From the bestselling and award-winning author of Whistling Past the Graveyard comes an adventure tale about two daredevils and a farm boy who embark on the journey of a lifetime across America’s heartland in the Roaring Twenties.
Set in the rapidly changing world of 1920s America, this is a story of three people from very different backgrounds: Henry “Schuler” Jefferson, son of German immigrants from Midwestern farm country; Cora Rose Haviland, a young woman of privilege whose family has lost their fortune; and Charles “Gil” Gilchrist, an emotionally damaged WWI veteran pilot. Set adrift by life-altering circumstances, they find themselves bound together by need and torn apart by blind obsessions and conflicting goals. Each one holds a secret that, if exposed, would destroy their friendship. But their journey of adventure and self-discovery has a price—and one of them won’t be able to survive it.
As they crisscross the heartland, exploring the rapidly expanding role of aviation from barnstorming to bootlegging, from a flying circus to the dangerous sport of air racing, the three companions form a makeshift family. It’s a one-of-a-kind family, with members as adventurous as they are vulnerable, and as fascinating as they are flawed. But whatever adventure—worldly or private—they find themselves on, they’re guaranteed to be a family you won’t forget.
This reading group guide for The Flying Circus includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Susan Crandall. 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.
Mercury’s Daredevils is a group of disparate characters who come together to perform as high-flying stunt pilots—known as barnstormers—traveling across the American Midwest in the 1920s. The group is comprised of Henry “Schuler” Jefferson, the newly orphaned son of German immigrants; Cora Rose Haviland, a bold young woman from a once-prestigious family; Charles “Gil” Gilchrist, a troubled WWI veteran pilot; and Mercury himself, a scrappy mutt who enjoys riding in motorcycles almost as much as he relishes stealing food.
Circumstances bring Henry, Cora, and Gil together, and shared ambitions help to solidify their bond. They form a makeshift family as they crisscross America’s heartland, drawing increasingly larger crowds with their death-defying airborne acrobatics. But each of them hides a complicated past that could jeopardize their relationship, and, as time goes on, they realize that telling the truth may pose the most dangerous risk of all.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. We know from the opening chapter of The Flying Circus that Henry has been accused of a crime, but Crandall doesn’t reveal the facts about Emmaline’s murder until much later in the story. How did your impression of Henry evolve as you discovered more about his backstory? Did your feelings about his guilt or innocence change at any time?
2. What does flying mean to Henry, Cora, and Gil respectively? What does it help them achieve—or escape from?
3. On p.104, Crandall writes, “Gil’s acknowledgment that [Cora] was every bit as much a daredevil as he was coming hard and slow. Henry thought perhaps it was compounded because their motivations for taking life in hand were so different.” Discuss the nature of Gil and Cora’s risk-taking. What drives them to perform stunts, and how do their motivations evolve over the course of the novel?
4. One of the major themes of The Flying Circus is the balance between bravery and vulnerability, and how these two characteristics are often two sides of the same coin. Discuss how Henry, Cora, and Gil exhibit both qualities over the course of the novel. Ultimately, which character do you think is the most courageous?
5. While Henry urges Gil to open up about his experiences in WWI, ultimately he’s not sure if talking is actually therapeutic. “Henry had been prepared for the horror,” Crandall writes. “He hadn’t been prepared for the rush of shame he felt for pushing Gil into painful memories; shame and sympathy” (p.101). What is your take on Gil’s reticence? What do you think the novel has to say about PTSD in general?
6. WWI casts a long shadow over The Flying Circus, but the novel addresses prohibition, women’s rights, and civil rights as well. How does historical context influence the course of events in The Flying Circus? How would Henry, Cora, and Gil be different if they lived in contemporary America?
7. The complicated dynamic between Cora, Henry, and Gil drives much of the tension in the novel. In your opinion, what draws Henry and Gil to Cora, and vice versa? Do you think that Gil and Cora might have made a good match?
8. Why do you think Crandall decided to tell the story from Henry’s point of view? How would The Flying Circus be different if Gil or Cora had narrated the story?
9. On p.347, Crandall writes, “Gil’s permanent absence proved to be more of a wall between them than his presence had ever been.” Why does Cora pull away from Henry after Gil’s death? Would you have reacted in the same way?
10. Do you think Gil committed suicide, or was the crash an accident? Why or why not?
11. On p.353, Crandall writes, “It was a blessing that Gil hadn’t lived to see his beloved free-flying aircraft bound by so many restrictions.” Do you think that the antics of barnstormers were reckless? Did The Flying Circus impact how you view aviation?
12. Why do you think Crandall chose the William Butler Yeats poem as the novel’s epigraph? Did its meaning change for you after you had finished reading The Flying Circus?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Has your book group read other historical novels? How did The Flying Circus compare?
2. Watch a classic movie about barnstorming with your book club (i.e. Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies or The Great Waldo Pepper). Compare and contrast the film’s portrayal of aviation with that of The Flying Circus.
3. Gil’s struggle with PTSD still is, unfortunately, a serious problem for today’s war veterans. Visit a site like http://www.uso.org to learn ways to support troops coming home from combat.
