1. Begin your discussion of this richly imagined novel by looking at the power of the past over present. The story starts on the thirtieth anniversary of a death. Have the characters managed to put that death behind them and come to terms with the path of their lives leading up to and beyond that moment? Have they learned anything in the last thirty years, or have they allowed history to repeat itself?
2. While it is Eddie Alley who takes the central role in this novel, would you consider this to be his story? Or his daughter, Wallis’s? Why?
3. When Jasper comes to live with twelve-year-old Wallis and her parents she becomes “conscious of her place in the Happy Family and how lucky she is supposed to feel to have one” (p. 82). How happy is Wallis’s family in reality? Is the family ever depicted as a happy place in Holman’s world?
4. At the very center of the novel lies the ways in which stories are told and truth is defined. Look at the way in which Eddie filters his childhood through tellings and retellings of folklore and family myths. Discuss also his need to present and frame showings of horror movies on his TV show instead of just letting the movies speak for themselves. Finally, consider the path that has led Wallis to news journalism and discuss the similarities and differences between the newscasts she presents and the stories and movies she has digested growing up.
5. Continuing this line of discussion talk about the different perceptions of truth and reality as conveyed in the novel. Analyze especially the subjectivity of truth in the written word and through the lens of a camera.
6. Holman skillfully blends narrative from three different time periods and gives us beautifully rendered characters from widely differing backgrounds. She combines folklore and ghost stories with contemporary domestic drama—how is she able to contain these disparate story strands and keep her novel grounded firmly in reality?
7. Both Tucker Hayes and Jasper act as catalysts coming into Eddie’s family and wreaking havoc at two different periods of his life. Talk about the effects of outside influences coming into the heart of a family and causing change—is change always inevitable? What is it about Tucker that so captivates the young Eddie? Talk about the parallels between Tucker’s arrival in Panther Gap and Jasper’s entry into the Alley family forty years later.
8. One of the most memorable characters in the novel is the marvelously drawn Cora Alley. Holman seamlessly moves back and forth between Cora’s days within her human skin and her nights as “a vision of blood and sinew, standing raw against the moon” (p. 45). How is she able to suspend disbelief so that we, as readers, do not question the truth of Cora’s character? How far does the rural Virginian setting help maintain the magical mood? Consider the games the local children play and the gossip they spread as well as Tucker’s assignment as a writer.
9. As a boy how much does Eddie know and understand about his mother’s “second self, that hint of nonmother” (p. 21). Why is he moved into action against her this time, trapping her in her human skin?
10. In one of the family stories he spins, Eddie tells of a woman who removes her human skin “for a little rest from the troubles of home” (p. 156). Discuss the ways in which different characters throughout the novel throw off their metaphorical skins. What about Wallis with her need to sleep with men she doesn’t love? Eddie and his alter-ego Captain Casket? And, finally, his acceptance of his homosexuality. Discuss the following quote in the context of the novel as a whole: “Just because you’re bursting full of wants and desires doesn’t mean you get to slip out of your skin whenever you feel like it” (p. 157).
11. The theme of freedom is of great importance in the novel. Discuss how different characters view freedom and to what degree they need it in their lives and relationships. Tucker Hayes, about to leave behind his civilian life and head out to war, is especially aware of what freedom means to him when he thinks “and he, Tucker, a man who might get up in the middle of the night and take a walk in the woods, and let a woman go, will be lost” (p. 44). Talk about his feeling of freedom—and entrapment—when being ridden by Cora Alley and the irony of Cora’s statement, “Now you are free. Now you are free” (p. 171). Consider, too, what is given up by other characters to achieve freedom.
12. What do you think happens to Tucker in the end? Would you have preferred to know for sure?
13. What role does Sonia Blakeman, the glamorous photographer, play in the novel? Holman reveals very little about her past, about why she has become the young woman she is—why do you think this is? What are your feelings for Sonia? How did you feel when she chose to leave Tucker behind? Does she make this decision from a position of strength, or from the fear of commitment? Does she strike you as a strong female character or do you see her as scared, and perhaps damaged? Do you imagine that the grown up, successful Sonia—the one signing copies of her book at the Met—is happy?
14. “She could never have both at once, those two things she needed equally—closeness and distance. Sometimes love demanded one, sometimes the other. No matter what, there was loss” (p. 204). While this quote describes Sonia’s needs it could apply to other characters too—which ones and why? Love is presented constantly as a challenge in this novel, as a painful burden, something to be suffered. Only twelve-year-old Wallis thinks “We have kissed each other and now we are in love” (p. 126). Find examples of the ways in which different characters embrace the difficulty of love.
