Discussion Questions
         Questions for Readers of The Swan House

1) At the beginning of chapter one, Mary Swan explains that the year of 1962 was “most importantly, the year that I discovered the truth, and truth always sets us free.”  Do you agree with this statement?  What truth is Mary Swan ultimately referring to?

2) Why are we afraid to speak the truth?  Think of a time when you were confronted with the truth (ex. maybe someone dared to tell you what they really thought about something you said, did, etc).  After the initial shock and pain, were you thankful?  Was hearing the truth helpful?  Why or why not?

                                     3) At the end of chapter 3, Mary Swan says, “Trixie and Ella Mae and                                             Daddy performed an intricate if unseen act of grace to keep my mother                                         balanced and functioning.  And I never once saw it.  That was their gift                                          to me as I grew up.  Secrecy and love.”  What do you think of family                                                secrets?  How have they affected you and yours?

                                     4)  What is the relationship between Ella Mae and Mary Swan?  Ella Mae                                         and Sheila?  Ella Mae and John Jason?

5)  Which character in the book elicits the deepest emotions and strongest reactions from you?  Why?

6)  What are the pros and cons of the private education which Mary Swan, Rachel and Robbie are receiving?  Is it a good thing to ‘shelter’ our kids and provide a private education?  Why or why not?

7)  Who is truer in her belief, Rachel or the Protestant girls who attend church as part of tradition?

8) Where are your prejudices?  Do you acknowledge them or do you often begin sentences with "I'm not prejudiced, but..."  Is there anything you should do about these attitudes?

9) What are you doing with whatever wealth you've been blessed with?  Which attitude best describes you?
Keeping up with the Jones'
Smug about my contributions to benevolent causes
My money is not my own but a gift to be shared

10)  What does the verse in the Bible "To whom much is given,
much will be expected" mean to you?

11)  Do you think that  Miss   Abigail's   character   realistically
portrays a life of sacrifice and  love?  Does  her  life  attract  or
repel you?  Why?

12)  Look at the conversation between Miss Abigail and Mary Swan  at  the
end   of   chapter   7  (bottom   of   page  107-top  of  109)  dealing  with  the
differences  between the  poor blacks  in inner  city and  the rich  whites  in
Buckhead.  By the end of the book, how does Mary Swan come to view her
privileged life in Buckhead?  What has she learned about making sweeping generalizations about race and class? 

13)  What does this statement mean to you:  “The ground is all even at the foot of the cross”?  What is true faith?

14)  At one point, Mary Swan says, “Ever since I’d been coming down to Grant Park, I’d been trying to figure out the way things worked in poor, inner-city Atlanta.” (p. 181)  How                          does Mary Swan eventually gain a better understanding of the inner city?                                    What role does Carl play in this?

                      15)  Have you ever tried to "get into the skin" of a person of a different race,                                 religion, socio-economic background?  If so, how has this changed your                                       worldview?  If not, spend some time reflecting on and discussing what                                           different issues would need to be considered in order to better understand                                  people of a different background (race/religion/socio-economic) than your                               own.

16) Artistic expression (music, art, dance, writing, etc) acts as therapy for many people.  How have you found creativity to be helpful in your life? 

17)  What is the significance of the Swan House throughout the book?  What does it symbolize for Mary Swan?  For the people of Buckhead?

I've heard through the grapevine that my books are being read by many book clubs.  I've come up with some questions to facilitate your groups discussions.  Hope these help and happy reading!
Questions for Readers of The Dwelling Place

1) At the beginning of the novel, Ellie says that ‘sometimes the breaking                    of things is cruel and sometimes it is necessary and sometimes it is just an accident.’

                 Think of the different ‘broken things’ in the story and put each into one                       of these three categories—‘cruel’, ‘necessary’, ‘accident’:

                             - Ellie’s disfigurement
                             - Megan’s rape
                             - Ellie’s escape into drugs
                             - Robbie’s wounds from Vietnam
                             - Mary Swan’s cancer
                             - Rachel’s divorce
                             - Nate’s handicap
                             - The relationship between Ellie and Mary Swan
                             - The relationship between Rachel and Ben
   - The relationship between the Bartholomews and the Matthews

Is there a similar solution for each of these broken things?  If so, what is it?  If not, what different solutions are possible?

2) Think of different events in your own life which could be described as ‘cruel’, ‘necessary’, or an ‘accident’.  What has been your response to these events?  Have you found healing and if so, how? 

3) Authors use symbols to reinforce the different themes in the story.  Which symbols reinforce the theme of brokenness, of healing?

4) What was your initial feeling toward Ellie?  Did this perception change through the course of the novel and if so, how and why?

                5) In what ways does Ellie’s character represent ‘every man’ (or ‘every woman)?                       Which of her characteristics could you relate to and why?

