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About The Book

Heaven Lake is about many things: China, God, passion, friendship, travel, even the reckless smuggling of hashish. But above all, this extraordinary debut is about the mysteries of love.

Vincent Saunders has graduated from college, left his small hometown in Illinois, and arrived in Taiwan as a Christian volunteer. After opening a ministry house, he meets a wealthy Taiwanese businessman, Mr. Gwa, who tells Vincent that on his far travels to western China he has discovered a beautiful young woman living near the famous landmark Heaven Lake. Elegant, regal, clever, she works as a lowly clerk in the local railway station. Gwa wishes to marry her, but is thwarted by the political conflict between China and Taiwan. In exchange for a sum of money, will Vincent travel to China on Gwa's behalf, take part in a counterfeit marriage, and bring her back to Taiwan for Gwa to marry legitimately? Vincent, largely innocent about the ways of the world and believing that marriage is a sacrament, says no. Gwa is furious.

Soon, though, everything Vincent understands about himself and his vocation in Taiwan changes. Supplementing his income from his sparsely attended Bible-study classes, he teaches English to a group of enthusiastic schoolgirls -- and it is his tender, complicated friendship with a student that forces Vincent to abandon the ministry house and sends him on a path toward spiritual reckoning. It also causes him to reconsider Gwa's extraordinary proposition.

What follows is not just an exhilarating -- sometimes harrowing -- journey to a remote city in China, but an exploration of love, passion, loneliness, and the nature of faith. John Dalton's exquisite narrative arcs across China as gracefully as it plumbs the human heart, announcing a major new talent.

John Dalton was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of seven children. Upon graduation from college, he received a plane ticket to travel around the world, and so began an enduring interest in travel and foreign culture. During the late 1980s he lived in Taiwan for several years and traveled in Mainland China and other Asian countries. He attended the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop in the early 1990s and was awarded two fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown as well as a James Michener/Paul Engle Award for his novel-in-progress, Heaven Lake. He presently lives with his wife in North Carolina.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Inverted Forest 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.


The Inverted Forest begins in the summer of 1996 at the Kindermann Forest Summer Camp in rural Missouri. The elderly camp director finds his counselors swimming naked two days before camp is set to open and fires all of them. A whole new staff must be hired.  One of them is Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured young man who has been living in a Salvation Army facility. Wyatt is diligent and reliable, gentle and large. All of his life he’s been misjudged because of his appearance. As a result, he harbors a deep uncertainty that he might not be as intelligent as other young men and women his age.  

Wyatt arrives at Kindermann Forest with a dozen other newly hired counselors. They are bewildered to learn that for the first two weeks of the camping season they will be responsible for 104 severely developmentally disabled adults, all of them wards of the state. In this world away from the world, the new counselors and the State Hospital campers begin to reveal themselves. Fortunately, Wyatt has an unexpected ally in the camp nurse, Harriet Foster. But there are other people at camp with stranger and more dangerous inclinations. Events reach a terrifying pitch when Harriet begs Wyatt to protect a young camper from a sexual assault. From that moment forward, Wyatt and Harriet will be bound by a tragedy that unfolds across the next fifteen years.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Why does Schuller Kindermann respond so coldly to his counselors when he discovers them celebrating naked at the pool after curfew? What does his reaction tell you about Kindermann’s character and attitude toward sexuality? 

2. At the beginning of the story, Wyatt Huddy is at a crossroad: “It was as if the summer months ahead were being divided into two distinct regions: the land of staying put and being exactly who everyone knew him to be. Or the land of going away and presenting a version of himself that the children and counselors at camp might find agreeable.” (p. 23) What does this line of thinking show you about Wyatt’s personality and self-esteem?  

3. Harriet Foster, the only African-American employee at the Kindermann camp, was not fired with the other staff members caught celebrating at the pool: “She was a mother, after all. She was five years older than most of the counselors. She was black. They were white and, by and large considerate, even welcoming people. Yet they thought of her as having lived a reckless, even desperate, urban life.” (p. 57) How much does Harriet’s race affect how she is treated at Kindermann Forest Summer Camp?  The novel never makes it explicitly clear why she wasn’t fired.  Was it because of her race?  Because of Mr. Kindermann’s fondness for her son, James? Or because the position of a nurse at camp is the most essential and hardest to fill?  

4. When the counselors of Kindermann Forest Summer Camp discover sexual relations going on between the male campers at night, they impose some harsh and ridiculous punishments. What is your reaction to how the counselors deal with this awkward situation? Is it just? Or is there a hint of cruelty in this punishment? Clearly, some of the campers have had sexual relations with one another back in their state institutions. Should they be allowed to continue these relations at camp? 

5. On page 119, Schuller Kindermann speaks about the nature of disabled people: “Do the retarded want to vote and marry and have children?  Do they want to sleep with one another? Some would say that they do want these things. Why?  Because it is what we are supposed to want.  We are all human, you and I and the retarded. Therefore we must all want the same things.  And yet if you can find a retarded person who hasn’t been influenced by these expectations, they will always be ambivalent about such matters. They don’t care either way.  They don’t particularly share our wishes and desires.  Our appetites.” (pp. 119) What prompted this speech? Do you think Schuller is qualified to make such statements? 

