Let Us Descend Book Club Questions and Discussion Guide

Let Us Descend is a lush and painful novel that’s expertly rendered and rich with detail for any book club discussion. Like Dante’s Inferno by Italian writer Dante Alighieri, from which it borrows its title, Let Us Descend takes us into literal hell on earth, blending elements of magical realism and fantasy. 

Be ready for an in-depth discussion using these Let Us Descend book club questions. Our book club questions will help you cover the book’s themes like- generational trauma and families destroyed by enslavement, resilience and agency amidst oppression, and love. In addition to the questions, the guide also features a book synopsis and some selected reviews to help support your group’s discussion.

At the very end, are some similar books to Let Us Descend if you enjoyed the themes from Ward’s novel.

Let Us Descend book club questions, with book cover.

Synopsis for Let Us Descend

(We always chose to provide the publisher synopsis because we feel that it’s worthwhile to discuss whether the official book description actually squared with your experience of the book.)

Let us Descend, Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend is a reimagining of American slavery, as beautifully rendered as it is heart-wrenching. Searching, harrowing, replete with transcendent love, the novel is a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation.

Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader’s guide through this hellscape. As she struggles through the miles-long march, Annis turns inward, seeking comfort from memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout, she opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. While Ward leads readers through the descent, this, her fourth novel, is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation.

From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this miracle of a novel inscribes Black American grief and joy into the very land—the rich but unforgiving forests, swamps, and rivers of the American South. Let Us Descend is Jesmyn Ward’s most magnificent novel yet, a masterwork for the ages.

Let Us Descend Book Club Questions

These questions have been tailored to this book’s specific reading experience, but if you want more ideas, we also have an article with 101 generic book club questions.

  1. Annis showed incredible strength and resilience despite her circumstances. How does spirituality and love help Annis escape from the physical pain of enslavement?
  1. Sasha tells Annis, “Teaching Mama Aza’s way of fighting, her stories—it’s a way to recall another world.”

    Although Annis enjoyed practicing with her mother, she didn’t understand its purpose. At which point in the story, do you think she finally understood? 
  1. What are the elements of magical realism in the narrative, and how do they further the plot What did you think of Ward’s use of it in the novel?
  1. Compare the three white enslavers in the novel. Despite their commonality of owning slaves, each of them exhibit different behaviors towards their slaves. Do these differences in any way influence your perspective of them as characters? Who was the most harsh and why?
  1. “How to apologize for wanting some word, some story, some beautiful thing for my own?”

    Annis spies on lessons, knowing she could get caught and punished for it. How did it make you feel knowing she’d risk it for the knowledge?
  1. Symbolism is used throughout the story. Like bees and water are important symbols used by Ward in her novel. What do you think they represent? 
  1. “The tutor’s words ring through my head: Let us descend.”

    Dante’s Inferno is heavily referenced in the novel. Annis sees a parallel between the many levels of hell in Dante’s Inferno and her sire’s house. How does Ward utilize these references, and how do they enrich the story?
  1. How does Annis’s relationship with her mother, Safi, and others shape her identity and resilience throughout the story? Who do you think was her greatest influence? 
  1. Agency is a theme that surfaces repeatedly in the novel. What are some ways characters have shown autonomy or control over their lives, despite the oppressive system they live in?
  1.  Annis has numerous love relationships throughout the book. How did these relationships shape Annis and her journey? Such as when Annis was at her sire’s house, got caught kissing Safi, and was sold off as punishment. 
  1. The use of weapons in this novel is very symbolic and emphasizes how the women in Annis’s family pass down strength and agency. How does the possession and use of these weapons empower Annis, Sasha, and Mama Aza? 

Selected Reviews of Let Us Descend

(Use these selected Goodreads reviews to compare with your own experience of the book. Do you agree or disagree with the reviews?)

“3.5 Mixed emotions here. Ward’s writing is sublime, the story she tells gut wrenching. haunting, and unforgettable. My issue is with the half of the story in the realm of magical realism and spirits which was overdone for me and interfered with the satisfaction I want from reading, especially with such dark subject matter.”

“Jesmyn Ward is brilliant and no one writes like her. This novel is lush and painful and expertly rendered. Annis’s story is so rich with detail, and the prose is suffused with a sensory vibe I found hypnotic. I loved the bonds between women, the spiritual elements, the way the women in this novel fought for dignity, sometimes in unexpected ways.”

“[…] Unfortunately, the book heavily relies on magical realism, which I found to be poorly executed and dragged on throughout the entire story. The writing, setting, and characters all fell short for me. The romantic scenes were cringe-worthy, making me question what I was even reading. “

“Heavy but impossible to put down. […] the book makes us sit with the cruel realities of the American slave trade and despite the subject matter, Ward continues to be an otherworldly talent. Her prose is elegant, moving, punchy, and bold, and I feel the weight of every word choice. “


Use our guide to find dozens of book ideas for your group.

Books Like Let Us Descend

For more books that deal with the impacts of slavery try these books: The Invention of Wings discussion guide, Horse discussion guide, The Revisioners discussion guide or James discussion guide.

For more journeys with a splash of magical realism try our Gun Island discussion guide,

The Vaster Wilds, book cover.

The Vaster Wilds, Lauren Groff

If you’re interested in survivalist stories then The Vaster Wilds may be a perfect fit for you! In this novel, a young girl escapes from servitude from a Jamestown colony in 1609. After escaping, she was faced with many obstacles in the wilderness, encountering wild animals, unsavory weather, and unknown terrain which threatened her life. The main themes are suffering and violence of colonialism, independence and the negation of self, and overcoming adversity.

Yellow Wife, book cover.

Yellow Wife, Sadeqa Johnson

If your group enjoys historical fiction novels based on true stories then Yellow Wife may be the perfect choice! This novel is told through the eyes of Pheby, a biracial girl born to an enslaved mother and their white plantation owner. Growing up living a somewhat sheltered life in her early life but that quickly changes when she’s sent away to work in a infamous Richmond jail where enslaved people are taken and sold on auction. The book’s themes are the challenging trajectory through motherhood and protecting one’s family, betrayal and redemption, and the complexity between submission and defiance.

The Undertaker's Assistant, book cover.

The Undertaker’s Assistant, Amanda Skenandore

If you’re interested in books about the post Civil War then The Undertaker’s Assistant may be a great pick for you! This novel is set during Reconstruction-era New Orleans, and centered around Effie Jones, a girl who escapes slavery as a child, goes to the Union side, and is taken in by an army surgeon. From there, she is trained by him, and masters the trade of embalming, eventually earning a living from it. The major themes are human resilience, unlikely bonds, and searching for self.

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