4. Learn more about the author by visiting her website (http://susancrandall.net/), and by following her on Twitter (@susancrandall) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/AuthorSusanCrandall).
A Conversation with Susan Crandall
1. What was your inspiration for writing The Flying Circus?
The first thing I was seeking when setting out on developing this story was a time in history when our country was in the throes of change, much as in the 1963 setting for Whistling Past the Graveyard. After much research I found my way to the 1920’s. So many things were in transition: the emergence of the middle class, women’s rights, the fallout from the Great War, Hollywood movies, mass media and its influence on the development of our first youth culture. We had ceased to be isolationists in both our private and national lives. And, of course, there was the fascination with aviation.
My dad was a flier (private pilot and active member in Experimental Aircraft Association, built airplanes in our little garage and actually flew them). So I had some experience flying—and living with a man who loved machines and the sky. The passion I witnessed fueled the beginnings of Henry Schuler.
2. What sort of research did you do to write the novel?
With this story, I didn’t have the benefit of my own childhood memories of the time period, so the research was much more extensive than for any book I’ve undertaken. Of course I relied upon books and old periodicals and research on the war, Hollywood, social issues, news headlines, aviation, attitudes, fashion, daily life and all. I probed my mother for stories that her parents and aunts and uncles had shared of that time period. I reached out to the pilots I know (unfortunately my father passed in 1989, if only I’d had him as a resource!) to help fill in my aviation knowledge gaps. And the crown jewel of my research was the discovery of a man who’d actually restored a Curtiss JN-4, “Jenny.” He was instrumental in helping me understand the machine, as well as fill in the small details of the craft that fleshed out the flying experience.
Barnstormers and flying circuses both brought excitement to small towns and cities all across this country. It was a brief and colorful moment in history, lasting barely 10 years before regulations changed the aviation landscape.
3. Which character was the most fun to write? Which was the most challenging for you?
The fun factor is always high with canine characters, so Mercury was a joy—even with his non-existent dialog. I loved writing Cora from Henry’s point of view, how he saw her in the context of what he knew about the “fairer sex” and the lessons he learned about life from her very different socio-economic background.
Gil was the most difficult character for me to write, not in terms of the actual writing, but in crawling inside his tortured soul. People who carry the kinds of emotional burdens Gil does always make for a heartbreaking journey as a writer.
4. The novel’s epilogue is set decades after the final chapter. How do you envision Henry and Cora’s life unfolding in the intervening years?
Oh, I think Henry and Cora experienced extraordinary lives, even for the changing times in which they lived. I doubt that all days were sailed on calm (or even calm-ish) seas, but neither of them would be happy and fulfilled in calm, ordinary lives. Adventure brought them together and adventure would see them through their days.
5. Like The Flying Circus, your previous novel, Whistling Past the Graveyard, depicts characters who are on the run, so to speak (in that case, two unlikely friends on a road trip through the 1960s South). What attracts you to characters who have left their daily lives behind?
Maybe I’m just living vicariously, because I’m a real homebody.
More seriously, I love writing about people who are searching for their place in the world, and knocking them out of familiar surroundings is a great way to kick start change. I think once you’re out of your “natural habitat” you’re forced to look at yourself (and the world around you) in a much different context.
6. As a historical fiction writer, you have inhabited many different time periods in your novels. If you could live in any time period, which would you choose?
I think I’d like to live in a time when there were frontiers to be conquered, and they could still be conquered by ordinary people whose most valuable asset was their own resourcefulness. To forge into new arenas of knowledge and untouched land would be incredible.
Luckily, as a writer, I get the opportunity to “live” in many different time periods.
7. Who are your biggest literary influences? What inspires you to write?
I’m a very eclectic reader. I love character-driven narratives. Of course Jane Austen comes to mind for her clear insight into people’s hearts. I adored Larry McMurtry’s, Lonesome Dove and Stephen King’s, The Stand, as well as his short story, The Body (which was turned into the movie, Stand By Me). Recently I’ve been quite enamored by the quirky and interesting characters of Matthew Quick (Silver Linings Playbook and The Good Luck of Right Now).
8. Who would you cast in the movie version of The Flying Circus?
Oooh, I think Jennifer Lawrence would make a great Cora, perfect combination of toughness, adventuress and femininity. (You can see I’m aiming high here!) For Gil … maybe Scott Eastwood or Henry Cavill. And dear Henry, I honestly don’t have a clue—someone young, fair, tall and amazingly talented.
9. What are you working on next?
I’m just now in the dithering and exploring stages of my next novel. I always start with creating my characters. I have a great family dynamic all figured out. At this moment, I think they’ll embark upon their adventures in two different time frames, 1965 through1975 and 1983-ish. But that could all change tomorrow.
Susan Crandall is a critically acclaimed author of women’s fiction, romance, and suspense. She has written several award-winning novels including her first book, Back Roads, which won the RITA award for best first book, as well as Whistling Past the Graveyard, which won the SIBA 2014 Book Award for Fiction. Susan lives in Noblesville, Indiana, with her family.