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JOLIE HOYT IS A GOOD SOUTHERN GIRL living in Hendrix, a small Florida Panhandle town. The daughter of a Pentecostal preacher who sells insurance on the side, and the best friend of a lively beauty who moves to the big city to pursue a career in interior design, Jolie is all too aware of her family’s closet full of secrets and long-held distrust of outsiders. Nevertheless, she throws caution to the wind when she meets Sam Lense, a Jewish anthropology student from Miami, who is in town to study the ethnic makeup of the region.

Jolie and Sam fall recklessly in love and dream of beginning a life together, far away from Jolie’s buried past. But their affair ends abruptly when Sam is discovered to have pried too deeply into Hendrix’s dark racial history and he becomes the latest victim in a long tradition of small-town violence.

Twelve years later, when a black businessman from Memphis returns to Hendrix to do right by his father’s memory, Jolie and Sam are brought together again. They are forced to revisit the unresolved issues of their young love and finally shed light on the ugly history of Jolie’s hometown.

A complex and compulsively readable Southern saga, continuing in the tradition established by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and brought into the new millennium by writers like Karen Russell and Kathryn Stockett, American Ghost was inspired by Janis Owens’s extensive research on a real lynching that occurred in 1934 in Marianna, Florida.

American Ghost is a richly woven exploration of how the events of our past haunt our present.

This reading group guide for American Ghost includes 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.


Introduction

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.
Photograph by Albert Isaac

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.

"Part-thriller, part romance, and based on an actual event in the author's hometown, this wrenching novel is a fine example of southern storytelling."

– People Magazine

"Owens brings the vibrancy of a small Southern community to bear on a gothic tale."

– The New York Times

"A taut yarn about breaking silence."
--Good Housekeeping

“Owens weaves complex narrative strands together in a captivating story abundant with historical context and characterizations that reflect the foibles of human nature.”

– Shelf Awareness

"The past haunts the present in this engaging... offering inspired by actual events."
--Booklist

“A skillfully written, well-researched book…Owens brings a dark period of history to light in a book about Southern Allegiances, racial tensions and shameful acts.”
—Kirkus

Owens’ voice [is] so authentic and her characters [are] so alive. Their motivations, reactions and dialogue feel so true, they could-almost be real.”
—Paste

"Owens’ detailed and well-researched portrait of west Florida bloodlines benefits from her obvious affection for its cast of colorful characters, and her descriptions of small-town life are a joy to read."

– Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"A taut literary thriller, as well as a wrenching meditation on the consequences of denying a dangerous past."

– Texas Observer

"This compelling novel begins as a love story...but it turns into a thrilling, multilayered mystery and a fearless look at the tragic delusions of American racism."

– San Antonio Express

"American Ghost is equal parts mystery and thriller. While the novel is rooted in a real-life incident,it remains a pure work of fiction in the best sense: a rich portrayal of a small town where the lines between black and white become blurred. Despite its dark subject matter, the novel is infused with light and hope—no small feat,given that [it] gracefully weaves everything from anti-Semitism and hate crimes to first love and family loyalties into the story. American Ghost is sure to resonate with readers long after its stunning final pages."

– Bookpage

"American Ghost is part mystery, part history, part anthropology — and all great Southern fiction."

– National Public Radio

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