                 6) At the end of Chapter 6, Ellie says, “I kept staring at the piles, thinking that this                     was my friend Megan lying in pieces at my feet, fragile and destroyed.  I never                            wanted to be beautiful after that.”  What is your reaction to this scene in the book?

Do you agree with Ellie’s perception of how society treats the physically beautiful?                   Discuss the challenges facing the physically handicapped and the physically                                beautiful.

7) Is Ellie’s anger toward her mother justified?  Have you ever felt a similar anger and later discovered it was based on misconceptions?  How did you handle this?

8) What lessons does Ellie learn by looking back at her mother’s life and paintings?

9)  Have you ever been an outsider, listening to 'Bartholomew Babble'?  How did it make you feel and how did you handle it?  Is that sort of "babble" ever justifiable?  Have you ever been guilty of ‘Bartholomew Babble’?  Why does it seem that Christians have a different way to communicate and should Christians communicate differently?  Do you know anyone personally who feels ill at ease because of this kind of talk?  Is it possible to remove Christian lingo/jargon without diluting the message?  If so, how could you change the way you communicate?

10)  Look at the last four paragraphs on page 304.  Ellie concludes the chapter with ‘Ben was showing me Jesus.’  Have you ever known someone like Ben?  What was your response to this type of person? 

11) Do you think it is easier to confide in someone outside of the family in matters relating to faith and spirituality?  Why or why not?

12) At the end of Chapter 20 (p. 341), Ellie is thinking: “As I curled up on my bed, I thought how one day could truly make a difference.”  Why does she say this?  Have you ever experienced something similar because you chose to forgive?

13) In your opinion, who is the strongest character in the novel?  What weaknesses does this character display?

14) Who is your favorite character in the story and why?

15)  Discuss the different meanings of The Dwelling Place in the novel.  Which can you most identify with and why?

16) Project into the future:  What happens between Ellie and Ben?  Rachel and Ben?  Mary Swan and Ellie?  Do they ever travel to the Dwelling Place?  Do they need to?  What is Ellie’s relationship with Robbie, Abbie and Nan? 

View of the lighthouse from Rachel's condominium in Harbor Town on Hilton Head Island, SC.
The Middleton house in Ansley Park.
The Swan House
Halftime at a Georgia Tech football game
Display of The Swan House and The Dwelling Place on sale at The Swan Coach House Gift Shop in Atlanta.
The High Museum with the Rodin statue and memorial plaque in foreground
Questions for readers of Searching for Eternity

1) What is Emile really searching for in this novel?

2) What do the ‘treasures’ symbolize to Emile?  Discuss in particular the significance of The Black Island for him both at the beginning of the novel and also at the end. Describe a gift that you received which eventually came to symbolize something entirely different. 

3) Discuss Emile’s reactions as he is forced to adapt to a completely new and foreign                                                  culture without warning.  Have you ever experienced culture shock                                          in any form?  If so, how did this experience help you view                                                               foreigners trying to adapt to our culture?  Which character’s                                                         response to Emile’s culture shock can you most identify with:                                                       Emile himself, Janie, Grandma Bridgeman, Ace, Eternity, Griffin,                                                 Mamie Madeleine?  Why?

                                        4) Discuss the image of a ‘safe room’.  (see p. 167) Do you have a                                                  ‘safe room’?  Describe your ideal ‘safe room’.

                                        5) As a young adolescent, Emile longs for a father figure—someone                                            to teach him how to be a man.  Does he find one?  What scenes in the                                          novel best portray his struggle toward maturity?  Does he                                                               ultimately succeed?

                                        6) At the beginning of the novel, Eternity’s goal is to protect her                                                  family.  Discuss the problems surrounding children who are forced to take on the role of adults.  What does Eternity ultimately learn about control?

7) Discuss the process of maturing to which Emile is subject throughout the novel. Which specific events are particularly important with respect to his growth, and how do they affect him in the long run?

8)Emile struggles to forgive his father throughout the novel, at times succeeding while at other times failing, with feelings of betrayal and hate resurfacing. What ultimately helps him? Is his life ruined because of his father’s disappearance? Discuss the experience of forgiving someone yet still dealing with intense feelings years later.

9) Think about Eternity Jones, how she got her name, and what she eventually becomes.  In light of these thoughts, consider this rendering of Genesis 50: 20  "What my father meant for bad, God meant for good..."  How does her father’s flippant choice of a name become a blessing?

10) In your opinion, who is the strongest character in the novel and why?  Who is a stabilizing force in the novel?

11) Is Jean-Baptiste de Bonnery ultimately a coward, a hero, a man possessed by revenge or someone else?

