Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven

A Novel by Karen Salyer McElmurray

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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?
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  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?
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  5. Each of the major voices in this novel is conveyed via first person. How do the voices differ?
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  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.
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  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.
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  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?
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  13. How does Earl, as an “outsider” to Mining Hollow, bring variety of experience and voice to the book?
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  15. Discuss the impact of class in the book—the coal miners and the owners of mines.
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  17. Discuss the various kinds of music that serve as a backdrop to the book: hymns, rock and roll, psalms.
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  19. Comment on the use of historical detail in the various parts of the narrative, for example, the depression era, photography, the world wars.
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  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.
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  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.
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  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.
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  27. Discuss the various final “visions” for their futures experienced by Ruth, Earl and Andrew.
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  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?