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This reading group guide for The Hanging Treeincludes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Bryan Gruley. 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.
1. The first line of the book is, “I have learned that you can be too grateful for love.” Do you think this statement refers to the relationship between Gus and Darlene, or is the author highlighting a larger theme? Think about the various relationships in the novel in light of this sentence. Does it change your perspective on them, or on the book as a whole?
2. Gus has proven himself to be a reporter of persistence and talent. Is Gus wasting that talent by staying in Starvation Lake? Do you think he is hiding in Starvation Lake, still ashamed of what he did at the Detroit Times? Or are his reasons for living there—his mother, Darlene,his history with the town—genuine? Do you think he aspires towork for a big paper again?
3. Many people in Starvation Lake are annoyed by Gus’s negative stories about the new hockey rink. Why does the new rink mean so much to the town? How do the prospective new rink and the existing old one function as symbols for Starvation Lake?
4. Gus and Gracie had a very troubled relationship, with tensions that seem to go beyond normal “sibling rivalry” (or, in their case, cousin rivalry). Do you think Gus’s appraisal of Gracie’s character is fair? How does his understanding change of who she was? Is it easier, or more appealing, to forgive someone who is dead?
5. Gus’s mother withholds a lot of information about Gracie that could potentially help the investigation. If she weren’t in a declining mental state, would she have let things slip at all? Or does she hide behind her forgetfulness as an excuse to withhold information at will? How would Gus’s investigation have changed if she had kept her silence?
6. Is Gracie’s slide into prostitution understandable? Do women truly have no other option at times or, as Trixie says, do they enjoy playing that role on a certain level? If prostitution were legalized and controlled, do you think stories like Gracie’s would be less likely?
7. Gracie sacrifices her life for her child. Given Gracie’s limited resources and options, do you agree this was the best way for her to help her son, or could it prove to be intensely damaging to him in the long run?
8. Gus tells Philo, “Just like hockey. It’s all about two-on-ones.” There are many “two-on-one” relationships throughout The Hanging Tree. Besides that of Gus-Darlene-Jason, can you think of any other love triangles? Or triangles that involve nonromantic relationships? Do you think these triangles were intentional on Gruley’s part?
9. Felicia Haskell is, at first, a minor character, but she is central to Gracie’s death and the unfolding of the plot. Is she a sympathetic character, forced to make difficult decisions, or a selfish manipulator?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Gruley shared in a Pulitzer Prize for the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the September 11 attacks. You can read some of his articles online at his website, www.bryangruley.com. Pick a piece to read together and note the differences in his style as a journalist and as a fiction writer.
2. Hockey, and the position of goalie in particular, are important to the storyline of The Hanging Tree. Watch some of a hockey game on TV or online (or attend a local hockey game!) and try to imagine it from a goalie’s point of view.
3. The Hanging Tree takes place in 1999, before Internet news had become popular. Philo, Gus’s boss at the Pilot, expresses a belief that it’s the wave of the future for reporters. Discuss among the group where and how you get your news, and how that has changed in the past ten years.
A Conversation with Bryan Gruley
Tell us about the process of plotting a mystery novel. Do you have the story mapped out before you sit down to write, or do you discover it along with your characters?
So far, I’m not much of an advance plotter. I know where the story begins and I have a vague idea of how it ends. Then I start writing and, yes, I discover the story along with my characters. As I go, I jot notes to myself about story arcs I need to follow through on and loose ends I have to tie up, and these become a sort of rough, moving outline for what’s to come in the next few scenes.
How is writing a sequel different from writing a debut novel? Does your writing process change at all?
Writing my first novel was hard because I had no idea how to go about writing a novel. Writing the sequel was hard because I had no idea how to go about writing a sequel.
I don’t mean to be glib. In a sequel, you have to be mindful both of readers who have not read your previous book and readers who have. You have to give the former enough backstory to appreciate the setting and characters without giving so much that you either bore repeat readers or reveal so much of the first book that new readers won’t go back and give it a try.
At least for me, another challenge on the sequel was quieting the echoes of reviewers, bloggers, readers, and others who had opined about my writing. Writing my debut, all I had to worry about were my own instincts and the suggestions of the few friends who read the manuscript. This time around, it was impossible at times not to recall the critics, professional or not, who’d complained about the hockey or the dialogue or the prologue or the way my hair was done in the author photo. It made for some second-guessing, but I tried to remind myself what my friend, the novelist John Galligan, told me: Write what’s in your heart.
When you first conceived of this series, how did you decide which point of view to tell the story from? Did you ever consider using a character other than Gus to narrate, or telling the story from a third-person perspective?
In truth, I didn’t conceive of a series; I just wrote one story, Starvation Lake, and my friends at Touchstone told me it would be a series. I never gave serious thought to telling the story in anything but the first person. It just felt natural, and it really helped me to get to know at least one character, Augustus
Carpenter. I sometimes feel envious reading stories told in third-person omniscient, because the narrator can honestly know things that the main character cannot know. I do not have that luxury with Gus, of course, but for now at least, I feel that it’s his voice more than anything that connects with certain readers.
While you don’t write from a female perspective, there are several strong female characters at the heart of The Hanging Tree (particularly Gracie, Felicia, Darlene, and Michele). Do any of the women in your life inform your female characters?
Absolutely. While none of these fictional characters are modeled on particular women in my life, I assume that virtually every girl or woman I’ve ever known has influenced the way in which I’ve drawn them—and the way Gus perceives them. The latter is most important because it tells us as much about Gus as it does about them.
Felicia and Laird Haskell put a lot of pressure on Taylor. Throughout the novel, Gus describes the dashed dreams of parents who believed that their sons were bound for the NHL. Do you think that this kind of pressure from parents is more intense in small towns like Starvation Lake?
I doubt it. Remember that the Haskells originally hail from the Detroit suburbs. The pressure there—and in Chicago, Toronto, Minneapolis, Montreal, Boston, and other hockey towns—can be intense. The best parents understand that the odds of their kid playing pro hockey are infinitesimal. They instead encourage a love of the game that the kid can embrace for the rest of his or her life.
Philo’s belief in the potential of the Web to change journalism is pivotal to the story. You have experienced the changes affecting journalism firsthand. Do you think that the essential role of reporters has shifted in the information age, or is their basic purpose and process the same? Are you optimistic about the future for newspapers in America?
The reporter’s missions is as ever: tell people things they didn’t know five seconds ago, and tell them stories that make them think, laugh, debate, cry, act. Today, a young reporter is likely to be as adept with a video camera as she is with a pen and notebook, and he’s likely to deliver information in shorter, faster blasts than before. But the essentials remain unchanged: What’s new? What’s interesting? How does it affect me and my world?
I’m not optimistic about the future for print newspapers, per se, because the business model is broken beyond repair. But the demand for news, compelling tales, and insightful analysis in an increasingly connected, increasingly complex world is greater than ever. The challenge is finding ways to deliver that material in ways that people will actually pay for it.
Tell us about your plans for Gus and Starvation Lake. Will the series continue? Any thoughts on how many books there might be?
At least one more, according to the folks at Touchstone. I can envision more beyond that, because I enjoy the characters so much. I’m dying to know what will happen to Soupy and Bea and Darlene and the River Rats. The only way to find out is to sit down and write it.
Bryan Gruley is reporter at large for Bloomberg News and the former Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. He has won the Anthony, Barry, and Strand Awards and was nominated for an Edgar Award for best first novel. He lives with his wife in Chicago. Visit BryanGruley.com.