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The Friendly Persuasion   
by Jessamyn West

Biography Things to think about.. Book Discussion Questions for discussions
For Younger Readers Activities The Film Calendar of Events


As you read The Friendly Persuasion, did you wonder what kind of woman Jessamyn West was? Did you wonder where she got her inspiration for the Birdwells, and what kinds of things were important to her?

Early Life

Jessamyn West was born on July 18, 1902 in Jennings County in southern Indiana. Her family members were farmers, and her mother, Grace Milhous West was the descendant of Indiana Quakers. Through her great uncle, Frank Milhous, Jessamyn West was the second cousin of Richard Nixon, and after her family moved to southern California, Jessamyn became his close friend.

When West was a young girl, her family moved to a remote area of California near Yorba Linda where her father started a citrus orchard. West and her brother and sister spent a lot of time exploring the countryside, and Jessamyn grew to love the natural environment. She enjoyed solitude – in fact, at various times in her life, she preferred to be alone. She was always a fan of books, and was familiar with the works of Thoreau in which the simple, natural life was advocated.

West intended to become a school teacher. After she graduated from Whittier College, she married Harry Maxwell McPherson in 1923. He was a school superintendent, and West began her working life in a one-room school. However, she was not finished with her own education. In 1929 she attended summer classes at Oxford University in England, and when she returned to the States, she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley to pursue graduate studies.

Illness strikes

In 1931, just as West was about to take the oral examinations for her doctorate in English literature, she collapsed with a severe lung hemorrhage and was diagnosed with an advanced case of tuberculosis. After clinging to life for two years in a Los Angeles sanitarium, West was sent home to die, but her mother refused to accept the prognosis. She spent her days feeding her daughter her favorite foods and Quaker remedies, and entertained her with true stories of their Indiana ancestors. Her determined nursing was rewarded when Jessamyn West began to recover.

While she was recovering, West began to write short stories based on her mother’s tales. Her husbands encouraged her to submit them to magazines, and more and more were published in magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s. It is interesting to note that since she wrote her first stories in a reclining position in her sickbed, ever after, Jessamyn West wrote lying down!

The Friendly Persuasion

In 1945, The Friendly Persuasion was published. This collection of several of West’s tales about the Birdwell family was an immediate success with critics and general readers who warmed to West’s lyrical style, her realistic characters and her affectionate view of humanity. West wrote a screenplay based on The Friendly Persuasion, and in 1956 it was made into a popular movie starring Gary Cooper. In 1969, Except for Me and Thee: A Companion to “The Friendly Persuasion” was published as a kind of sequel.

West followed her early success by writing prolifically all her life. One collection entitled Cress Delahunty (1953) relates the experiences of a young girl growing up in California and explores a theme which always fascinated the author – those tricky years between adolescence and maturity.

Other Writings

West wrote memoirs, and these give us a glimpse into her family life and where she found the inspiration for her stories. Her own experience with illness made her particularly sensitive to those who suffered, and one memoir, describing her time nursing her sister who was terminally ill with cancer, caused controversy. In The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Death and Life, she admitted to helping her sister commit suicide.

In 1975, The Massacres at Fall Creek was published in which West tells a little-known story from Indiana history. In 1824, nine Seneca Indians, including women and children, were massacred in a frontier town near Pendleton. The trial of their white killers was the first of its kind in American history and marked a turning point in white-Indian relations in the area. Newsweek called the story “honorable” and “affecting”.

When she died of a stroke in 1984 in Napa, California, Jessamyn West left an impressive body of work including memoirs, novels, short stories, poetry, essays, articles, plays, songs, and even lyrics for an opera. She had taught at many writers’ conferences and had been a visiting professor and lecturer at several colleges. Napa Valley College awards The Jessamyn West Poetry and Fiction Award for literary merit to a student of that college.

For further information about Jessamyn West:

Jessamyn West, Quaker Author

Our Land, Our Literature: Jessamyn West

The Friendly Persuasion (1956) screenplay controversy. Michael Wilson, Jessamyn West, and the Hollywood blacklist.(Critical Essay)

Indy’s Choice: The Friendly Persuasion                                                                                                                            [top]

Whether you plan to attend a discussion of The Friendly Persuasion or whether you choose to read it solely for personal enjoyment, you won’t be disappointed by this thought-provoking collection of stories. Here are some things you might like to consider as you immerse yourself in the lives of the Birdwells.

  •   The Friendly Persuasion is a collection of short stories.

There stories were published separately in magazines before West gathered them into one book. As you read The Friendly Persuasion, think about each story as a single, whole piece of writing with a beginning, middle and an end, and with a theme all its own. Decide what each story is about and try to identify threads that run through the whole book and link the stories together.

