Go to Useful Gifts book page
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About the book

Charged with the mystery of childhood, with curiosity and daring, confusion and fear, the eleven interrelated stories in Useful Gifts explore what Ruthie knows. The youngest child of profoundly deaf parents living in Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s, Ruthie Zimmer speaks and signs. Interpreting for her parents, she tries to make sense of worlds as close as her family's fourth-floor apartment, as expansive as her rooftop playground and as diverse as the neighborhood below.

The ways of language, its ways, its habits, its humor—as well as the demons that rise within us when we fail to communicate—form an undercurrent in many of Carole Glickfeld's stories. In “What My Mother Knows” Hannah Zimmer gleans the neighborhood gossip from her apartment window, telling Ruthie in a gesture that Mrs. Frangione is pregnant again, and announcing in clipped, terse signs that the O'Briens have divorced. “Know drunk? . . . Unhappy, fight, wife, divorce.” There is, in "My Father's Darling" the hoarse, choked screaming of Albert Zimmer, "Honorfatherhonorfatherhonorfather" striking his daughter Melva has she sinks to the floor muttering "Misermisermisermiser" in the distant, disembodied voice of a ventriloquist. And, in "Talking Mama-Losh'n" there is Sidney, Ruthie's older brother, "getting down to business," sprinkling his speech with Yiddish, French and German—words that project a wisdom and cosmopolitanism he clearly craves.

Three floors below the Zimmer apartment, Ruthie enters the altogether different realm of Dot, a thrice-married hatcheck girl, and her daughter and son, Glory and Roy Rogers. These are characters who, as their names seem to promise, bring adventure and excitement—from acted-out fantasies of Hollywood to gunfights amid the rooftop battlements of "Fort Arden," from impulsive, stylish haircuts to Chinese food with pork. And, across the stoop, Ruthie visits with the Opals family—Iris, Ivy, and Ione—three daughters whose endless lessons in charm, elocution and posture prime them for future "fame and glory."

In Useful Gifts, Carole Glickfeld creates, through the optimistic voice of a young girl, intimacy with the complexity and heartbreak of a world we hope she can survive. In the closing story of the collection, Ruth Zimmer, twenty years older, retraces her neighborhood—not only to preserve her memories but to understand, finally, their effect on her now, a grown woman living three thousand miles away.

About the author

Carole L. Glickfeld, a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), has won numerous awards for her fiction, including the Washington State Book Award for her novel Swimming Toward the Ocean and a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowship. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary anthologies and journals including William and Mary Review, Worcester Review, and Crosscurrents. She lives and teaches in Seattle.

For discussion

1. In what ways do the Zimmers represent the experience of all families, those where the parents can hear, for example? What difficulties arise for Ruthie from her parents' inability to hear? What troubles in the family are unrelated to the parents' deafness? How would Ruthie's life have been different if she'd grown up with hearing parents?

2. Are there similarities between Ruthie's experience as the child of deaf parents and that of children of immigrant parents? What about Ruthie's childhood contributes to her precocious understanding of people's behaviors? What character traits of Ruthie are admirable?

3. What kind of ethical or moral guidance does Hannah Zimmer provide to her children? How would you describe her instincts and behaviors as a mother? What are her unique personality traits? Are they endearing to the reader or off-putting or both?

4. Does the father have redeeming qualities, and if so, how would you describe them? How does his authoritarian style of parenting affect Melva and Sidney? What kind of relationship does he have with his wife? What is his influence, ultimately, on Ruthie? Does it change over the course of the stories? Is she her father's darling?" Do we see a different Albert Zimmer in the novella?

5. How do relatives of the Zimmers bring other perspectives on family life to Ruthie? How would you contrast the influence of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Ben in “Begin the Beguine” with that of Aunt Lois in “Relics of Stars”? How insular is Ruthie's world? What serves to enlarge it?

6. How is Ruthie influenced by the downstairs neighbor Dot Rousse? How would you contrast how Dot raises her children with the way Albert and Hannah raise theirs? Or the way the Opals raise their daughters in the story "Useful Gifts"? What kind of relationship does Ruthie have with Glory and Roy Rogers, especially in "Fort Arden" and "My Second Favorite"? Does Ruthie envy the Opals girls—why or why not?

7. How does Melva relate to her younger sister? How do we know that she is complicated and even troubled? How is Ruthie affected by her sister's behavior, especially in "Peola and Petunia" and "In the Shadow of the Boardwalk?" Does Ruthie benefit from the relationship? Is she harmed by it?

8. Is Sidney a likable character--why or why not? How does his relationship with his father help or hinder his progress in life? How do we know how Sidney feels about his younger sister? How does Ruthie view her brother, especially in "Talking Mama-Losh'n?"

9. What moral lessons can we derive from the "shoplifting" incident in the story "Useful Gifts"? Or from the encounter with Mr. Abdullah in "Plastic Flowers?" Or Ruthie's visit to her brother's workplace, Baum Fabrics, in "Talking Mama-Losh'n"?

10. In "Relics of Stars," Ruthie retraces her past. What insights has she gained over the years? How did her childhood affect her emotional development? What discoveries about her father does she make in the novella? How will they affect her future?

11. How does the novella contrast in style and subject matter with those of the stories? Do you wish there had been different outcomes for the characters, and if so, what?

12. What details does the author use to evoke the world of Manhattan in the 1940's and '50's?  What is memorable about that time? Can you visualize the neighborhood where Ruthie grows up? What is Ruthie's apartment building like? How would you characterize that area of New York? What physical details or cultural references stand out? What effect does the beach and boardwalk in Brooklyn have on Ruthie?

13. How does the author convey what it is like for a hearing person to be around the deaf? What did you learn about the world of the deaf? Does the author make this world plausible?

14. The author makes a distinction in the use of sign language between words that have a "shortcut" sign and words that have to be spelled out. The grammar of American Sign Language (ASL) differs from that of English. Did the author's rendering of ASL add to your understanding of what sign language is and how it is communicated?

