Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Five Miles South of Peculiar includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Angela Hunt. 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.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Have you ever lived in a small town like Peculiar? What are some of the advantages of small-town life? Disadvantages?
2. The title, Five Miles South of Peculiar, is literal, intending to imply that Sycamores is five miles south of the town. But could the title also refer to any of the characters?
3. The story is told through the third-person viewpoints of the three sisters—Carlene, Darlene, and Nolie. Could you identify with one character more than the others? Why or why not? Did it help you to be “inside the heads” of all three characters?
4. In most novels, characters begin in one place and end up in quite another, usually the result of changes in their situations and/or their characters. Where did each of these characters begin? How were they changed by the end of the story?
5. Why do you think Nolie asked Henry to invite Carlene to Darlene’s citywide surprise birthday party? Why did she show him that picture of the twins as infants?
6. Would your church (if you have one) hire a minister who had been divorced? Why or why not? How did you feel about Erik Payne’s predicament?
7. Why do you think Nolie wanted to wear only white? How does color influence your mood? How does it affect the people around you?
8. Both Carlene and Darlene think of the tall sycamore trees as “sentinels,” but Darlene thinks of them as malicious guards while Carlene sees them as benevolent guardians. Why the difference in perspectives?
9. When Carlene convinced people not to accept any more of Nolie’s aprons, Nolie is upset, but takes comfort in the thought that “whoever started that nasty conspiracy” might have “broadened her horizons.” What motivated Carlene to speak to people about Nolie’s aprons? And what was the actual effect of her action? Were Nolie’s horizons broadened? In what way?
10. Nolie gleans some wisdom about forgiveness and passes it to Carlene . . . and, inadvertently, the other principal characters. What sorts of things are difficult to forgive? Is it always beneficial to forgive those who have wronged us?
11. What have you taken away from this book?
A Conversation with Angela Hunt
Returning to Peculiar after a successful Broadway career was difficult for Carlene. Have you ever had a similar experience when returning home as an accomplished author?
Not really. Carlene and I have one thing in common—neither of us is world famous, so we’re not likely to be mobbed in the supermarket. I have some friends who are true celebrities—folks who can’t step out in public without being photographed or asked for autographs—and I’m actually grateful that I’ve never had to deal with that sort of thing. Neither has Carlene.
Do you have any siblings? How is your personal experience with—or observations of—sibling rivalry similar to or different from the rivalry between Darlene, Carlene, and Nolie?
I have two younger sisters, and we are quite different and spaced years apart, so we never fought over boyfriends or anything like that. Thank goodness! Because Darlene and Carlene were treated as “two of a kind” in their early years, it’s no wonder they fell in love with the same man.
The scene where Nolie’s dog gives birth to puppies is so vivid! Do you have any experience breeding dogs? Can you tell your readers more about your pet mastiffs?
I love dogs, but have had no actual experience breeding them—for one reason or another, none of my mastiff pups has been what I’d consider suitable for breeding (the breed is prone to hip and joint problems and I’ve encountered both in my pups). But I frequently watch Animal Planet TV and learn from other “dog people.” Dogs are such an amazing God-given gift. I might consider breeding someday, but my homeowners association would frown on me raising bear-sized dogs in my tiny backyard. . . .
In Five Miles South of Peculiar, many of the characters have lost their way and are looking for a home. How do you define home? What makes a home—physically or metaphorically?
The saying may be a cliché, but it’s true: home is where the heart is. Where your loved ones are. And, I think, where your history lies. Because the people who knew you growing up have memories of you stored away. For good or bad, they can tell part of your story. If you had amnesia, they could help you find yourself, and surely that’s part of what makes a person feel rooted and at home. (Goodness, I think there’s another novel somewhere in those ruminations. . . . )
Did you do any kind of research before writing Five Miles South of Peculiar? Did you learn anything surprising or unexpected while writing this book?
Writing any book requires at least some research, even if it’s only learning what sort of flora and fauna grows in a certain geographical region. But I sewed several aprons before writing this book (getting into the mood) and bought more cupcake cookbooks than I’ll ever use. I’ve been a singer, so I already knew a lot about vocal cords and performance, but I did do a bit of reading about the throat surgery that cost Julie Andrews her singing voice. And Leonbergers—they are a real breed, beautiful dogs, and I might just have to get one someday. When I’m back under my HOA’s two-pet limit, that is.
On your website, www.AngelaHuntBooks.com, you have a special section for readers where you have reading group guides and information about scheduling a conference call to “Ask Angie.” Are you in a book club yourself?
I started a book club in our little neighborhood about eight years ago, and it’s been a marvelously rewarding experience. These women have taught me more about what makes a book appeal to a reader than any writer’s class I’ve ever taken. And no, we don’t read my books. We read everything from New York Times bestsellers to young adult novels, and we learn something from every selection. And from each woman who attends (we’d welcome men, too, if we could ever find any willing to come), I learn how to make a story appeal not to literary purists or other writers or academicians, but to readers. I love that.
How important are parables in your writing? Do you have a favorite?
I love parables—in fact, I’d say that’s probably my mission as a writer. Some of my stories are more metaphorical than others, but nearly all of them have hidden meanings that relate to spiritual realities. When Jesus wanted to teach the crowds following him, he didn’t speak in overtly religious terms, but usually told secular stories that related to common people’s lives: stories of housewives and farmers and brides and grooms and poor widows and wealthy men. Those who were led by the Spirit caught his spiritual meanings; the others simply enjoyed the story. I learned long ago that the Spirit can speak through my stories in ways I never intended, so I’m thrilled to let him work as he will. As to favorite parables, I love the story of the lost sheep and the tale of the four soils. That one—no pun intended—is deep, and it took me a while to fully understand it.
The men in Five Miles South of Peculiar, with the exception of one, are strong, patient, kind Christian men. Were any of them inspired by individuals from your own life?
They are the kind of men my father was—not given to a lot of talk, but honest, loyal, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth types. They are more comfortable showing their feelings through action, not words.
You completed your master of biblical studies in theology degree in 2006 and completed your doctorate in 2008. What was the experience of returning to school like? How has your higher education influenced your writing?
I went back to school because I was writing about deeper theological topics and I felt a huge responsibility to “get it right.” The things I learned not only deepened my writing but gave me several new book ideas. I’m still learning, and should complete my ThD this year . . . if I get my dissertation finished.
Which is more difficult for your characters in Five Miles South of Peculiar: forgiving each other, or forgiving themselves? What about for yourself?
Carlene and Darlene do carry burdens of guilt, but they also carry little scorecards marked with wrongs committed by the other. And while forgiving oneself can be difficult, I think human nature struggles to forgive others—we are so prone to carry grudges, nurse our wounds, and chafe under perceived injustices. In my own life, I’ve found that it’s easy to say, “I forgive that offense,” and then dredge it up again a few months later—what, did my forgiveness expire? I have to keep reminding myself that Jesus said he’ll forgive as I do (Matthew 6:14), and I don’t want him remembering my failings as readily as I remember others’.
Forgiveness would be so much easier if we could entirely forget.