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The Salt House

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for The Salt House includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lisa Duffy. 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.

    Introduction

    Set in the coastal town of Alden, Maine, The Salt House begins one year after Hope and Jack Kelly’s youngest daughter, Maddie, silently chokes on a necklace in her crib, taking her last breath without making a sound. Now, each member of the family—Jack, Hope, and their two surviving daughters, Kat and Jess—must navigate the world on their own private island of grief. Kat and Jess struggle to come to terms with the loss of their sister, while Jack and Hope watch their marriage crumble.

    As they traverse their own rocky relationships, the return of old rivals, first crushes, and more, the family struggles to recover from the grief that clouds their every action.

    Told in alternating voices, The Salt House is a layered, emotional portrait of marriage, family, friendship, and the complex intersections of love, grief, and hope.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. What is the significance of the title The Salt House? What does the Salt House mean to Jack, Hope, Jess, and Kat? How does it relate to the way the novel ends?

    2. The novel begins with an epigraph from the poet Stephen Crane:

    Tell her this
    And more,—

    That the king of the seas
    Weeps too, old, helpless man.
    The bustling fates
    Heap his hands with corpses
    Until he stands like a child
    With surplus of toys.


    Discuss the significance of this passage within the context of the story. Why do you think Lisa Duffy included it?

    3. How did Maddie’s death change Jack and Hope’s relationship? How did it affect their relationship with their older daughters?

    4. When Jess rides her bike to the Finns’ house, she has a peculiar interaction with Mr. Finn. “ ‘Tell your mother I said it was great party. And don’t forget,’ he warned, pointing his finger at me.” What was your impression of Mr. Finn? Why do you think he insisted she relay the message and sternly warned her not to forget?

    5. Scattering Maddie’s ashes is a source of contention in the novel. Why does Hope feel so strongly about the ashes? Why do you think Kat is so interested in them? Do you think that such rituals offer closure and help people move through grief? How has Hope let her guilt consume her? Do you think she’s being too hard on herself?

    6. Do you think Jack and Hope are right to not tell Kat the full circumstances of Maddie’s death? How does that affect Kat’s grieving process? Have you ever lied by omission to spare someone you love the full impact of the truth?

    7. Jack’s best friend and business partner, Boon, is an important character in The Salt House. How does his relationship with each member of the Kelly family help them through their grief? What role have lifelong friends played in your life?

    8. Discuss how Jess and Jack handle tough situations. How do they express their feelings with other people? How is that different from Kat’s way of dealing with the world?

    9. Discuss how Hope and Jack’s first meeting foreshadowed how they would communicate and handle future issues in their marriage. How do the secrets Jack and Hope keep from each other affect their relationship?

    10. Ryland Finn returns to Alden after decades of being gone. Has he changed in that time? Do you think that Jack treats him fairly upon his return?

    11. Describe the relationships between Peggy and Ryland, and between Hope and Jack. How does Peggy and Hope’s conversation affect Hope’s perspective on her own life?

    12. What role does Kat play in the novel and in her family? Consider her similarities to her grandmother, if any.

    13. Why do you think Jess and Alex are attracted to one another? Describe how Jack and Ryland, separately, affect their relationship.

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. The death of a loved one or relative can shift behavior and energy within a family. Read the article “10 Things I Learned While Dealing with the Death of a Loved One.” Discuss how the writer’s experiences and advice relate to the Kelly family and each person’s response to Maddie’s death. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jinna-yang/10-things-i-learned-while_b_5923558.html

    2. Read this article from Parents.com about helping children to cope with divorce. Discuss the experiences that Kat and Jess go through during this difficult time in their parents’ marriage. What were the key events that shaped their understanding of the change in their family?

    http://www.parents.com/parenting/divorce/coping/what-children-understand-about-divorce/

    3. When Peggy has a tough conversation with Hope about her relationship with Ryland, Hope was able to look at her life from a different perspective. Describe a moment when someone shared a personal story that helped you with your own issue.

    A Conversation with Lisa Duffy

    Congratulations on publishing The Salt House! What was the inspiration behind the story?

    I wrote the first several chapters of The Salt House quickly, and I knew it was going to be a novel. But I put it down, returning to it sporadically over the next several years. I was in graduate school, raising my three children, and working part-time, and I decided to spend my time writing short stories to learn the craft as best as I could.

    When I came back to The Salt House, my father had recently passed away, and his death was horrible and tragic and unnecessary in all of the ways a self-destructive death is, and the aftermath is still something I’m wrapping my brain around. In some ways, I would say his death inspired me to write about grief. And love. And family and tragedy and heartbreak and hope.

    Hope and Jack’s relationship makes a significant shift after a tragic loss. Can you share the motivation behind creating that circumstance in the story?

    In those early pages, when The Salt House was just a first draft, Hope was a writer and Jack a lobsterman. That pairing just appeared on the page and I didn’t know why, but it seemed necessary to me. The more I wrote, the more it occurred to me that these two occupations, or callings, or whatever you want to call them, have innate similarities.