15. “Only now do I begin to understand the need to terrify, followed by the even greater need to puncture the fear we’ve called into being” (p. 3). Using this quote as a springboard, analyze the central theme of fear in the novel and our human need to feel—if not the fear itself—but the relief that comes after it has gone away.
16. The 1910 Edison movie Frankenstein reappears throughout the novel as a leit-motif, underlining the importance of certain events: Tucker shows the movie to a young Eddie, who shows the movie to Jasper in the barn—and Wallis catches the end of it; Eddie runs the movie as the final feature in his horror-movie TV show. Discuss the movie’s plot and how it relates to and mirrors the events in the novel.
17. Wallis and Eddie seem to have spent Wallis’s entire life trying to figure out their relationship. Talk about her life with her father pre-Jasper when she is the only child of local celebrity, Captain Casket. How does her relationship with her father change during Jasper’s stay with them? And after Jasper’s death? Try to fill in the missing years from Wallis, aged twelve, to a college-aged Wallis and imagine her feelings toward her father and the secret they hold together. “This is the real ghost story, Wallis. The lonely horror at never knowing if what we put out there for each other will be understood. Or recognized. Or even heard” (p. 120). What does Eddie mean by this? Is he referring only to himself and Wallis?
18. As a child Wallis clearly sees her father as Eddie Alley, “a middle-aged weatherman in a bad costume. He’s a dad, for chrissakes” (p. 90). Jasper sees him as Captain Casket: He says what we’re all thinking. Where does Eddie end and Captain Casket begin, or have the lines blurred over the years? Does Eddie’s “alter ego” give him license to behave the way he does toward his wife and daughter?
19. What do you think Eddie was hoping for when he married Ann? Was it a matter of leaving his past behind, or was there more? Talk about the parallels between Ann “adopting” Eddie at the TV station, and Eddie adopting Jasper. Eddie and Ann’s marriage has reached stagnation but only Jasper’s arrival causes change. Why are they willing to continue in their marriage—are they even aware that they aren’t happy? Look at attitudes toward marriage in general in the novel. Would you consider it a rather bleak picture?
20. How active or passive a role does Eddie play in the destruction of both Jasper and his own family? What does he intend to set in motion when he takes Wallis and Jasper down to the railroad tracks? Does his plan succeed? What about in the barn?
21. The young Wallis is jealous of the attention that her father shows toward Jasper, culminating—in her eyes—in his showing of the old Edison movie that she had found. At what point does she realize that she is out of her league in fighting for the affection of both her father and Jasper?
22. Talk about your reaction to Eddie’s actions—as a father—when he sends Wallis and Jasper off on their bike ride together? Wallis has grown up in a few days moving from carving hearts and initials to thinking, “You are not kissing me . . . You are kissing the man who sent you out here to kiss me. You are doing as he asked and you are punishing him as you do it . . . If you can’t have him and you can’t live on the streets, I am all that is left” (p. 253). Trace the arc of Wallis and Jasper’s betrayal at the hands of Eddie. Could the tragedy of Jasper’s death have been avoided?
23. Take a look at some of the other father figures in the novel and the effects they have on their children. Consider Tucker’s father, his spirit and mind broken by war; Eddie who imagines “taking up a gun and pointing it at his (father’s) chest” (p. 192), and Jasper’s father who commits suicide after his wife’s death leaving Jasper alone.
24. Riddled with cancer and exhausted by chemotherapy, Eddie attends lectures in New York City to try to reach an understanding of his life and fast-approaching death. He comes to the conclusion that “We need only for life to teach us the humility with which to give thanks.” What do you think he means by this? How does this belief enable him to take responsibility for his actions?
25. Now in her forties, Wallis has given up the challenge and excitement of overseas assignments in dangerous locations in exchange for family life. Why do you think she chose to do that? How happy is she now with her decision? Discuss Sonia’s quote, “Love is always ruined by settling down” (p. 213) and analyze how far it could apply to Wallis. Would you have liked to see more of Wallis with her husband and young daughter? Is this family life part of the Alley family inheritance that Wallis has claimed? What do you think the future holds for Wallis?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Bloodroot by Amy Greene; Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver; Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore; Rain by Kirsty Gunn; The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass; Rescue by Anita Shreve; The Weekend by Peter Cameron; A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans; We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson; The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese; Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley; Virginia Folk Legends edited by Thomas E. Barden; Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers by Robinson Jeffers; The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America by T. H. Watkins; Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion, compiled by Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Virginia; The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters; White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi