father’s legacy? Did his decision seem ungrateful and selfish, or was it simply the necessary fulfillment of a youthful dream?
3. Billy idolized Richard Byrd so much that he followed him to the Antarctic. Who were your idols when you were Billy’s age? Did you ever seek them out or do something outrageous to get their attention?
4. Billy becomes an unexpected celebrity after his attempt to stow away on the City of New York
. What role do you think fame and glory played in his decision to board the ship? What role do you think it played in his idolization of Byrd?
5. Billy’s mother and father were reluctant to let their son go to sea, but became proud when he was featured in the newspapers. Think of your own years growing up. Was there anything that your parents put their feet down about? Were you able to persuade them later that you were right?
6. The Polish heritage of the Gawronski family plays a big role in The Stowaway
. Discuss the challenges that faced immigrants in the 1920s. How do you think they compare to the struggles of immigrant families today?
7. On page 83, Shapiro writes “that was what had first put Byrd’s name on the map: his tenacity.” Discuss the similarities between Billy and Richard’s shared unwillingness to take no for an answer. Do you think this sort of gumption is a necessary trait in all explorers?
8. When Billy arrives in Antarctica, the continent is windy and excruciatingly cold. Do you think Billy was disappointed by what he found at the other side of his journey? Discuss his experience on the Eleanor Bolling
versus his experience in Antarctica. Did you get the impression that the journey was worth all that he risked?
9. Does adventure make a man? Is it a rite of passage into adulthood for Billy to fulfill his dream of taking part in Byrd’s expedition? What kinds of rites of passage do you think young people go through today?
10. Billy’s mother is referred to as meddling. Shapiro asserts that Byrd’s decision to not include Billy on any further expeditions to Antarctica was out of respect for Francesca Gawronski after a letter she wrote to him. Discuss the motives behind her actions. Do you think she was being fair to Billy when she wrote the letter to Byrd?
11. Before this book, not much had been recorded about Billy Gawronski outside of newspaper clippings from the 1920s. Discuss your experience reading about a virtually unknown adventurer. Were you pleased to learn more about someone who had been lost to history? Who are some other unsung heroes you have read about?
12. Billy craves adventure his entire life, enough that he risks his family and future to stow away on the City of New York
. However, in the epilogue Shapiro writes “there, amidst the poppies, purple veronica, mountain pinks, Siberian irises, and thyme, Billy the stowaway rediscovered each day the joys of being home” (pg. 197). Discuss what changed in Billy. What role do you think age plays in the yearning for adventure?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Take a virtual tour of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Visit https://www.oldnyc.org/
to see Billy’s neighborhood in the 1920s. If you are in the area or are planning a trip to New York, consider checking out the Tenement Museum of New York for more photos and archives: http://www.tenement.org/
2. The City of New York
is its own character in the book. Visit your local maritime museum to get a feel for these massive ships and ship life. If you are far from a museum visit https://southstreetseaportmuseum.org/
3. Make it a movie night! Watch With Byrd at the South Pole
(1930), available through Turner Classic Movies. A clip on their website will show you footage of the City of New York
4. If you are interested in seeing more historical figures through Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s masterful eye, check out the collection of essays on her website: https://lauriegwenshapiro.com/other-writing/