    To be a writer or a fisherman, not just as a hobby, but as a way to put food on your table, you know going in that it’s going to be a hard way to make a living, and you’re going to have to work really, really hard and you might fail. There’s a passion that has to be there—an awareness that the story might not come together and the fish might not bite, but still you have to show up and be present and do the work.

    The same applies to a marriage. So it was interesting to create two people who have similar natures—people who don’t shy away from the uncomfortable as such—and then ask them to deal with the unimaginable. In a lot of ways, I think that’s where moments of transformation can occur—those times in your life when there’s a shift and you’re suddenly no longer the person you were before, and then what happens? Who do you become, and will the person standing next to you—your wife or husband or partner—stick around while you’re trying to figure it out?

    Can you share any insights about your writing process? Did you begin writing the story with a specific outcome in mind?

    I’d give anything to be the type of writer who outlines and follows a sane path, and has an idea of where the story is going, an outcome in mind. My process is similar to E. L. Doctorow’s observation that writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog: I can only see as far as the headlights, and I make the whole trip that way. The first draft is hell. But I build as I go in that draft. Every day I’ll reread what I wrote the day before and revise. Then I’ll move on to the next chapter. I’m not a messy first-draft writer, and when I’m done, I need to add rather than take away. When the draft is done, I’ll print it out and arrange each chapter on a table, and revise chapter by chapter, and then line by line. This is what I most enjoy, the revision process. I wrote The Salt House at my dining room table, and for years, every inch of it was covered in stapled chapters, lined up in rows. Then it was suddenly empty, and book two was just a blinking cursor. That’s the hard part. Once the story is on the page, the real fun begins.

    Do you have any similarities with any of the characters in the story?

    Probably Barbara, the grandmother, in that I love quotations. I have journals and books full of them, dating back to when I was a teenager. They’re taped to my computer and walls and in frames around my house. And I like to say them to people as well, but, unlike Barbara in the novel, I bungle them. I get it from my mother. It’s a family joke—that we both love quotes and idioms, but we massacre them. It’s probably even more comical that I know this about myself and yet I still go there—drawn to idioms in conversation like bugs to a lamp. That’s what I wrote before I googled it. The correct saying is moths to a flame. I spend a good part of my day telling my kids, “Oh, you know what I mean!”

    Did you have to do any research on the behavior and work of a fisherman?

    I had an experience early on in my research that helped set the tone for some aspects of the novel. There was a particular lobsterman in Mid Coast Maine who I found online after he did some events with a local fiction writer. I thought he might be willing to talk to me, and I tried to get in touch with him for months, with no response. I finally asked the writer if she could facilitate an introduction, and she politely said, he’s never going to talk to you. Not only was I “from away,” but the fishing community had suffered some recent controversy with shootings and boats being sunk, so my chances getting anyone to talk to me were slim to none.

    This writer turned out to be enormously helpful with some of my questions, but the fact that the lobsterman wouldn’t talk to me was more informative than any questions I could have possibly asked him.

    I also read a ton of fiction and nonfiction on the subject, and my husband worked on a lobster boat when he was younger, and was in the Merchant Marine for years, so he helped immensely with the boat details.

    Do you have any personal connection with the sea or with the coast of Maine?

    I grew up in a triple-decker just twelve miles outside of Boston, but I feel most at home by the water. The north shore beaches—Wingaersheek and Good Harbor and Crane—were the beaches of my childhood. There’s something intriguing and magical to me about a coastline that is at once so breathtaking and utilitarian.

    One of my clearest memories is of a scorching summer day when I was young and we were at a small neighborhood beach in Rockport. I say beach, but there was no sand, just a bunch of rocks at the edge of the water. It was so hot and humid you could barely breathe and the water was just freezing—a numbing cold—but a bunch of us were swimming because what else can you do, and suddenly this guy popped up next to us, literally from the depths, and he had on a full wet suit, face mask, and everything, and in his hands was a lobster trap. I don’t know if his boat was broken or he just felt like diving to fish, but I think I fell in love right there with the water that was both unforgivingly cold yet fruitful.

    Years later, my mother bought a house on the Maine coast, and I’ve spent a good deal of time there, in all seasons. When I was writing The Salt House, I won a scholarship from the Salty Quill Writers Retreat for Women, and they gave me a room and meals in a stunning historic house for a week on a private island three miles off the coast of Maine. This writing gig doesn’t come with a whole lot of perks. That one was enough for a lifetime.

    Are you currently writing anything? What can you tell us about it?

    I’m working on my next novel, and I can’t say too much about it because it’s still in that headlights-in-the-fog stage. But, in broad strokes, it’s set in a New England working- class town, and will tackle similar themes of loss and relationships and family.

About the Author

Lisa Duffy
Photograph © Tom Wheble

Lisa Duffy

Lisa Duffy received her MFA in creative writing from The University of Massachusetts Boston. Her short fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and can be found in The Drum Literary Magazine, So To Speak, The Breakwater Review, Let the Bucket Down and elsewhere. Lisa is the founding editor of ROAR Magazine, a literary magazine supporting women in the arts. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children.

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