·         How we get to know characters

What do we learn about characters by their behavior and their interactions with one another? Which characters do you feel that you know best? Why do you say that? Are the Birdwells a typical family? What do these stories teach you about the Quaker faith? How do the characters’ beliefs influence their lives?

  • Jessamyn West’s versatile style

Do you like the way Jessamyn West writes? How would you describe it? What does she do best? Find different examples of her versatility; consider that she writes convincingly about different kinds of experiences and that she can make her readers feel a range of emotions. She creates an atmosphere of fear and tension in “The Battle of Finney’s Ford,” but can also create a sad and wistful tone in stories like “The Meeting House” and “Homer and the Lilies.” West writes poetically about the natural world, and at times, she is just plain funny!


If you have enjoyed this book, then you will really get a kick out of talking about it to other fans. All you need to do is read the book and be ready to share your ideas and enthusiasm. If there are parts you have particularly enjoyed, you may want to make a note of the pages; some people like to jot ideas down that they do not want to forget, but that is purely a personal decision. A book discussion is a wonderful way to extend your enjoyment of a book, and the emphasis is always on fun!

Holding your own discussion

If you and your friends, family members, classmates, work colleagues, or neighbors want to have a discussion of The Friendly Persuasion, nothing is simpler! Encourage everyone to read the book carefully and then decide on a date, time and location. Nominate a leader who agrees to get everybody talking, but assure your leader that it’s really an easy job…

advice to leaders

1.     Don’t worry. This is not difficult! Relax and read the book. Then familiarize yourself with the ideas in this booklet and particularly with the simple discussion plan outlined on this page.

2.     Start your discussion with a simple question just to get people thinking and talking. Ask something like, “Why do you think this book was our community’s choice?” and have everyone answer it in one minute or less.

3.     Next, ask the participants for suggestions. They arrived ready to talk, so what do they want to talk about? Which aspects of The Friendly Persuasion most interested them? Jot their suggestions down, and use them to guide the discussion. Continue following participants’ suggestions in this way. Your discussion will have a rough shape, and everyone has had a chance to join in.

4.     Use some of the discussion questions you’ll find in this resource guide when appropriate.

5.     Encourage people to be specific. When they say that Jessamyn West is funny, what are they thinking about? How exactly is she funny? A book discussion can be like a memory game, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much of your reading you recall when you try!

6.     That’s all there is to it! Relax and allow people to talk and share their reactions to a wonderful book. Your discussion of The Friendly Persuasion will be unique because you followed a plan outlined by your participants, but of course, if you want to know what other readers in your community have made of The Friendly Persuasion, there’s nothing to stop you taking part in more than one discussion! The more the merrier!         [top]

Here are some suggestions to get you started….

1.  The Birdwells have an admirable marriage that grants them the ability to disagree and accommodates their dynamic personalities. How do they compare to contemporary couples you know of?

2.  Which of your notions about Quaker beliefs and cultures were dispelled by The Friendly Persuasion?

A good way to start a discussion is to read the
 contents list of the book and take it in turns to say a few
words about what happens in each story.

3.  Do you consider the way of life depicted in the novel – with its emphasis on nature and neighborliness – to be a thing of the past?

4.  The novel opens with the tale of Jess surreptitiously purchasing an organ. How does it set the stage for subsequent chapters? What does that episode indicate about Eliza’s role as a minister?

5.  When Josh and Labe attempt to perform a shivaree for Old Alf, what do they discover about the world outside their home? What does the reader discover about the community portrayed in the novel?

6.  Eliza’s courtroom performance on behalf of the pacing goose is both entertaining and tender. How do you suppose she is able to provide such careful attention to livestock, considering her many other duties to family, home, and congregation?

7.  The arrival of Confederate troops poignantly depicts the Quaker stance on abolition and pacifism. Discuss the family’s reaction to Josh, who is determined to fight. What current events could that chapter shed light on?

8.  What is the true legacy of the buried leaf?

9.  Why is Eliza in favor of exchanging Red Rover? Does Mrs. Hudspeth get a fair deal from Jess? Do the horses’ personalities have any equivalent meaning in today’s status-driven auto industry?

10. Lafe Millspaugh’s gift of eggs leads to many more encounters with the Birdwells, leading them to discuss     his eccentricities at length. The Birdwells see themselves as essentially free of eccentricity; would you agree with them? Is there a Lafe Millspaugh in your community?

11. When Jess believes he is terminally ill, do you attribute that belief simply to the lump or have other factors caused him to begin considering his own mortality? What is the effect of his happy news at the end of the chapter?