15. Ruthie's mother believes in "useful gifts." How does this serve as a metaphor for the book, overall?









Go to The Year the Lights Came On book page
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About the book

The Year the Lights Came On is Terry Kay’s evocative tale of Colin Wynn, an eleven-year-old boy growing up in rural northeast Georgia. The year is 1947, and in Colin’s hometown of Emery, Route 17 divides the community into the haves and the have-nots—those with and without electricity. This boundary creates a common bond among Colin and the other members of the Our Side Gang in their frequent confrontations with their affluent neighbors, the Highway 17 Gang. But then the Rural Electrification Administration brings electricity to the homes of the less privileged and Colin boasts that the wires will “knit us into the fabric of the huge glittering costume, Earth.”

Drawing upon his own memories of growing up in Royston, Georgia, Kay follows Colin, his brother Wesley, and their friends through fierce battles fought on the school playground, an exhilarating visit to the Brady Dasher Flying Circus, desperate attempts to throw a search party off the trail in the Black Pool Swamp, and gleeful celebrations when all-important baseball games are won. With characters ranging from Reverend Bartholomew R. Bytheway, a reformed fertilizer salesman who operates the Speaking-In-Tongues Traveling Tent Tabernacle, to Freeman, a Georgian Huck Finn who knows the swamp as well as the other boys know their backyards, Terry Kay draws a marvelously nuanced portrait of the rural South poised on the brink of change.

About the author

Terry Kay is the author of nine novels: The Year the Lights Came On (1976), After Eli (1981), Dark Thirty (1984), To Dance with the White Dog (1991), Shadow Song (1997), The Runaway (1998), The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene (1999), Taking Lottie Home (2000), and The Valley of Light (2003). He is also the author of one collection of short essays, Special Kay: The Wisdom of Terry Kay, and To Whom the Angels Spoke: A Story of the Christmas. In 2004 he was awarded both the Best Fiction Award from the Georgia Writers Association and the Townsend Prize for The Valley of Light. Kay, who was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2006, lives in Athens, Georgia.

For discussion

  1. The Year the Lights Came On has been used in some history classes as supplemental reading in the study of the post World War II period. Why?
  2.  
  3. In the closing of the book, the author contends that the coming of electricity to rural farms changed the way people lived. What does he mean by this?
  4.  
  5. All stories have contrast in them—good and evil, for example. What element in The Year the Lights Came On represents this contrast?
  6.  
  7. In the relationship between Colin and Megan, what is the greatest dilemma for Colin?
  8.  
  9. What does Freeman Boyd’s character represent in the story?
  10.  
  11. What was the Big Gully Oath and what did it mean?
  12.  
  13. How did Dover and the Our Gang boys confuse the bloodhounds in the search for Freeman Boyd?
  14.  
  15. Who was Granny Woman and how old was she?
  16.  
  17. What great talent did Alvin Bond possess?
  18.  
  19. What caused the fight on the playground, and what was Wesley’s answer to Mr. Hollister?
  20.  
  21. What does the REA mean, both literally and in terms of the changes it brought to rural America?








Go to Zoro’s Field book page
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About the book

After a long absence from his native southern Appalachians, Thomas Rain Crowe returned to live alone deep in the North Carolina woods. This is Crowe’s chronicle of that time when, for four years, he survived by his own hand without electricity, plumbing, modern-day transportation, or regular income. It is a Walden for today, paced to nature’s rhythms and cycles and filled with a wisdom one gains only through the pursuit of a consciously simple, spiritual, environmentally responsible life.

Crowe made his home in a small cabin he had helped to build years before—at a restless age when he could not have imagined that the place would one day call him back. The cabin sat on what was once the farm of an old mountain man named Zoro Guice. As we absorb Crowe’s sharp observations on southern Appalachian natural history, we also come to know Zoro and the other singular folk who showed Crowe the mountain ways that would see him through those four years.

Crowe writes of many things: digging a root cellar, being a good listener, gathering wood, living in the moment, tending a mountain garden. He explores profound questions on wilderness, self-sufficiency, urban growth, and ecological overload. Yet we are never burdened by their weight but rather enriched by his thoughtfulness and delighted by his storytelling.

About the author

Thomas Rain Crowe is the author of eleven books of original and translated works, as well as a poet, translator, editor, publisher, and recording artist. He received the Ragan Old North State Award for Nonfiction given by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association and the Phillip D. Reed Memorial Award given by the Southern Environmental Law Center for Zoro’s Field. He lives in Tuckasegee, North Carolina.

For discussion

  1. What are the advantages of a nature-writing memoir such as Crowe’s being written in the present tense?
  2.  
  3. Why do you think Crowe chose the title Zoro’s Field, and what is the role and place of mountain sage Zoro Guice in the narrative?
  4.  
  5. How does Crowe portray issues such as environment, ecology, and bioregion in the book?
  6.  
  7. What does Crowe’s experience tell us about our lives today?
  8.  
  9. What are the advantages Crowe cites as to living off the grid and off the clock?
  10.  
  11. How does Crowe balance the “how to” aspects of self-sufficient living with the more interior and introspective narratives?
  12.  
  13. How does Crowe inject humor into his narrative, and what is its affect?
  14.  
  15. Crowe’s rich literary life outside of his Zoro’s Field experience comes into play from time to time in the narrative. Does that blend well with the main elements of this story?
  16.  
  17. Who are the characters that are a part of the “story” of this Walden-like experience, and what roles do they play in the author’s over-all drama?
  18.  
  19. How does Zoro’s Field compare to Thoreau’s Walden? What are the similarities and what are some of the differences?
  20.  
  21. How does Crowe address the spiritual aspects of a life lived in the wild? What conclusions, if any, does he make?
  22.  
  23. Is the addition of poetry at the end of each chapter a positive addition to the overall text?
  24.  
  25. Crowe has added an Epilogue, bringing the reader up to the present time some twenty years later. Was this a good decision on the author’s part?








Go to Surrendered Child book page
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About the book

Surrendered Child is Karen Salyer McElmurray’s raw, poignant account of her journey from her teen years, when she put her newborn child up for adoption, to adulthood and a desperate search for the son she never knew. In a patchwork narrative interwoven with dark memories from her childhood, McElmurray deftly treads where few dare—into a gritty, honest exploration of the loss a birth mother experiences. With unflinching honesty, McElmurray recounts both the painful surrendering and the surprise rediscovery of her son, and juxtaposes that story with a portrayal of her own mother, who could not provide the love she needed. The dramatic result is a tale of birthright lost and found—and an exploration of the meaning of motherhood itself.

