Book Club



Dune Child


Ella Thorp Ellis was born in the Great Depression and grew up in a collective bohemian community on the California coast. Resident artists and writers, including her father and mother, were frequently visited by well-known figures including Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Meher Baba. Former lecturer at San Francisco State University, Ella Thorp Ellis has been celebrated for her young adult novels, six of which were American Library Honor Books of the Year. Married, with three sons and nine grandchildren, she divides her time between Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California.


Dune Child is Ella Thorp Ellis' memoir of growing up in the Great Depression. Falling on hard times, her father, an agent for silent movie stars, and her mother, a beautiful, creative woman, migrated to a bohemian collective beach community in central California. Thriving as the only child among supportive adults, she tells the story of an extraordinary upbringing in a bountiful natural and human environment.


1. Ellis' memoir is set in 1932-1938, the depths of the Depression. What sorts of stories about the Depression have you heard from people who experienced it? How did your family come through that period, and what were the effects of it?

2. In her memoir, Ellis' father and mother let her decide to skip kindergarden. She is frequently pulled out of school, either due to the measles epidemic or because of events at home. In other words, going to school does not seem as universal and automatic as it is today. What was your early schooling like? How does it compare to the education young people get in elementary school today?

3. Ellis is careful to show both her mother and father as loving, well-meaning parents at the same time as their infidelities and disintegrating marriage puts intense pressure on them. Did you find yourself becoming critical toward either Dunham or Marion? Did you admire the life they had chosen for themselves and their daughter, or did you find yourself skeptical of their choices?

4. Some of the charm of Dune Child comes from seeing famous people drift in and out of the Moy Mell community. What did you already know about Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, John Steinbeck, or Upton Sinclair? Did reading the book change your sense of these figures, and how?

5. One of the most vivid stories in the book involves the time when Carl Beckstead gets so hungry he shoots a swan, and he and Dunham proceed to cook or can the meat. How did you feel about that incident? Did it seem like an unethical act, given the context they were in?

6. When Ellis' half-brother is born, Dunham gives his last name to him (even though Pete isn't his son) "so they wouldn't write illegitimate on his birth certificate." Do you have memories of the scandals that used to result when children were born outside of wedlock? How do you feel about the changes in our culture in regard to marriage's role in having children? How did you feel about Dunham's act?

7. If you were going to write a memoir about some specific period in your life (just a five or six year stretch), what period would you focus on? Is there one story or incident from that period that illustrates, in your own mind, how you became the person you became?

This reading group guide is provided by Small Press Distribution to Engage as You Age as part of the "I Remember Project" to support reading groups for seniors in Marin Country. SPD's "I Remember Project" is generously supported by the Marin Community Foundation.

Marin Community Foundation
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