12) Discuss the theme of sacrifice in the novel.  Who gives up the most?

13) Even though Klaus Barbie never admitted his guilt or showed any remorse, were the French resistants and the Jews avenged with his condemnation?  What did his trial allow for France?

14) The theme of renewal and rebirth is prominent in the novel.  Discuss Jesus’ statement “...unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself                                           alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12: 24)  Have you                                                 experienced this type of renewal in any form in your life?  If so, how? (see p. 133)
                                15) Reflect upon the themes of ‘eternity’ and ‘time’ in the novel. What                                       do Emile and Eternity ultimately learn about the concept of time?                                              Discuss the symbolism in the title.

A traboule in Vieux Lyon
Views of St. Romain au Mont d'Or
Fourviere Basilica in Lyon
A view of the Mont d'Or
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The Swan House                      The Dwelling Place The Sweetest Thing

Searching for Eternity           Words Unspoken
Discussion Questions for Readers of Words Unspoken

1) The ‘words unspoken’ in the novel are the voices of the subconscious.  Think of the seven main characters in the book and the voices each hears.  Which one can you relate to the most and why?

Ev—he listens to the Almighty

Lissa—never good enough, failure, your fault

Katy Lynn—keep up appearances, no one will know

Silvano—you have to succeed, your family’s future depends on it

Janelle—go home !

Ted—go, go, go and don’t look back !

Stella—I’m getting too old to keep up this charade

2) On a drive back to Lookout Mountain after a meal at the MacAllister’s, Ev tells Lissa the trick is to figure out which voice to listen to and which to ignore.  Discuss.  Have you done this?

3)  At one point in the novel, Ev tells Lissa she needs to make a ‘battle plan’ to help her ‘get past the now.’  (p. 156).  He adds, “I’ve learned that getting things out into the open, saying the truth about what is inside, usually speeds up the process of moving forward.  Admitting it, facing it, and then planning a way to keep moving in the right direction.”
Do you agree or disagree?  Do you have examples from your life to support your answer?

4) What is Ev’s ‘battle plan’?  Discuss the concept of developing a battle plan.  Have you ever used a technique like this in your life?  Was it helpful? 

5) Have you ever faced paralyzing fear?  How did you overcome it?

6) Learning to drive again for Lissa becomes a metaphor for learning to live again.  Discuss the symbolism.

7) The theme of grieving is woven throughout the novel.  Near the end, Ev and Janelle have a conversation:“…you’ve got to give yourself permission to keep grieving for as long as it takes.”
“You never really get over it, do you?”
“No, sweetie, not exactly. But then, do we want to ‘get over it’? The memory of Tate, the memory of Josh, is proof of their importance in our lives. I think we just hope to let the Almighty redeem the terrible scars…”
Discuss the different ways Ev, Janelle, Lissa and her father deal with grief.  What are your thoughts on grieving?

8) What does Lookout Mountain symbolize to Ev?  To Lissa?

9) In your opinion, who is the strongest character in the book and why?

10) Ted Draper is motivated by greed, which ends up getting him in big trouble.  At one point, he rationalizes, Was it greedy to want to make the Million Dollar Club? Was it greedy to want a nice house and things for his kids . . . or to want to save his marriage? Was it greedy to want to stay out of jail? (p. 214) and then a few pages later he thinks: Greed. Many brokers were tempted by greed. But his temptation was something much more basic. Survival. How had he plummeted from golden success to simple survival in one week? He did not know, but he prayed to the God of Mammon that his plan would work.

Have you ever been tempted to rationalize obvious wrong choices?  What was the outcome?

11) Think of Silvano's character and the deep responsibility he feels toward his family back in Italy.  Discuss his motivations.  How do you respond to pressure from loved ones?   

12) Near the end of the novel, Ev explains to his daughters and granddaughter that:  “Fame had ruined me once—it terrified me, the possibility of repeating the past…Please believe me . . . it wasn’t to keep the truth from you—it was to protect you.” (p. 338)  Were Ev and Annie McAllister ‘right’ to have kept their secret for so many years?  Why or why not?

13) Discuss the change and growth in Katy Lynn and Janelle's relationship.  What is the catalyst for this growth?

14) Throughout much of the novel, Lissa and her father are at an impasse because of the way each one chooses to deal with grieving.  Do they ever get past this impasse?  If so, how?

15) Why and how does Lissa eventually come to hear different voices in her head?

Chickamauga National Military Park, Fort Oglethorpe, GA

The Tennessee River seen from Point Park, Lookout Mountain, TN
Lissa's school and the view from the library
Lover's Leap at Rock City
Views from Rock City, Lookout Mountain, TN
                           Discussion Questions for The Sweetest Thing

1)  At one point in the novel, Ginnie Dillard says to her daughter Dobbs: “When you love, it will hurt. You have to choose to forgive, again and again. But it’s worth it. That’s the crux of human relationships, Dobbs. The sweetest thing. Loving deeply. And forgiving…”

Do you agree with her?  What is “the sweetest thing” to you?

