Bookclub questions

I’ve always felt that books were far more than a simple diversion. The best books teach us, move us forward, and help us understand ourselves and those around us. I hope CAIRNAERIE and FLEURINGALA will do this. To that end, I offer the following questions to help bookclubs, wherever you are, discuss either of my books. (Note: Some spoilers ahead.)


  1. How did Geneva’s cloistering make her unaware of the cruelty in the world? In this, did her parents serve her well? Or was it a false security and why?
  2. If Geneva had been more exposed to “society” would she have allowed herself to fall in love with Zeph?  And is this kind of societal influence a good thing or a bad thing?
  3. How did Bertram Snow’s devotion to “duty” cause conflicts between Caroline and him, and later with Geneva’s marriage?
  4. Was Bertram’s determination to honor Ezekial Coker a matter of obligation or did it rise from his own personal convictions?
  5. How did the “arrangement” satisfy the wishes of both Bertram and Caroline? Was there a good alternative?
  6. Education was once the stepping stone to life success, as it was for Bertram Snow. Have modern society lost that sense and promise, particularly as education has become available to all?  Was Bertram Snow ahead of his time in his attitude toward education of women?
  7. In Chapter 44, Geneva says: “If anyone were trapped, I suppose it was Zeph.” What did she mean, and do you think she trapped him or was he a willing party?
  8. Simmy was a servant at heart. It was her strength and her failing. Did she fail Geneva by not warning her of the consequences of marrying Zeph? Was Simmy acting out of fear or servanthood? Discuss whether knowing possible consequences deter bad decisions.
  9. Bertram was greatly influenced by Ezekial, and Zeph, by his father, Lightner. What characteristics did these men share?
  10. How was Bertram shaped by the circumstances of his youth?
  11. Why did Zeph succumb to Tobias’ blackmail? Did he have other alternatives?
  12. Why was Jacob Lassiten so distaining of “coloreds?” Do you think he knew he was an octoroon? Or like Benny, did he learn only when he was denied admission to law school?
  13. Vivvy was a character of conflicts. How was her relationship different with members of the Snow family? 
  14. Why did Bertram refuse to disavow his granddaughter, as Caroline wanted him to do?
  15. What might have changed Caroline’s mind about the marriage enough to give the couple with their wedding rings?
  16. What does John Klare learn about himself when he becomes embroiled once again in a racial issue? Reticent to get involved at first, what changes his mind?
  17. Courage comes in many forms. Which characters displayed courage—and which were just bullheaded?
  18. Ezekial, Lightner and Zeph all rose above the contemporary plight of their race during their lifetimes. What gave them the wisdom and courage to do so? How did their methods differ?
  19. Should — or could — Bertram Snow have been the “pioneer” that Geneva had hoped for and Hayes had encouraged?
  20. Clearly, there existed different camps along racial lines in the world of higher education? How did this conflict effect John? Has this changed, and if so, how?
  21. Describe the “status quo” that John references in this passage and why both communities lived by it. In Hyssop, though, he had noticed there was little open animosity. Instead, there was a comfortable acceptance of the status quo: Negroes were welcome to participate in society, but at their own places, separate and apart.” Was this a common iteration of racism in 1920s America? Was the “status quo” different, depending on geography? Was the “status quo” safe? fair? necessary?
  22. Geneva mused about “each generation” in the following passage. What does her observation reveal about her acceptance of her life? “…one generation waits for the next. They hold on tightly—for as long as they can—until the young generation grows strong. Only then do they depart. It is sad, but this is the order of things.”
  23. Was Geneva imprisoned, was she protected, or was she given what she wanted? Discuss the evolution of her attitude and her father’s.
  24. Twice Zeph tells Geneva, “Sometimes what’s right, isn’t what’s wise.” What does he mean by this, and how does this shape his life?
  25. Always determined to have her own way, what does Geneva’s long confinement teach her about life and about finding happiness?
  26. Discuss how decisions that one person makes can have a ripple effect through others’ lives?
  27. Discuss how Bertram, Caroline, Geneva and Zeph each change and what drives each transformation?
  28. Bertram Snow’s motivation was always his faith, but it seems to fail him in the crisis of Geneva’s marriage. Was his faith molded by circumstances or were circumstances molded by his faith and why?
  29. What parallels are there between Bertram Snow’s gift of redemption to Geneva and Geneva’s gift to Joly?
  30. Talk about the theme of forgiveness, especially posthumous forgiveness. How is it portrayed in three generations?
  31. What Zeph’s allegiance to the Snow family misplaced? Should he have accepted Bertram Snow’s invitation for freedom and left Cairnaerie after the war? Was his decision to stay right or wise?


1. Lauderville is a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. Discuss the positives and negatives of this kind of intimate community. 

2. Neglected and abandoned, what are the keys to Ruby’s survival? 

3. After Tack finds Ruby alone on the street, he faces a common dilemma, whether to get involved. Talk about his conflict, his decision—and how single decisions can lead to monumental consequences.

4. Other than Tack, who is the most significant influencer in Ruby’s life and why?  

5. Both Albert and Agatha display strengths, weaknesses, and obsessions. How do these impact their family? 

6. Agatha has a heart for the less fortunate yet won’t help Ruby. What prompts good people to do bad things and bad people to do good things?

7. Francine’s kindness stands in stark contrast to the Maven’s sanctimony. Describe the social norms and class envies that can squelch simple kindness.

8. How does Hester’s outrage ultimately benefit Ruby and Tack? 

9. Given her own life story, does Gilda warrant any sympathy? Why or why not? And why does she keep returning to Lauderville?

10. Describe the friendship between Maxine and Ida Jane and its importance for each of them.

11. While living on Cott’s Beach, Tack and Ruby’s relationship is tested. Why does it survive?

12. Discuss how each of the women Ruby encounters—Francine, Mary Amos, Mrs. Vincent, Miss Pomeroy, Mrs. Shockley—fulfill roles that were missing in her life. 

13. Deeply wounded, Mr. Ellison is closed to love until the night of the lightning bugs. How does this natural phenomenon—called “a synchronous display”—symbolize his change of heart?

14. One reviewer wrote that Fleuringala is a “very special love story of two people helping each other grow up.” Discuss if and how this is an apt description.

15. The book begins and ends with paw paws. How does this fruit so closely associated with Appalachia reflect the interactions between Fleuringala’s characters?