Print this guide


Reading Group Guide

    Set in 1871, Shavetail is the story of Private Ned Thorne, a seventeen year old boy from Connecticut who has lied about his age to join the U.S. Army. On the run from a shameful past, he enlists in the army with dreams of adventure and honor and heroism, but he soon finds himself stationed at the farthest edge of the country, the stark desert of the Arizona territories, home to a variety of unpleasant creatures: rattlesnakes and scorpions and a company of disgraced soldiers.
    Before Ned arrives at the outpost, two men are found murdered by Apaches at a nearby ranch, and a woman is missing, her diary the only evidence she ever existed. The captain in command, a man deeply haunted by his own past mistakes, determines that the small and ragged troop must pursue the Indians and rescue the woman.
    Captivated by the woman's meticulous diary entries, Ned soon finds he may have a chance at heroism after all.
    Not only a riveting adventure tale, Shavetail is a story of regret and redemption, of desperation and hope and second chances.
    Questions for Discussion:

    1. In the beginning of the novel, Brickner explains to Ned, "That's a shavetail, a young, green mule that hasn't learned his tasks yet. He can't go by himself. He's always got to be paired with an older, smarter mule. He's you, and I'm the older, smarter one" (page 31). Do you think that this is an accurate portrayal of Ned? Is it an accurate portrayal of Brickner? In many ways, Shavetail is a coming of age story. What evidence speaks to Ned's maturation by the end of the book?
    2. Many characters meet their death in Shavetail. Discuss how each of the following characters confronted the fatalities of their loved ones, companions, siblings and fellow soldiers: Mary, Lieutenant Austin, and Ned.
    3. Why is the diary so compelling to Ned? For what reasons do you think he's drawn so strongly to Mary? In relation to the novel's themes of redemption and hope, what do both the diary and Mary symbolize?
    4. Brickner's circuitous and deceiving behavior is evident upon his first appearance in Shavetail. How, if at all, did your opinion of him evolve throughout the course of the novel? Consider the circumstances and his actions in the end of the story. Is he truly evil?
    5. Given the fact one chapter so closely follows the other, do you believe that there is any significance in the juxtaposition of the chapter that features the antelope herd slaughter (beginning on page 114) with the chapter that features the bakery scene (starting on page 121)? How does each scene illustrate the differences between Captain Franklin and Lieutenant Austin? What does each scene say about the condition of army life in the novel's setting?
    6. Consider Lieutenant Austin and Captain Franklin's relationship. Their differences are immediately apparent, but in what ways are they similar? What about each of them makes their friendship so strong?
    7. Discuss Lieutenant Austin's obsession with the discovery and identification of new species. Why is this significant? What does it imply about his character?
    8. While reading, did you think that the circumstances of Captain Franklin's death mirrored Thad's death? If so, do you believe that the author was trying to make a connection between Lieutenant Austin and Ned?
    9. The true identity of the woman discovered dead on the trail is ambiguous. Do you believe that she was Mary? Does Ned think that the woman was Mary?
    10. Throughout Shavetail, the author works with the idea of redemption. Many characters are engaged in the search for it, most notably Ned and to a lesser extent, Franklin and Austin. Which of them is, in the end, successful, and why?
    Enhancing Your Book Club:

    The Apaches are featured in Shavetail. Conduct research online, including sites like this, or at your local library, and share you findings with the group.
    Pick another novel that is set in America's old west and read it as a companion text. Good authors to choose from include Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.
    Have a member bring in a journal and have a grab bag at the meeting or keep a journal of your bookclub meetings.

About the Author

Thomas Cobb
Photo Credit:

Thomas Cobb

Thomas Cobb was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of Crazy Heart, a novel, and Acts of Contrition, a collection of short stories that won the 2002 George Garrett Fiction Prize. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife.