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  1. What is the significance of the novel’s title, At the Center? Discuss possible meanings and why you think the author selected this title.

  2. With which characters did you feel the most sympathy and connection? Why? How did your opinions and feelings about them change as the story unfolded?

  3. Both Sylvia Jensen and Mary Williams seem driven, to the point of compulsiveness and even self-deception. What is it that motivates them?

  4. How would you characterize the relationship between Sylvia Jensen and J. B. Harrell? How does it change as the story progresses? How would you characterize it at the end?

  5. What are your feelings about Jamie Buckley? How do they change as the story unfolds?

  6. Each of the main characters in At the Center make choices or take actions that have moral and ethical implications. Which decisions would you have made? Which would you have made differently? Why? Did your notion about what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?

  7. Were you surprised by the plot? Was the ending satisfying? If so, why? If not, why not? How would you change it?

  8. What main ideas and issues does the author explore? What do you think was the main theme?

Discussion Questions for Graduate Students and Helping Professionals

  1. Early in their relationship, Sylvia asks J. B., “Why don’t you want to be an Indian?” and he responds, “Why do you want to be one?” In 1972, Mary Williams confronts the school principal’s stereotypes about Jamie by insisting that he’s “just like any other little boy.” Discuss different ways that the concepts of racial identity development and cultural competence are played out in At the Center.

  2. What are the similarities and differences between the two time periods in the story, 1972 and 2005, particularly in regard to the relationship between white Americans and American Indians?

  3. What were some of the failings in the child welfare system in regard to Anthony Little Eagle’s death? How might an agency respond in a positive way when there is a tragedy like this one? How can administrators help social workers and supervisors? What supports and training should be put in place? What support is needed by foster families in regard to accidents and deaths?

  4. Jamie Buckley was placed in foster care in 1972, before the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed. Anthony Little Eagle was placed in foster care in 2005, after the law had been in place for seventeen years. Discuss the intent of the ICWA and how it might have helped the two boys. What cultural issues need to be understood and addressed before children are placed in foster homes? How have other foster care and child welfare laws, poli- cies, and procedures changed from 1972 to 2005? What changes are needed now?

  5. In what ways did Sylvia Jensen (2005) and Mrs. Waters (1972) uphold and/or violate the values and ethics of the social work profession? Do you think any of their actions were justified, and, if so, why? Discuss the conflicts faced by the social workers in At the Center. How do you think they handled these conflicts? How do you think they should have handled them?

Further Resources


Child Welfare/Foster Care

Child Welfare League of America


Children’s Rights


National Indian Child Welfare Association


The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978


Racial Identity Development/Cultural Competence


A summary of racial identity models from Jeff Mio, professor of psychology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


A cultural competence continuum, by Terry Cross, MSW voices-of-professionals/cultural-competence-continuum/


DiAngelo, Robin.What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2012. A useful book for whites who want to be more than well-intentioned.


Duran, Eduardo and Bonnie Duran. Native American Postcolonial Psychology. State University of New York Press, 1995. A book that shows the necessity of understanding intergenerational trauma and internalized oppression in order to understand Native Americans today.


Helms, Janet E. A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Living as a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life. 2nd ed. Framingham, MA: Microtraining Associates, 2007.

Horse, Perry G. “Twenty-First Century Native American Consciousness: A Thematic Model of Indian Identity.” In New Perspectives on Racial Identity Development: Integrating Emerging Frameworks, edited by Charmaine L. Wijeyesinghe and Bailey W. Jackson. 2nd ed. New York University Press, 2012.

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