About the author

Karen Salyer McElmurray is the author of two novels, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven (Georgia) and Motel of the Stars, and the memoir Surrendered Child (Georgia). She is associate professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University, where she is nonfiction editor for Arts and Letters. She also teaches in the low-residency program at Murray State University.

For discussion

  1. The memoir begins with a long and difficult birth scene. The next chapter of the book, however, takes us back to the childhood of the teenager who just gave birth. Discuss this choice of narrative structure.
  2.  
  3. During the long birth scene, the narrator more than once mentions her own mother—both wanting her and not wanting her. How does this complex reaction to her mother, and to mothering in general, speak to one of the major themes of this memoir?
  4.  
  5. During the birth scene, and throughout the memoir, the author chooses to tell some of her story in retrospective, italicized sections. Discuss this technique.
  6.  
  7. Surrendered Child is about adoption, but it is also about emotional trauma and childhood. Discuss how these themes relate to one another in the book.
  8.  
  9. In some portions of the book, for example on pages 183-185, McElmurray chooses to relate events in the points of view of others—her mother, her father. Discuss the effectiveness of this approach.
  10.  
  11. Discuss McElmurray’s mother. She is obviously subject to emotional illness, but in what ways is she also portrayed sympathetically?
  12.  
  13. Another “mother” figure in this book is The Sacred Mother, who appears at various moments in the narrative, for example on pages 38-39, in an almost dreamed sequence at night, when the author is a child. Discuss the importance of this figure to the narrative in general.
  14.  
  15. Discuss the long scene, pages 140-143, in which McElmurray’s father recalls hunting and the slaughter of a hunting dog. How does this scene contribute to the characterization of her father, and to her ultimate decision not to relinquish her son to her father?
  16.  
  17. The final chapter of the book chooses to tell its events differently, in a “fragmented” narrative style. Comment on the successes and shortcomings of this departure in style.
  18.  
  19. The book’s afterward provides a kind of “surprise ending.” Comment on the impact of this event (the reunion with Andrew) on the memoir in general.
  20.  
  21. Who are the various “surrendered children” in this book?
  22.  
  23. A constant theme of the memoir is relinquishment and loss. Does the memoir manage to “transcend” loss, and in what ways?
  24.  
  25. In what ways does the book impact your ideas about adoption?
  26.  
  27. Surrendered Child is a “true” story, but it also often comments on truth-telling and even sometimes admits that particular memories may or may not be verifiable. Discuss truth-telling, and not, as it relates to this book—and to what we expect from memoirs in general.



Further reading suggestions

Being Found by Sarah Saffian

The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler

An Unkindness of Ravens (poems) and The Secret of Me (young adult) by Meg Kearney

The Other Mother by Carol Schaefer

Coming Apart Together: Fragments from an Adoption by Emily Hipchen

Unlocking the Heart of Adoption (documentary) by Shelia Ganz

The Truth Book by Joy Castro









Go to Tracking Desire book page
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About the book

It took just one sighting of a swallow-tailed kite to dispatch Susan Cerulean on a pilgrimage through its fragmented and ever-shrinking habitats. In Tracking Desire, Cerulean immerses us in the natural history and biology of Elanoides forficatus. At the same time, she sifts through her past—as a child, student, biologist, parent, and activist—to muse on a lifelong absorption with nature.

Once at home throughout much of the eastern United States, the swallow-tailed kite is now seldom seen. With ornithologist Ken Meyer, and then on her own, Cerulean roams the kite’s much-reduced homelands, gaining knowledge about the bird and the grave threats to its breeding grounds and migration patterns. Her quest takes her to the muddy banks of the Mississippi, to an enormous and vulnerable roost on corporate ranchlands in southwest Florida, and to the remnant pinelands of Everglades National Park.

In seeking the bird, Cerulean comes to question her own place in our consumerist society. “My journeys after kites have led me to understand that the power of our longings is placing the integrity of life on our tender emerald planet so greatly at risk,” she writes. “What are the fractured places in our hearts and minds and spirits that have allowed us to stand by and watch, and even to participate in, the destruction of so much of life?”

About the author

Susan Cerulean is the director of the Red Hills Writers Project in Tallahassee, Florida, and coeditor of Between Two Rivers: Stories from the Red Hills to the Gulf. She is also the author of Florida Wildlife Viewing Guide, editor of The Book of the Everglades, and coeditor of Guide to the Great Florida Birding Trail: East Section and The Wild Heart of Florida.

For discussion

  1. Were you aware of the variety of natural landscapes in Florida before reading Tracking Desire? What were your preconceptions about the state?
  2.  
  3. Cerulean’s writing in this book has been called honest, soul-searching, obsessive, and deeply personal. How would you describe it?
  4.  
  5. How many birds can you identify by name? Of all the birds and other animals you know, is there one you especially love or identify with? If so, why? How much do you know about what that animal requires to live?
  6.  
  7. What species in your area are at risk of extinction? Why?
  8.  
  9. What was your relationship to nature as a child? Did you grow up in the city, a suburb, the countryside?
  10.  
  11. How do your children or children you are close to, learn about the natural world? How much time do they spend out of doors, besides participating in organized sports? Is that different from your own childhood?
  12.  
  13. How do you feel when you are in wild places? Where, specifically, outdoors, do you feel most at home?
  14.  
  15. What have been the settlement patterns of your own family with respect to the North American continent? In what ways are your people connected to the places they live?
  16.  
  17. What are the often-told dreams and stories of your family? Do any of them have to do with the natural world?
  18.  
  19. How do your own religious/spiritual beliefs contribute to or mold your relationship to the natural world? Does your place of worship have a “Green Sanctuary” program, or something similar?








Go to The Heart of a Distant Forest book page
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About the book

Retired history professor Andrew Lachlan has returned to his family home on a pond in central Georgia to die. And yet, despite suffering from the first stages of cancer, he has never felt so alive, so ready to learn about the natural world around him.

Having taught all his life, he is ready for quiet solitude. But a young country boy, Willie Sullivan, disrupts Andrew’s search for order and rekindles memories Andrew thought long dead. While Andrew tries to teach Willie and become the family Willie lacks, another connection links Andrew to his past.

He becomes involved with Callie McKenzie, a woman he loved years earlier, and they soon begin to see in each other reflections of the lives they once led. This novel, in the form of Andrew’s journal of his last year by the pond, leads him to a deeper understanding of himself and the world.

