Literary Minds Online Book Club Discussion: Two Books Address Suicide

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Welcome to our latest session of the Literary Minds Online Book Club, a partnership between A News and the Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency, in addition to its many community partners.

Last month we introduced you to our two book selections. The first is “God is in the Pancakes,” a young adult novel by Roben Epstein about a teenage girl who has a friendship with an elderly man who wants her help in ending his life.

The second is “Flashback,”an overview about veterans’ posttraumatic stress disorder and its relation to suicide, by Penny Coleman.

The timing of this online book club session was chosen specifically to coincide with National Suicide Prevention Week and Mental Health Awareness Week.

Funding for this online book club is provided through the Mental Health Services Act, which means that we address some serious issues here, such as suicide, as we are taking on today. I know suicide can be a difficult, downer subject; certainly not fun. Not a speck of humor. It’s serious business.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy and appreciate the process of gathering our thoughts about suicide and sharing our viewpoints and experiences.

As we learned Bill Siemer’s suicide series, our north state has an alarmingly high percentage of completed suicides, for a variety of reasons. But the fact remains that Shasta County has twice the number of suicides as the state average, and Trinity County tops the state in suicides.  Dubious, deadly distinctions, for sure.

This pair of books provides a conversational path that can help lead us to, at the very least, insight. At the very most it could lead to suicide prevention.

As with all our Online Literary Minds Book Clubs, we welcome your participation, even if you’ve not finished the books, or even read them.

The point is to foster open conversations about a painful, sometimes shame-filled subject.

I’ll go first. Then you comment, and I’ll add my two cents every so often.

I’m inclined to begin with “God is in the Pancakes,” because, as the title hints, it’s a light read, despite including some heavy scenes.  If I were the parent of a young adult, I would recommend this book. It’s a coming-of-age novel that touches on many topics besides suicide, such as first love and the pain of abandonment.

The book has nothing to do with pancakes, by the way. Rather, the title is a metaphore about how fragile life is, and knowing when the time is right (in the case of pancakes, it’s when the bubbles appear in the batter).

The character, 15-year-old Grace Manning, works as a candy striper at a nursing home where she meets Frank Sands, a resident who’s facing a prolonged, debilitating death, and reaches out to Grace for help in ending his life sooner.

That assisted-suicide dilemma winds its way through the book as Grace struggles with other parts of her life, such as school, and her relationships with her mother, sister and boyfriend.

When Sands asks for Grace’s help, she’s faced with a moral conflict: On the one hand, she believes it’s wrong to help end someone’s life. On the other hand she believes it’s wrong to force a suffering person to remain alive.


The second book, “Flashback” was a weighty read because the author took a strong stance early on about not just PTSD, but also her belief that the only way to prevent PTSD is to stop all wars. Likewise, she tells how the U.S. military has mismanaged the mental care of its service men and women for generation upon generation.

Coleman, whose former boyfriend killed himself after returning from Vietnam, vacillates between citing studies about military mental issues and sharing stories about veterans’ suicides.

Her book chronicles PTSD throughout wars, and the names given to that condition during various periods in history, such as “irritable heart” or “nostalgia” during the Civil War, and “shell shock,” “hysteria” or neurasthenia” during World War I, and how, by the Korean War and World War II, what we now call PTSD was referred to as “war neurosis,” battle fatigue,” or even “exhaustion.”

By any name, the symptoms were the same throughout time. Often, suicide was the ultimate outcome.

Most chilling to me is the fact that many fatal “accidents” that happen to veterans are actually suspected suicides, such as single car accidents.

She writes about the stigma many service men and women feel that prevents them from seeking treatment for PTSD, a mindset sometimes perpetuated by the military as a sign of weakness.

Readers, what are your thoughts about these two books and the subjects of suicide in general, and the sub-topics of assisted suicide and PTSD that might lead to suicide?

Thanks in advance for sharing and participating in this important conversation.

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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3 Responses

  1. Avatar adrienne jacoby says:

    The two sentences at the end of your comments about he "Pancakes" book (On the one hand, she believes it's wrong to help end someone's life. On the other hand she believes it's wrong to force a suffering person to remain alive.) are the questions that I have turned over and over in my mind since I was a teenager . . . and as I moved in to old age, I seem to have no more answer now that I did fifty years ago. At lease society seems to be moving away from the "heroic efforts" paradigm to a DNR mindset.

    As for PTSD: it is real . . . . and the good thing is at least people are talking/writing about it and recognizing it. I'm sure it will take society as a whole and the military in particular a while to get with the program . . . but we're moving that way. At glacial speed to be sure.

  2. Avatar Canda says:

    I read the pancakes book, and thought it did offer young people some heavy and engaging matters to ponder. At the same time, it offered a more mature (ok older) person like myself, a chance to think hard about whether or not I would consider helping someone put an early end to their suffering. I hope never to be faced with this decision, because it would certainly be a tough one.

    I only got halfway through the PTSD book. It was extremely painful to hear details of how the government has denied the existence of a true psychological illness over the years and years of war. Even though they had various names for the affliction, men were shoved back to the front lines, and regarded as weak if they objected. The Vietnam War was discussed at length in this book, and that was especially hard to read for personal reasons. I have such a heavy heart knowing so many of our brave warriors have taken, and continue to take their lives due to the mental anguish caused by killing others in war.