This reading group guide for Lightning Men 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 bookIntroduction
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Officer Denny Rakestraw and “Negro Officers” Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith have their hands full in an overcrowded and rapidly changing Atlanta. It’s 1950 and racial tensions are simmering as black families, including Smith’s sister, begin moving into formerly all-white neighborhoods. When Rake’s brother-in-law launches a scheme to rally the Ku Klux Klan to “save” their neighborhood, his efforts spiral out of control, forcing Rake to choose between loyalty to family or the law.
Across town, Boggs and Smith try to shut down the supply of white lightning and drugs into their territory, finding themselves up against more powerful foes than they’d expected. Battling corrupt cops and ex-cons, Nazi brownshirts and rogue Klansmen, the officers are drawn closer to the fires that threaten to consume the city once again.
With echoes of Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane, Mullen “expands the boundaries of crime fiction, weaving in eye-opening details from our checkered history” (Chicago Tribune
). Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The book opens with the image of a black man being released from prison—and nearly being put back in under false charges. Given our current debates about the over-incarceration of African Americans today, stop-and-frisk policies, and the legacy of the “War on Drugs,” what did you make of this opening?
2. Boggs and Smith continually wrestle with whether they are truly helping their community or if, as policemen under Jim Crow law, they are part of the problem. If you were their friend, would you encourage them to stick with it, or leave the department?
3. Rakestraw is confronted (on page 30) with the dilemma of an angry crowd of whites threatening a black man who refuses to use a colored waiting room:
Rake hated this. Everything about it. The faces staring at him from all sides now, the hostility he could taste in the air like fires lit from fallen leaves. Hated the confines he had to impose on this man.
But also: hated the Negro’s superior tone, the Northern sense of horror at seeing what goes on down here in Dixie, the distaste for this foreign land and its customs.
Are you surprised by how he feels? Do his actions in this scene conform to his beliefs?
4. Similarly, Rake later goes out of his way to help Dale despite the fact that he disagrees with Dale’s white supremacist views. Does the fact that Rake is willing to help Dale show that Rake’s feelings about race are not as noble as he likes to think?
5. Jeremiah repeats the phrase that he is not “a fully formed thing,” that he is “clay” for the Lord to mold. He believes he is meant for something great. At the end of the book, considering his fate, Julie states that he wasn’t meant for anything great at all. What do you make of his belief, and the conclusion to his story?
6. In Chapter 40 (page 293), Boggs gets a firsthand look at what’s been called The Atlanta Way: in times of racial discord, white leaders and black leaders would sit down behind closed doors to try to work out a solution. Proponents, like Reverend Boggs, argue that this helped the black community gain concessions from whites at a time when whites had so much more power and could have resorted to violence. To his son Lucius, however, it looks like his father and other leaders are meekly accepting crumbs from white people’s table rather than insisting on their full rights. Considering the time and place, whom do you agree with?
7. Julie repeatedly lies to Lucius, concealing the true identity of Sage’s father and her own role in Isaiah’s death. Reverend Boggs looks down on her for being “low class” and, in an imaginary conversation with Lucius, he warns her that she “brings with her an entire universe I tried to eclipse from your view” (page 182). How does the conflict here illuminate larger issues about class, crime, and upward mobility?
8. Crime fiction often explores corruption within government, companies, and other large organizations. When you read crime fiction, do you find that its worldview is too dark, and that the real world isn’t so corrupt? Or is anyone who feels that way naïve about the tough realities of our world?
9. Most people are willing to make sacrifices for family that they wouldn’t do for anyone else. How do the characters’ relatives cause them to do things they might not otherwise agree with, and how does this test their beliefs about justice?
10. Were you surprised to learn that there was an American neo-Nazi organization in Atlanta so soon after World War II? What does that tell us about the recent events involving neo-Nazis, the Klan, and the hate-inspired “alt-right” today?
11. The Klan, the Columbians, and CAHP (which is fictional but is based on the real neighborhood associations of the era) use different methods for the same goal: keeping Hanford Park all white. Do the different methods matter at all, or do the characters’ motivations make them more similar than they want to admit?
12. Boggs and Smith try to shut down vice crimes in the black community, but the white cops want those crimes to stay in black neighborhoods and out of white ones. Conversely, Malcolm and Hannah encounter hostility when they break the color line for their residence, going against community ideas of who belongs where. Think of your own city and its history. How have its leaders, or its voters, over time, acted to keep certain people and activities in one area and out of another?
13. The Irons brothers practice a kind of old-fashioned justice, based on retribution, whereas Boggs, Smith, Rake, and McGinnis practice official law enforcement. Do the weaknesses of one make the other necessary?
14. Why did Smith pull the trigger? And why doesn’t Boggs report him for doing so?
15. Hannah and Malcolm stay in Hanford Park, and Lucius and Julie soon join them as the neighborhood quickly goes from all white to all black. We see this both from their perspective and from the view of the Rakestraws, who flee to another area. The book is set right as America will begin a period of rapid urban transformation and see the explosion of mostly white suburbs. How do their actions predict the bigger changes of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s?
16. At the end of the book, Rakestraw finds himself bitter about the move out of his neighborhood, and angry about the way his work with Boggs and Smith has made him look suspect in other whites’ eyes. What do you make of where Rakestraw finds himself, and how he feels about it?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Watch some recent movies set in this time period, like Mudbound, 42,
and discuss how the depiction of these issues in film differs from those in books.
2. Research the history of your own neighborhood. How has its racial composition changed since the 1940s, and why?
3. Though Lightning Men
is set nearly seventy years ago, the social justice issues it addresses are very much alive today. Read a nonfiction book about social justice in our own time, like Bryan Stephenson’s Just Mercy
, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow,
or James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own,
and discuss where we’ve made progress and where we’re still falling short.