About the author

Philip Lee Williams won the Townsend Prize in 1986 for The Heart is a Distant Forest, which was his first novel. He is the author of eleven books, including The True and Authentic History of Jenny Dorset (Georgia) and Crossing Wildcat Ridge (Georgia). His most recent novel, A Distant Flame, won the 2005 Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. Williams lives with his family near Athens, Georgia.

For discussion

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a novel in the form of a journal? How does the format lend immediacy to Andrew’s year by Shadow Pond? Name some other books that use the “solitary sojourn” as a story’s background.
  2.  
  3. Andrew has spent his life teaching history at a junior college. Why do you think the author placed him there instead of at a major research university? What is Andrew’s attitude toward American Indian history and how does his own lifestyle reflect it?
  4.  
  5. Why does the author create a relationship between Andrew and Willie Sullivan? What does each character get out of it?
  6.  
  7. How do the opinions of the natural world differ between Willie and Andrew? Give some reasons why Andrew has retreated to the country of his childhood to spend his last months.
  8.  
  9. Why is Andrew drawn to re-establish a relationship with Callie McKenzie, who had been his girlfriend from decades before? What does each of them get out of the relationship?
  10.  
  11. How do the characters in the book approach their spiritual lives and how does nature intersect with those lives?
  12.  
  13. As a professor of history, Andrew has lived much of his life in the past. But what are the limitations of such a life? How does Andrew’s current situation make such a life more or less valuable?
  14.  
  15. Life keeps intruding on Andrew’s desire to live out his life in solitude. Does this happen as a matter of chance or does Andrew put himself in the position of needing human companionship?
  16.  
  17. How does humor play a part in The Heart of a Distant Forest? What characters would you consider humorous characters and why?
  18.  
  19. What is Andrew’s attitude toward aging and death? Does he fight against them or does he seek a pathway toward acceptance? Several people die during the course of the novel. How does Andrew react to their passings?
  20.  
  21. What does The Heart of a Distant Forest tell us about fathers and sons? How does the relationship between Willie and Andrew come to mirror that of a father and son, or does it?
  22.  
  23. Stories are usually built on archetypes—stories that have been told over and over since the beginning of time. What archetypes can you identify in The Heart of a Distant Forest?
  24.  
  25. Even though the novel is in the form of a journal, the author uses dialogue extensively. How does this dialogue help move the story along?
  26.  
  27. Near the end of his life, Andrew writes: “I do not know if there is a God or if there is goodness or evil in the earth. I have lost too much. I will praise what I can embrace.” How does Andrew, as an academic, view doubt? Does this passage indicate a positive or negative attitude on his part?
  28.  
  29. The novel is in a circular format—it ends at the pond where it begins. What other “circles,” in character or plot, can you find in the novel?








Go to The Sweet Everlasting book page
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About the book

Judson Mitcham cuts through the moral ambiguities of life in the midcentury rural South to show us the heart and soul of a good but flawed man.

Sharecropper’s son, mill worker, and ex-convict—Ellis Burt surely knows adversity. For a brief and cherished time there was a woman, and then a child, too, who had been a kind of salvation to him. Then they were gone, leaving Ellis to carry on with the burden of what he had done to them, of the ruin he brought down upon them all. Like the hero of William Kennedy’s masterpiece, Ironweed, Ellis Burt is a man of uncommon personal dignity and strength, always moving toward, but never expecting, redemption.

About the author

Judson Mitcham’s poems have appeared in Poetry, the Georgia Review, and Harper’s. His novels, The Sweet Everlasting and Sabbath Creek, are both winners of the Townsend Prize for Fiction. He teaches writing at Mercer University.

For discussion

  1. What is the significance of the title? What symbolic value might it have? What parts of the story might be seen as having some relation to the title?
  2.  
  3. How does the first-person narration, in the voice of an uneducated, elderly Southern white man, affect the telling of the story? What are the limitations and advantages of this particular point of view?
  4.  
  5. What is the “idea as real as a sharp stick” in the first line of the novel?
  6.  
  7. What are some consequences of the author’s decisions concerning the use of racially charged language?
  8.  
  9. Comment on the way time is handled in the novel. What techniques does the author employ to avoid confusing the reader?
  10.  
  11. Which earlier scenes foreshadow Ellis’ extreme reaction to what Susan tells him late in the story? (p.164)
  12.  
  13. What does Ellis mean by “On that day I’ll know what it is that I’ve been given to do?” (p. 189)
  14.  
  15. How do you interpret the scene in which Ellis, after leaving the faith-healing ceremony, encounters an Isaiah-like figure on the road home? (p. 56)
  16.  
  17. How would you describe Susan as a character? What devices (action, appearance, speech) does the author emphasize in drawing her character?
  18.  
  19. How is the world of work dealt with in the novel? What kinds of jobs do these characters hold? What are the satisfactions and the difficulties?
  20.  
  21. How does Ellis’ use of a biblical concordance function as an element in the story?
  22.  
  23. Can the concept of “tragic flaw” be properly applied to Ellis Burt?
  24.  
  25. Comment on the significance of rumor and misunderstanding in the story.
  26.  
  27. Comment on the questions posed throughout the novel by Ellis and by other characters. Are there answers to these questions in the novel?
  28.  
  29. Why are some readers puzzled by the way Ellis reacts to what Susan tells him? (p. 164). Why are some readers not puzzled? What does Ellis’ reaction tell us about his character and his world? What do our reactions tell us about our own characters and our own worlds?








Go to Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven book page
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About the book

This haunting debut novel invites us to explore the boundaries between beliefs, desires, obsessions, and madness. Karen Salyer McElmurray’s story is set in Mining Hollow, Kentucky, where we meet Ruth Blue Wallen; her husband, Earl; and their son, Andrew. Ruth longs to know God, the only escape she can find in a world that has shown her spiritual, emotional, and sensual defeat. Earl yearns for the music-making of his past, now lost as he makes a living as a coal miner. Andrew desires the affection of a boyhood friend, an expression of love considered sinful in rural Kentucky. And with the divinely inspired yet tormenting help of his mother, in a world of deeply and tragically conflicting desires, Andrew must choose to live or die—he must choose an uncertain love or nothing at all.