12. What does Eliza’s decision to finish her decorative vase indicate about transitions in her marriage?

13. Jessamyn West writes, “Eliza didn’t feel stuck. She felt at home.” What factors determine whether we feel trapped or secure?

14. What makes the lyric, “Oh, when I’m gone, don’t you, don’t you grieve after me” an appropriate closing line for “The Illumination”?

15. The story of Stephen’s return home is told primarily through the eyes of Elspeth. What is the effect of reading this passage from a child’s point of view?

16. The novel concludes with a glimpse of Jess at eighty years old as he befriends Homer, a young orphan. Why is Homer’s bittersweet story so suitable for the novel’s finale?                                                        [top]


1.        The Friendly Persuasion is a collection of short stories. Look at the contents list and remind yourself of all the stories. Which did you enjoy the most? Explain your choice. Can you find an example of a funny story, a sad story, an exciting story and a story with a moral or lesson in this collection?

2.        Can you list all the things you think Jessamyn West is interested in? Try to sum up in only one sentence what all of these stories are about. Why do you think people are still reading The Friendly Persuasion all these years after it was published in 1945?

3.        From your reading of The Friendly Persuasion, what strikes you as the biggest differences between life in Indiana in the nineteenth century and life now? Is there anything about the Birdwells’ lives that you find appealing? What was the hardest thing about living then?

4.        When it says, “Jess had a heart as soft as pudding,” what does it mean? How else would you describe him? Do you think that he and Eliza are good parents?

5.        In “Shivaree Before Breakfast,” what reasons does Old Alf give for his odd behavior? Laban thinks he’s a really smart grownup. What do you think? How does this story show the differences between Josh and Laban?

6.        What does Josh imagine he will have to do in the Home Guard? Can you understand why he defies his parents to join? What actually happens to Josh?

7.        Mattie’s character is based on West’s own mother. What do stories like “Lead Her Like a Pigeon” and “The Buried Leaf” reveal of her personality?

8.        What is so special about Homer Denham? What do you think it is like for him living with Amos and Etty Perkins? What do he and Jess have in common? What do they learn from one another?

9.        Do you like the way Jessamyn West writes? If you had to write her report card, what would you say she does best?                                                                                                                                                                                                 [top]


  • ·   Get creative!

Let the stories of The Friendly Persuasion inspire you! You could take a series of photographs locally you feel represent the themes of the stories, or create a collage to illustrate a particular story or episode.

  • ·   Become a local naturalist

Jess Birdwell is a keen observer of the natural environment. Keep a nature journal for a month and become an expert on local flora and fauna. Make sketches, press leaves and try to describe your observations as accurately as you can. Use library books to help in identifications.



Jessamyn West wrote the screenplay for the movie based on The Friendly Persuasion which was released in 1956 and starred Gary Cooper, Dorothy Maguire and a young Anthony Perkins.

1.        In the movie, episodes are condensed, characters undergo alterations and much from the book is not used, but how far does the movie retain the spirit of the book?

2.        What are the major differences between the movie version of The Friendly Persuasion and the book? Which characters are new? Which episodes are different?

3.        Why is the scene from the Jennings County Fair in the movie such an effective way to illustrate the differences between the Quaker Birdwells and their Indiana neighbors?



Kick off


Whittier College

4 p.m.


Book Talk
: Ann Farmer

“Jessamyn West: Yorba Linda, Whittier and Napa”

Whittier Public Library 7344 S. Washington Ave.


7 p.m.


book discussion

Gwen Woirhaye

First Friends Church

13205 E. Philadelphia


2 p.m.



Film Screening


Whittier Village Cinemas

7 p.m.


book discussion

Myra Weiss

Whittwood Branch Library

10537 Santa Gertrudes


4 p.m.



Film Screening


Whittier Senior Center

1 p.m.


book discussion

Ruth White

Whittier Public Library 7344 S. Washington Ave.


7 p.m.


Film Screening

Joe Dmohowski will speak on “Screenplay Controversy”

Whittier College

Hoover-Lautrup Room

7 p.m.



Book Talk: Ann Farmer

“Jessamyn West: Her Writing Life”

Whittier Public Library 7344 S. Washington Ave.


7 p.m.



book discussion

Carol K. Anderson


Rio Hondo College Library Gallery – 3rd floor



book discussion

Yvette Rawlinson

Whittier Union High School District

Sierra Center
9401 S. Painter

 Room 200




The information in this resource guide was used with permission from the Aurora Public Library District, Indiana. Original materials about “The Friendly Persuasion” were written by Natalie Kemmitt, Editor of Fiction & Friends, a lively subscription newsletter for book  groups, librarians and avid readers. Contact: for more information. – JRC, Rio Hondo College Library, 2004.
Photo source:

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