6. There are moments where each character reveals a range of personal phobias and concerns, particularly Schuller Kindermann’s aversion to sexuality: “Since boyhood he’d been willing to look inward and weigh carefully his private inclinations. Long ago he’d understood something singular and important: whatever it was that made people miserable or frantic or deliriously happy with longing, whatever strong compulsion made them lie down with strangers or writhe alone in their beds, whatever this was, it was not present in himself.” (p. 121) What do you make of this?  Literature is full of characters that make painful and absurd mistakes because of the strong pull of desire.  But Schuller Kindermann has no interest in sex or romance.  What are the hazards of living life without desire?  

7. Christopher Waterhouse first appears in the novel as a seemingly model camp counselor, even as Linda Rucker begins to question his integrity and intentions. At what point did you begin to share her doubts about Christopher? At what point were you certain that Christopher Waterhouse was, as Linda suggested, “a very selfish and destructive person.  The very worst kind to have working at camp.” (p. 107)

8. The emotional and physical abuse inflicted on Wyatt Huddy by his sister, Caroline, is revealed through a flashback. It also explains his relationship with Captain Throckmorton and how Wyatt came to work at the Salvation Army. What do these insights reveal about Wyatt’s demeanor, growth, and essential self-worth?         

9. Linda Rucker doesn’t have the physical appearance people expect in a camp program director.  She may not be traditionally lady-like or beautiful. But she’s unquestionably a highly competent, perceptive and compassionate employee. How does her outward appearance work against her when it comes to earning the loyalty of the new counselors? How does Christopher Warehouse use her appearance against her?   

10. Was the firing of Linda Rucker fair? How much, if any, of the gossip about Christopher and Linda do you believe to be true? Do you sympathize with Schuller Kindermann’s decision to terminate Linda Rucker after 18 years of employment?  

11. “A strange place, summer camp. It was a small enough world that the shape of your private life could be widely known or guessed at and still everyone managed to cling to their unwise behavior, their private intensions. The counselors. The campers." (p. 190) After learning about the ensemble of counselors who come to work at Kindermann Forest, what are some of their motives for joining the camp staff? What are some of their “unwise behaviors”?

12. Did Christopher Waterhouse deserve to be killed for his actions? How do you feel about Wyatt Huddy after the horrifying events on Country Road H? Is murder by the hands of Wyatt Huddy justified?

13. The Inverted Forest leaps forward fifteen years and chronicles, among other things, Marcy Bittman Lammerses’ complicated reaction to Christopher Waterhouse’s death. What do you make of Marcy’s warm regard for Christopher and her hard-fought campaign to honor him with some type of memorial? What’s the source of her loyalty to Christopher?     

14. Are you satisfied with the way Wyatt and Harriet’s friendship deepens over time? Is Harriet right in assuming that Wyatt needs to take an IQ test? How will the results of this test benefit him in the future? 

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Apert Syndrome, the genetic affliction Wyatt Huddy was born with, affects 1 out of every 200,000 live births each year in the world. It is important to acknowledge that the brain is not affected by this syndrome, and most people with Apert Syndrome live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Do some research on this genetic disorder to understand Wyatt Huddy’s struggle. Discuss your findings with your book club. 

2. Another great character in literature suffering from a disability is the immortal Benjamin “Benjy” Compson from William Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury. Compare the struggles and triumphs of both Benjy and Wyatt as they make their way in a world embracing their disabilities, facing a cruel world that ostracizes them because of forces beyond their control.  

3. Most new fiction writers spend a long time struggling to produce and publish their first novel.   Visit the author’s website at and read John Dalton’s essay titled “Done Yet? Struggling with the Novel” about the long effort writing his first novel, Heaven Lake.

About The Author

Photo Credit: Thumawadee Sarubut

John Dalton is the author of the novel, Heaven Lake, winner of the Barnes and Noble 2004 Discover Award in fiction and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a member of the English faculty at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he teaches in their MFA Writing Program.  John lives with his wife and two daughters in St. Louis.


Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (February 15, 2011)
  • Length: 464 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439103876

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Raves and Reviews

"Richly drawn...delicate and revealing...a winning novel."
-- Los Angeles Times

"Absorbing...and compelling....[A] rich first novel about the mysteries of human yearning."
-- Chicago Tribune

"Heaven Lake is a sort of Divine Comedy in reverse: a young man's trek through hell to get away from God. John Dalton has created such a compelling epic that the reader will gladly follow its hero, Vincent, on his scorching journey across China to find out how the world will punish and reward him. Our reward is this beautiful book."
-- Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto

"Impeccably written...a thorough work of operatic feeling and proportion...stunning."
-- San Francisco Chronicle

"[An] evocative, beautiful exploration of modern-day China....Powerful and rewarding reading."
-- Booklist

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