About the author

Karen Salyer McElmurray is an assistant professor in the creative writing program at Georgia College and State University. She is also the author of Surrendered Child (Georgia) and has published essays and stories in numerous magazines and journals. McElmurray has received dozens of honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Sherwood Anderson Award, and the James Purdy Prize for Fiction.

For discussion

  1. Other than the more obvious “oddness” of an isolated mountain family, what are some of the possible significances of the novel’s title?
  2.  
  3. The novel implements multiple points of view, all in first person. What are some of the advantages—or disadvantages—of this method of narration?
  4.  
  5. Each of the major voices in this novel is conveyed via first person. How do the voices differ?
  6.  
  7. Discuss the plot structure of this novel, which revolves around the forward-moving events of one night (Andrew’s drive to the lake with Henry and his eventual return home, where his mother has been waiting for him) and the relation of some sixty years of “history” involving all of the characters in the book.
  8.  
  9. The novel takes on some potentially stereotypical themes with its portrayals of, for example, an abusive mountain-man father or a young, gay man. Discuss ways in which the book does, or doesn’t, work against stereotypes.
  10.  
  11. At a pivotal moment in the narrative, following her marriage to Earl Wallen, Ruth Blue realizes that she has been brought back to Mining Hollow to live—an environment she hoped to escape. Such acquiescence to men is part of the fabric of Ruth Blue’s life in this novel. Does she emerge, ultimately, as a powerless character? Or does her “descent” into madness lend her power?
  12.  
  13. How does Earl, as an “outsider” to Mining Hollow, bring variety of experience and voice to the book?
  14.  
  15. Discuss the impact of class in the book—the coal miners and the owners of mines.
  16.  
  17. Discuss the various kinds of music that serve as a backdrop to the book: hymns, rock and roll, psalms.
  18.  
  19. Comment on the use of historical detail in the various parts of the narrative, for example, the depression era, photography, the world wars.
  20.  
  21. There are various instances of “magic” in this novel. Angels appear. A girl levitates at a church revival. Christ seems, literally, to walk in our midst. Discuss the impact of magic realism on what is otherwise a very darkly realistic book.
  22.  
  23. The novel concerns itself with fundamentalist faith, but also with other manifestations of spirituality—among them, the natural world, the face of god, vision, and human love. Discuss some varieties of faith in the book.
  24.  
  25. One reviewer compared the general atmosphere of this book to the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. “McElmurray has found light . . . in the midst of some of the darkest years of the century and in one of the darkest places.” Discuss.
  26.  
  27. Discuss the various final “visions” for their futures experienced by Ruth, Earl and Andrew.
  28.  
  29. Ultimately, this is a novel about human love, its redemptive powers and its limitations. Does love redeem the characters in Strange Birds or not?








Go to The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys book page
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About the book

Set in Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1970s, this is a novel of the anarchic joy of youth and encounters with the concerns of early adulthood. Francis Doyle, Tim Sullivan, and their three closest friends are altar boys at Blessed Heart Catholic Church and eighth-grade classmates at the parish school. They are also inveterate pranksters, artistic, and unimpressed by adult authority. When Sodom vs. Gomorrah ‘74, their collaborative comic book depicting Blessed Heart’s nuns and priests gleefully breaking the seventh commandment, falls into the hands of the principal, the boys, certain that their parents will be informed, conspire to create an audacious diversion. Woven into the details of the boys’ preparations for the stunt are touching, hilarious renderings of the school day routine and the initiatory rites of male adolescence, from the first serious kiss to the first serious hangover.

About the author

Chris Fuhrman grew up as a Catholic in Savannah, Georgia, where he was born in 1960. He received his master’s degree from Columbia University. Fuhrman died of cancer in 1991 while working on the final revision of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, his first and only novel.

For discussion

  1. Three dogs that appear in the book seem to have special significance. How do the black dog that interrupts the church service, the sick and injured dog that Tim kills out of sympathy, and the dog that attacks Francis the evening of his first night with Margie mark significant moments in the book? Why does Tim call the churchgoing dog, “as holy as anything else in this world?” What change can be observed in Francis when he watches his friend react so violently to the stray dog’s suffering? Why might a third dog appear before such an important moment in Francis’ young adult life?
  2.  
  3. On the way to the wild animal park, Tim shares some wisdom from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. How does the following quote apply to Tim’s life: “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”
  4.  
  5. More than the other boys, Francis seems to feel especially close to Tim. Do you imagine that Tim feels the same way?
  6.  
  7. Do you believe Francis really doubts the existence of God, or do you feel that he will regain a certain amount of faith as he grows older? Was he simply following Tim’s example, or was he thinking for himself?
  8.  
  9. Should Blessed Heart be held responsible for the boys’ skepticism of religious doctrine, or were they helpless in the face of boyhood rebellion? Were the boys destined to question their faith?
  10.  
  11. Why is the eighth chapter titled “Southern Gothic?” In what ways does the content and narrative style of this portion of the book recall the traditions of southern gothic literature? Should the title be seen as sarcastic, referential, or both?
  12.  
  13. Why, in the chapter “Welcome to Horrible Movies,” does Francis say, “I thought this must be how it felt to be married.”?
  14.  
  15. Consider Francis’ discussion of Friday night horror movies on page 145. How might his reaction to the movies reference the course of the book in general?
  16.  
  17. Does it seem out of character when Francis punches his reflection in Margie’s mirror?
  18.  
  19. Do you think Francis tells Margie that he saw the ghost? Should he?
  20.  
  21. Discuss Craig Dockery’s character. He is initially presented as a cowardly bully, but in what ways is he also portrayed sympathetically?
  22.  
  23. In a tragic way, the gang succeeds in accomplishing with the Wildcat Caper what they set about to do. Do you think Tim would be pleased to know that they are now infamous, even though he paid with his life?
  24.  
  25. Do you agree with Rusty’s comment that Tim was destined to die young, or do you see it as an attempt to assign meaning to a seemingly senseless loss? If Tim lived to be an adult, what do you think he would be like?
  26.  
  27. At the end of the novel, Francis refers to those early parts of life “when things could still happen for the first time,” and when the company one kept determined to a large degree who that person would grow up to be. Do you have certain memories that stand out above others as shaping a part of your adult character?
  28.  
  29. Francis’ stories are recalled with such detail and clarity. Do you have a sense of his age as he narrates? Does the last chapter change or confirm your assumptions?
  30.  
  31. Do Tim and Francis journey together or apart?



