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Dancing with the Octopus Discussion Questions

Special thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing these questions; download a [pdf] version here.

1. The memoir takes place in Nebraska, Iowa, West Virginia, and England, among other locations. What’s the importance of place in Harding’s story? How has geography shaped her life, and how has she made homes, for herself and loved ones, in different settings?

2. Harding’s father (Jim Cackler) is a complex man. What adjectives would you use to describe him? How would you describe his relationship with the protagonist and her sisters?

3. Harding details years of abuse at the hands of her mother (Kathleen Cackler). How did the members of the author’s family cope with this abuse? What adaptations did they develop to shield themselves and comfort others?

4. Harding mentions, in her epilogue, that she wants to “portray ‘victims’ realistically” (372). Before, during, and after the attack, Harding demonstrates remarkable resilience and agency. What does Harding gain from recalling, corroborating, and writing down her experience?

5. Part of Harding’s resilience is her ability to accept the help of others. How does her husband Thomas support her? What tools and advice does Dr. H provide?

6. Discuss the role race plays in the narrative. How does Harding work serious considerations of race into the story of her attack and its aftermath? How does Charles Goodwin understand race to have informed his own experiences?

7. Like Charles (Mr. K), Harding’s mother has had significant challenges in life. How does Kathleen explain away, or justify, her abuse of her children and husband? How does Harding balance empathy for Kathleen with her own traumatic memories of her mother’s violence?

8. What forms of support does Harding find in the Omaha community, in the immediate aftermath of her kidnapping and assault? And whom does she rely on when she returns to Omaha as an adult?

9. How is the “dancing octopus” introduced in the narrative? Whose creation is it? And when Harding sees a real octopus, years later, what does she feel? With whom does she share this second experience?

10. Jim eventually reveals his own traumatic memories to Harding. What are these memories, and how does he tell his story? What are the coping mechanisms and kinds of fellowship–– productive and unproductive––Jim turns to as he grows older?

11. How does Kathleen respond to Jim’s death?

12. Who are Harding’s role models? What lessons do they teach her?

13. Describe the book’s narrative structure. Why do you think Harding chose to tell her story this way? What insights does this structure make possible for the reader?

14. On finishing the book, do you feel that justice has been served–-for Harding, her siblings, and others who were harmed? How have characters repaired, or tried to repair, their relationships?

15. Which relationships has Harding let go of or moved on from? And what are some of the new, strong relationships she’s forged as an adult?

Further reading: Tara Westover, “Educated”; Rebecca Solnit, “Recollections of My Nonexistence”; Jeannette Walls, “The Glass Castle”; Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”; Garrard Conley, “Boy Erased”; T Kira Madden, “Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls”.

Book a Speaker

Host a scholar listed on the Speakers Bureau of Humanities Nebraska. Apply for a grant from Humanities Nebraska to finance your event. Public programs sponsored by not-for-profit organizations may be eligible for funding assistance from Humanities Nebraska. See for details on their Speaker's Bureau General Public Programs Eligibility requirements and for steps to book a speaker and to access application forms.

Playing Around with Words: Writing from the Plains by Twyla Hansen
A flexible program consisting of a reading and discussion for a wide variety of audiences, a writing workshop for beginning and seasoned writers, or a combination of both. The workshop includes a combination of readings and guided writing exercises for participants to generate their own poems or short prose. The programs are audience/ participant-focused, interactive, and will allow time for discussion. For middle school through adult.

Family Stories Into Literature: The Role of Gossip and Research in Fiction by Karen Gettert Shoemaker
This presentation focuses on the ways writers can use family stories and history to write literature. This presentation discusses the ways to excavate history, both our own and the world’s, as a way to finding the true stories only we can write. The program is available in both presentation format and writing workshop format. For adults.

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