2) In chapter 5, Perri says about Dobbs:  "I had never before felt the tightening in my soul that I felt for Dobbs. Most of my friends I’d known forever, but my bond with Dobbs came swiftly, desperately, born from all the things breaking inside me. She had a kind of intuition that read my mind and peered deep in my soul. I found that I needed to be near her."

Have you ever experienced this in a friendship—a sudden bond made through difficult circumstances?  Did this friendship last?

3) At another point in the story, Perri says:  "Mary Dobbs Dillard rescued me from the worst of myself; she came to me as a gift, and we spent that time in a bubble. I asked myself why the bubble burst—or more precisely, if it had to. Was I destined to retreat back into the pain of my world instead of pressing forward with Dobbs and the one thing that she offered me—an uncharted life of guaranteed adventure that would take me far, far outside of myself?"

Have you ever had to choose between beginning a friendship that is hard—but challenging and ultimately beneficial to you—and staying with the status quo?  If so, which did you choose?  What do you now think about that choice?

4) What does the little book Patches from the Sky represent in the novel?  Have you found consolation—a path through grief—through Bible passages and literature?  How and why has this helped?

5) The Sweetest Thing is about friendships and the influence they can have on us.  Near the end of the novel, both Perri and Dobbs find themselves doing things that resemble the other person’s actions or thoughts.  Have you ever found yourself adopting the habits, expressions, even beliefs, of a friend, although at first you were diametrically opposed to them?  Ultimately was this positive or negative?

6) Discuss the themes of survival and provision throughout the novel.  What do you believe about Dobbs’s insisting that “God will provide.”  Have you ever needed God to provide for you in a very practical way?  What did you learn from this experience about faith and trust?

7) Dobbs has a crisis of faith.  Does it come out of nowhere?  Have you ever experienced a “crisis of faith?”  If so, how did you resolve this crisis?

Is it wrong to doubt one’s faith?  Is it possible never to have doubts?  Dobbs said that Jackie Brown was the fault line in her theology.  Are there any circumstances in your life that cause you to doubt what you have previously believed?

8) Discuss if and how the secondary
characters in the story evolve:

Mae Pearl
Reverend Billy
Aunt Josie
The Phi Pis

9) Discuss the evolution in the relationship between Dobbs and her father.  What caused it to evolve?

10) Look at the conversation between Dobbs and her mother (chapter 25)
“I keep asking God over and over again, Why? Why?”
Mother’s voice was a bare whisper. “That’s not the right question, Mary Dobbs. You’ll drive yourself crazy asking that question.”
“So what are you supposed to ask?” I said bitterly.
Mother shrugged. “Honey, I’ve learned to ask not why but what? ‘Now that I’m in this impossible place, Lord, what do I do next?’ ”

Do you agree with Ginnie Dillard’s advice to her daughter?  Do you tend to ask “Why” when bad things happen?  If so, is this okay?  What other questions do you ask?

11) The position of servants in 1930s South was difficult and unjust.  Discuss the way the Singletons and the Chandlers treated their servants.  Was Aunt Josie’s way of protecting her servants justified?

12) Perri was tempted to sacrifice many things for the sake of providing for her family.  What do you think                                        about her motivations?  Have you ever had a “Spalding” (not necessarily in the form of a person) come into                                     your life and tempt you?  How did you respond?

13) Near the end of the novel, Aunt Josie says that “In the times we are living in, people are desperate, Mary Dobbs. People have had plenty and now they are on the verge of losing it all.” Discuss the way the financial crisis of 2008-2009 has affected people in the US.  Do you see any similarities to the way it affected the people portrayed in the story? 

14) Early in the novel, Dobbs tells Perri, “I’m praying that one day God will provide something for you, you alone, Perri Singleton, in a way that you won’t be able to doubt it is from Him.”

Discuss Perri’s conversion experience.  Have you ever had a spiritual encounter like Perri?  Have you ever had a friend pray for you in a certain way and later see the realization of her prayer?

15) At the end of the story, both Dobbs and Perri seem to be following their calling.  How does faith play into this for each girl?

The finished carving on Stone Mountain: Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis
The Chandler's home, now Cherokee Country Club
My grandmom's copy of her yearbook from 1929 as well as the real 'Patches from the Sky'

My sweet friends to whom the novel is dedicated:
and La
Chastain Arts Center (former Black Alms House) and Galloway Schools (former White Alms House
My precious 97-year-old grandmother.  The photo is of her at 15.