Also of interest

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, a film directed by Peter Care, starring Emile Hirsch (as Francis Doyle), Kieran Culkin (as Tim Sullivan), Jena Malone (as Margie Flynn), Jodie Foster (as Sister Assumpta), and Vincent D’Onofrio (as Father Casey).









Go to Tobacco Road book page
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About the book

Set during the Depression in the depleted farmlands surrounding Augusta, Georgia, Tobacco Road was first published in 1932. It is the story of the Lesters, a family of white sharecroppers so destitute that most of their creditors have given up on them. Debased by poverty to an elemental state of ignorance and selfishness, the Lesters are preoccupied by their hunger, sexual longings, and fear that they will someday descend to a lower rung on the social ladder than the black families who live near them.

About the author

Erskine Caldwell (1903–1987) was born in Newnan, Georgia. He became one of America’s most widely read, prolific, and critically debated writers, with a literary output of more than sixty titles. At the time of his death, Caldwell’s books had sold eighty million copies worldwide in more than forty languages. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1984.

For discussion

  1. In the biography Erskine Caldwell: The Journey from Tobacco Road, author Dan Miller said that Caldwell’s typical male character is “shiftless, conscienceless, incorrigibly lecherous, and possessed of a childlike innocence that blinds him to the ramifications of even his most hideous behavior.” Do you agree with this opinion? Where in the story might you find examples of Jeeter behaving this way? Can you find counter-examples?
  2.  
  3. A reviewer once commented that Caldwell’s characters are so disgusting they “lose the power to compel either pity or indignation.” Other critics countered, praising Caldwell’s dark humor as something akin to the satire of Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain. Do you think his portraits too exaggerated to inspire sympathy or even anger? Do you feel a connection to any of the Lesters? Bessie? Lov?
  4.  
  5. Do you feel that Caldwell respects the Southern rural poor? Is he merely mocking them, or is he striving to re-frame the stereotype of the carefree, good-humored Southerner?
  6.  
  7. John Shelton Reed, a noted observer of southern culture, once said that “Caldwell himself believed he was crusading for social justice.” Is Tobacco Road more an indictment of an unfair society or an indictment of stupidity and laziness in the poor man? What of Captain John and the rich banks of Augusta? Who do you think is to blame for the decline of the Lester family into starvation and poverty?
  8.  
  9. A critic once described Tobacco Road as “a compelling argument for diversified farming.” Caldwell did grow up in this region and saw the poverty first-hand. Consider Caldwell’s description of the burning over of the land as done out of tradition more than ingenuity. Is the author calling for innovation and cooperation among the starving farmers surrounding Fuller?
  10.  
  11. Why do you think Caldwell made Bessie and Ellie May physically deformed? What is Caldwell trying to communicate? What do you think the strong sexuality of those characters is supposed to represent?
  12.  
  13. Is there a place for love in the world we see in Tobacco Road? Ada and Jeeter seem to love their children, yet only the ones that have left them. Do you think any of their children love them? Do you see any love between the married couples of the story?
  14.  
  15. God plays a central role in the lives of many of the characters, yet their understanding of religion seems superficial and hypocritical at best. Do you think Caldwell was criticizing the control organized religion has disenfranchised people’s lives? How does religion seem to help them? How is it a harmful force? Discuss the religious beliefs held by Bessie and Jeeter.
  16.  
  17. Why do you think Caldwell treated death so lightly? Examples include the black man knocked from his cart by Dude driving Bessie’s car, Mother Lester run over by the same, and Ada and Jeeter burned in the fire. What do you think of Ada’s and Jeeter’s obsession with being buried in nice clothing?
  18.  
  19. Repeatedly Jeeter is told to move to the city to work in the mills to support himself and his family. What is Caldwell saying by having Jeeter continually reject this path? Why is maintaining a connection with the land so important?








Go to A Cry of Angels book page
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About the book

It is the mid-1950s in Quarrytown, Georgia. In the slum known as the Ape Yard, hope’s last refuge is a boardinghouse where a handful of residents dream of a better life. Earl Whitaker, who is white, and Tio Grant, who is black, are both teenagers, both orphans, and best friends. In the same house live two of the most important adults in the boys’ lives: Em Jojohn, the gigantic Lumbee Indian handyman, is notorious for his binges, his rat-catching prowess, and his mysterious departures from town. Jayell Crooms, a gifted but rebellious architect, is stuck in a loveless marriage to a conventional woman intent on climbing the social ladder.

Crooms’s vision of a new Ape Yard, rebuilt by its own residents, unites the four-and puts them on a collision course with Doc Bobo, a smalltown Machiavelli who rules the community like a feudal lord. Jeff Fields’s exuberantly defined characters and his firmly rooted sense of place have earned A Cry of Angels an intensely loyal following. Its republication, more than three decades since it first appeared, is cause for celebration.

About the author

Jeff Fields was born in Georgia and attended high school in Elberton, which inspired the fictional setting for A Cry of Angels. He currently lives in Atlanta. After working for many years in television and radio, Fields now writes full-time.

For discussion

  1. What is the real relationship between Em Jojohn and Earl? Why does Em keep coming back to Quarrytown after his long trips on the road? Does he want to come back? Is Em Jojohn Earl’s protector? Does he want to be? What is Earl learning from Em Jojohn?
  2.  
  3. Em is described as a Lumbee Indian. Is there such a tribe? If so, where are they located?
  4.  
  5. After his legal guardian, Miss Esther, has left and Earl runs away and comes back to Quarrytown, is it feasible that a 14-year old boy could move into a garage loft and make his own way in the world and be left alone by the local authorities and social agencies? If so, why?
  6.  
  7. What is being said about our society with Miss Esther and the old people in the boardinghouse? What is said about human nature when the elderly boarders are suddenly without Miss Esther?
  8.  
  9. Jayell’s strength is his talent as an architect. What are his weaknesses, especially with regard to personal relationships? Is he a leader or too easily led? Is his dream of building houses in the Ape Yard altruism, or is he exploring new housing designs, or both? When he teaches the black boys in his shop, what are his motives? When he wants Carlos, a black man, for his best man at his wedding, what is said about how he goes about having his way?
  10.  
  11. The author has said that Doc Bobo was based on a real person. Can you think of any despotic leaders of small, third-world countries who fit the Doc Bobo model?
  12.  
  13. The story illustrates a number of societal changes that were taking place in our country and in the South in the early 1950’s. What were some of them?
  14.  
  15. With regard to Mr. Teague and Tio’s efforts to keep Teague’s grocery store alive against the giant supermarket chain, is there value in small, mom and pop businesses in a community? Does their struggle resonate with any such conflict going on today? What is the true relationship between Mr. Teague and Tio?
  16.  
  17. Do you think Clyde Fay, Doc Bobo’s deadly bodyguard, was envisioned as essentially masculine or feminine in nature? Does his name offer any hints?
  18.  
  19. When Doc Bobo is thrown in the rock quarry and is swimming around scratching at the walls trying to get out, where and how is that scene foreshadowed earlier in the book?
  20.  
  21. After his climactic battle with Clyde Fay and the dog boys, does Em Jojohn live or die? Do you think Earl will meet up with him again? Where is Earl going when he leaves Quarrytown?








