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This reading group guide forAmerican Ghostincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
You could say Jolie Hoyt and Sam Lense were star-crossed lovers; the small-town daughter of a Pentecostal preacher tangled up with a Jewish graduate student from Miami; unresolved family histories and long kept secrets bubbling threateningly close to the surface. Only by breaking through the silence would they have any chance at uncovering the truth and ultimately finding peace. Janis Owens’ original narrative voice brings her characters to life and plunges us deep into the Florida panhandle, while the irresistible combination of romance, history, and suspense keeps the pages turning.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the opening paragraph of the book, we learn that Jolie and Sam’s relationship was “barely three months long, and as quickly ended as it had begun.” (p. 3) How did this knowledge affect your reading of the first part of the book? Why do you think the author chose to disclose this information up front?
2. The book is broken up into two separate parts: “The Indian Study” and “When the Chickens Came Home to Roost.” How would you characterize each part of the story? How do they tell the same story and/or different stories?
3. Some of the characters change remarkably from teenagers to adults. Carl and Lena, for instance, both reinvent themselves in adulthood. Is the same true for Sam and Jolie? Discuss these characters as teenagers versus adults. How do they change? How do they stay the same?
4. Everyone, including Sam, seems to look with suspicion on Jolie’s relationship with Hugh. Discuss their unique relationship, including its sudden dissolution.
5. Discuss the significance of the “fangers,” or fingers, throughout the story. What do they represent in general and to different characters?
6. After so many years and so much silence, why do you think Jolie decides to speak out about the fingers at her town meeting?
7. Jolie tells Sam that she knew she would lose him because “women in Hendrix lose everything, eventually—friends, money, mothers. It’s a losing kind of place. You tremble every minute for your love.”(p. 262) Do you think this is a belief that Jolie felt resigned to or compelled to fight against?
8. Discuss the narration throughout the story. While Jolie comes through as the main character, how does the third-person narrator shape the story?
9. While there are several stories unraveling throughout the course of the book, they all somehow tie back into the lynching of Henry Kite. Talk about how each of the main characters is affected by Kite. How did reading Uncle Ott’s experience of the lynching affect your view of Kite or of what happened to him and his family?
10. Why do you think Carl waited so long to tell Sam who shot him? Why do you think Carl told Sam and not Jolie?
11. Discuss the resolution of the mysteries surrounding Sam’s shooting and the missing fingers. Were the answers they got enough for both Sam and the Fraziers? Where do you think the fingers were and what might have caused someone to turn them in, seemingly out of nowhere?
12. Who or what do you think the title American Ghost refers to? Do you think the ghost is one person? Discuss the impression it gives of the story and what you think it might mean.
Enhance Your Book Club
American Ghost is a fictional representation of current efforts to uncover the truth behind the famous Claude Neal lynching that took place in Marianna, Florida, in 1934. Learn more by reading The Beast in Florida: A History of Anti-Black Violence by Marvin Dunn or read Ben Montgomery’s investigative piece in The Tampa Bay Times: TampaBay.com/Features/HumanInterest/Spectacle-the-Lynching-of-Claude-Neal/1197360
Does your hometown have any dark history? Or perhaps it has a proud past? Do a little research online and bring any findings to share at your book club meeting.
Janis Owens is not only a great storyteller, but she can cook, too! Check out her cookbook-cum-memoir, The Cracker Kitchen, and try out a recipe or two to serve during discussion.
Janis Owens is the author of three previous novels and a regional cookbook. The only daughter of a Pentecostal preacher turned insurance salesman, she inherited her love of storytelling from her parents. She lives in Newberry, Florida.