Go to Chicken Dreaming Corn book page
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About the book

In 1916, on the immigrant blocks of the Southern port city of Mobile, Alabama, a Romanian Jewish shopkeeper, Morris Kleinman, is sweeping his walk in preparation for the Confederate veterans parade about to pass by. “Daddy?” his son asks, “are we Rebels?” “Today?” muses Morris. “Yes, we are Rebels.” Thus opens a novel set, like many, in a languid Southern town. But, in a rarity for Southern novels, this one centers on a character who mixes Yiddish with his Southern and has for his neighbors small merchants from Poland, Lebanon, and Greece.

At turns lyrical, comic, and melancholy, the tale takes inspiration from its title. This Romanian expression with an Alabama twist is symbolic of the strivings of ordinary folks for the realization of their hopes and dreams. Set largely on a few humble blocks yet engaging many parts of the world, this Southern Jewish novel is, ultimately, richly American.

About the author

Roy Hoffman is the author of the novel Almost Family, winner of the Lillian Smith Award for fiction, and the nonfiction collection Back Home. A native of Mobile, Alabama, he worked in New York City for twenty years as a journalist, speechwriter, and teacher, before returning to the South as staff writer at the Mobile Register. Hoffman’s reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Fortune, Southern Living, and other publications. He lives in Fairhope, Alabama, and travels to Louisville, Kentucky, where he teaches in the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University.

For discussion

  1. 1. The novel opens in 1916 with Morris Kleinman, a Romanian Jew, sweeping a sidewalk in south Alabama, anticipating a parade of Confederate veterans. Does this strike you as an unusual juxtaposition of images? Does a scene like this one seem in keeping with the usual notion of a “Southern novel”?
  2.  
  3. Harper Lee has said of Chicken Dreaming Corn that it portrays “characters who represent some of the best aspects of our Southern heritage.” What do you think she means by that statement?
  4.  
  5. Has Chicken Dreaming Corn shown you any aspects of the South, good or bad, that you find surprising? Has the novel changed your sense of the South in terms of the diversity of its population? Has it altered your perceptions of Jewish culture in terms of the story’s setting?
  6.  
  7. Is Morris Kleinman an outsider in Mobile? Does his status as “insider” or “outsider” change in the course of the novel? What about Miriam? The children?
  8.  
  9. Morris and Miriam, separately, go through phases in their convictions that home is either far away, in Brooklyn or Romania, or, by contrast, right beneath their feet, in Mobile and the Gulf Coast. How do they show this? What incidents take place that affect their feelings about home and where home truly is?
  10.  
  11. Hoffman dedicates his novel, in part, to the memory of his grandparents, who, he writes, “journeyed so far to find home.” What kinds of journeys, of the body or the spirit, take place in Chicken Dreaming Corn? Where do these journeys lead the characters in terms of geography of place, and also of the heart?
  12.  
  13. Do Abe and Herman journey together, or apart? Both?
  14.  
  15. Morris tells Abe that his ambition, as a store owner, is “to make a living, not a killing.” How do Morris and Abe differ in their business attitudes? Do they achieve any reconciliation?
  16.  
  17. Why do you think Donnie McCall seems at first to be Morris’s friend, then turns against him? Is there anything in particular about Morris that especially aggravates McCall? Is there anything about McCall that Morris finds disturbing?
  18.  
  19. Pablo Pastor’s cigars take on significance in many ways in the course of the novel. How so?
  20.  
  21. Does Morris grow in the course of this novel? Do Miriam, Abe, Herman, and Hannah?
  22.  
  23. What perspective do Benny and Fanny offer on the Kleinman family? On Alabama and the South?
  24.  
  25. Does Lillian’s fate hold a deeper meaning for the family? Does it contribute to their emotional changes in the course of the narrative?
  26.  
  27. What is the role of religious belief in the novel? How do the various denominations—Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism—shape the narrative?
  28.  
  29. What do you think the theme is of Chicken Dreaming Corn? Hoffman includes an author’s note at the start of the book explaining the title. Is it an effective title? Is it a metaphor that resonates, in any way, in your own life?








Go to The Celestial Jukebox book page
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About the book

Set in the invented Mississippi Delta town of Madagascar, Cynthia Shearer’s The Celestial Jukebox depicts a rural South dependent on agribusiness and the fruits of some less attractive forms of capitalism—gambling and other vices. Into this world comes Boubacar, a fifteen-year-old African boy joining friends from Mauritania already living in the area. They are new African blacks not especially noteworthy in a town filled with Chinese emigrants, African Americans within memory of slavery, and straggling members of the original white families of the area. Presiding over Madagascar is Angus, the second-generation Delta Chinese proprietor of the Celestial Grocery, with his vintage jukebox and its treasure of Slim Harpo, Sam Cooke, and Wanda Jackson songs.

The ties that bind the lives in this community together are American roots music and the desire to make a home in the rural South. The purity and beauty of Cynthia Shearer’s writing—like the purity of music that exists within this story, an imagined soundtrack of more than thirty songs—marks The Celestial Jukebox as that most rare book, a novel as historically expansive as it is intimate, filled with music, wisdom, and spontaneous joy.

About the author

Cynthia Shearer is the former curator of Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, and holds an M.A. in English from the University of Mississippi. She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her first novel, The Wonder Book of the Air, received the 1996 prize for fiction from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.

For discussion

  1. What is Boubacar’s legal status as he enters the United States from Mauritania, a country where slavery is still practiced?
  2.  
  3. How do the various characters in the novel differ in their backgrounds and experiences that bring them to reside in Madagascar?
  4.  
  5. What are some of the mistaken impressions Boubacar forms about American culture, and what causes these impressions? How does the Wastrel attempt to control the boy’s reactions to American culture? How seriously does the boy take his comments, such as his anti-Semitic remarks?
  6.  
  7. What is the basis of the longstanding friendship between Angus Chien, Dean Fondren, and Aubrey Ellerbee? How do the events of Aubrey’s childhood bind them together when Aubrey is an adult?
  8.  
  9. What attracts Angus Chien to Consuela, the Honduran immigrant? What are her reasons for arriving in Madagascar?
  10.  
  11. The character “Bebe Marie” was inspired by a work of art by the same name done by Joseph Cornell, the reclusive avant-garde collage artist whose primary medium was found objects. In what ways does she employ found objects in her art? Self-taught artists often begin their most productive periods after experiencing deep trauma. What is the trauma that Bebe Marie has experienced, and how is it related to the French surrealist exhibition of 1938? Are her works of art pure expression or are they social commentary?
  12.  
  13. Why is the character Raine Matthews so deeply affected by Bebe Marie’s birdhouses? How is Bebe Marie the catalyst that brings Raine to a romantic attachment with the Jukebox Man?
  14.  
  15. What is the significance of the vintage (1938) National steel guitar in The Celestial Jukebox? What does the guitar represent to the African boy Boubacar, and how is that different from what it represents to the American boy Chance? Why does Raine not attempt to reclaim the guitar at the end of the novel?
  16.  
  17. What does Boubacar’s visit to the African American church service reveal to him about the merging of Muslim and Christian faiths in America?
  18.  
  19. What do Dean Fondren’s thoughts about and behavior toward Peregrine Smith-Jones reveal about his character? Do they compromise in any way his love for his wife?
  20.  
  21. Why does Boubacar want to get to Rush, New York, after September 11?
  22.  
  23. Is there a double meaning to the title The Celestial Jukebox? Is the jukebox a symbol?
  24.  
  25. Why is so much of the music mentioned in this novel not contemporary or very well known at the time the characters are hearing it? How is the African boy’s valuation of music different from the Wastrel’s, and how is his interest in music different from the American boy Chance’s interest in music?
  26.  
  27. Why is the fate of each character still unknown at the end of the novel?








Go to God’s Little Acre book page
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About the book

Like Tobacco Road, this novel chronicles the final decline of a poor white family in rural Georgia. Exhorted by their patriarch Ty Ty, the Waldens ruin their land by digging it up in search of gold. Complex sexual entanglements and betrayals lead to a murder within the family that completes its dissolution. Juxtaposed against the Waldens’ obsessive search is the story of Ty Ty’s son-in-law, a cotton mill worker in a nearby town who is killed during a strike.

First published in 1933, God’s Little Acre was censured by the Georgia Literary Commission, banned in Boston, and once led the all-time best-seller list, with more than ten million copies in print.

About the author

Erskine Caldwell (1903–1987) was born in Newnan, Georgia. He became one of America’s most widely read, prolific, and critically debated writers, with a literary output of more than sixty titles. At the time of his death, Caldwell’s books had sold eighty million copies worldwide in more than forty languages. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1984.

For discussion

  1. The title of Caldwell’s novel refers to a plot of land set aside by Ty Ty Walden for religious purposes. Discuss the inherent hypocrisy in Ty Ty’s willingness to move “God’s little acre” to avoid striking gold and having to give it to the church.
  2.  
  3. What do you make of Ty Ty’s defense for his behavior: “It ain’t so important that I get money out of God’s little acre to give to the church and the preacher, it’s just the fact that I set that up in His name. . . . That’s the sign that God’s in my heart.” (p. 188) What does this say about Ty Ty’s beliefs? About Caldwell’s?
  4.  
  5. Ty Ty hopes the divine power of an albino named Dave—the “all-white man”—will help him strike gold. However, he claims to go about his digging scientifically and without the use of “conjur.” What is Caldwell trying to demonstrate through this clash of beliefs? Moreover, why does Ty Ty have “gold-fever?” What makes him want to keep digging?
  6.  
  7. Pluto Swint is lazy, cowardly and bashful, yet ends up with the bold and extravagant Darling Jill. What about his personality is admirable? What might she love about him? Is her acceptance of him a positive or negative point?
  8.  
  9. What pushes Will Thompson to turn the power back on in the mill of the company town? Explain the following quote spoken by Will to Pluto: “You don’t know what a company town is like, then. But I’ll tell you. Have you ever shot a rabbit, and gone and picked him up, and when you lifted him in your hand, felt his heart pounding like—like, God, I don’t know what!” (p. 153)
  10.  
  11. Is the principled proletariat of Caldwell’s Carolina mill town believable? Would a starving town hold out eighteen months in the fight against a “dollar ten” wage? Do you think the author is guilty of over-romanticizing the working poor? What is his point?
  12.  
  13. Do you agree with Caldwell’s take on “manliness” as captured in the story? Griselda tells Ty Ty that he and Will were real men because they actually said “those things about what a man would want to do when he saw [her].” (p. 181) What does she mean?
  14.  
  15. Consider Ty Ty’s short speech (p. 183) about the power of feeling over reason. Do you think these are also Caldwell’s beliefs? If so, is he right? What is the role of God or religion in such a view?
  16.  
  17. This novel, first published in 1933, was banned and censured, yet also topped the best-seller list. Discuss Caldwell’s use of overt sexuality. How does it strengthen both his writing and the story? To what extent is it vulgar or excessive? Profound or appealing?
  18.  
  19. God’s Little Acre is Erskine Caldwell’s second novel. It certainly resembles his first, Tobacco Road, in terms of plot and tone. Consider how the latter follows a similar formula, yet also how it is more innovative and skillfully composed than the first. If you have not read the other novel, simply choose which passages you feel might best illustrate this statement from the San Francisco Chronicle: “Caldwell writes with a full-bodied, gutsy vitality that makes him akin to the truly great—to the Balzacs, the Zolas, all the vigorous brotherhood who have made the novel what it is.”