This reading group guide for The Sign Painter includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Davis Bunn. 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
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Amy Dowell had always considered herself a very good mother. But when she loses her husband to illness and her home to debt, she finds herself and her young daughter, Kimberly, living on the streets. She struggles to find a job that will get them back on their feet again.
When Amy meets Lucy Watts, the administrator of the church program that provides Amy and Kimberly with a meal, Lucy surprises Amy by setting them up in temporary housing. The same day, another church member offers Amy a job painting signs at his Chevrolet dealership. Still, Amy is afraid to let go and trust. Could this be the break she’s been praying for? Can she afford to expose herself and Kimberly to the possibility of disappointment by hoping again? Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the significance of the title, The Sign Painter
. What are some of the signs that appear to Amy, Lucy, Bob, and Paul?
2. Both Amy and Lucy possess the skill of making quick assessments of other people and their intentions. Were Amy’s first impressions of others always correct? Was Lucy right about Amy?
3. Amy has built up a fear and dislike of the police over her months on the road, but slowly comes to trust and befriend Paul Travers and Granville Burnes. How do you see Amy starting to trust again throughout the novel?
4. What do you make of Amy taking the money from the dealership? Do you think she did the right thing?
5. Why does Amy accept the job at Denton Chevrolet? Is this a good decision for her and Kimmie?
6. Consider the theme of friendship and support networks throughout the novel. How are the relationships between Amy and Lucy and Granville and Paul necessary and beneficial to each of the characters?
7. Which character do you identify with the most? Why?
8. Paul finally opens up and admits to feeling unfulfilled and bereft of purpose in his life. How does the theme of overcoming hard times through faith and sharing struggles with others appear throughout the novel?
9. How does Amy work to create a routine and a sense of home and normalcy for Kimmie? Does she succeed in teaching these things to her daughter? Consider this moment in the novel: When the service was over, Amy remained seated beside her little girl. It was a habit she had started soon after they hit the road. Amy wanted her daughter to hold on to all the good things that remained within reach. She could not tell such lessons to a child. She had to show them: Here was safety. Here was a place where she could feel connected to all the goodness in the world. This was a true sanctuary from life’s uneven hand. And Kimmie needed to feel it for herself.
10. How does Amy use prayer as a tool in her life? How does it bring her closer to Lucy and Bob?
11. Compare the two parent-child relationships in The Sign Painter
: Amy and Kimmie and Bob Denton and Bob Jr. How does each relationship illustrate the challenges of being a parent?
12. What would you do if your neighborhood were facing drugrelated violence like the church community in The Sign Painter
13. The very last words of the novel are “Welcome home.” How were the concepts of home, belonging, and community interwoven throughout the novel? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Volunteer with your book group for an organization that helps homeless women and children. Visit http://www.nationalhomeless.org/directories/index.html to find your local, state, or national housing or homeless advocacy coalition, or make a financial contribution to support their work.
2. Check out Davis Bunn’s other novels available from Howard Books: Book of Dreams
, Hidden in Dreams
, The Black Madonna
, and Gold of Kings
. Davis is known for writing excellent female and male protagonists. After reading one of his other books, compare and contrast your favorite characters from each book.
3. Find out more about the author by visiting www.DavisBunn. com. Discover more about Davis’s upcoming projects, and discuss with other readers in the web forums. If you submit a review of The Sign Painter
, it might be shared on Davis’s blog! A Conversation with Davis Bunn What was the inspiration behind The Sign Painter?
We have all seen homeless people on our streets—from small towns to large cities across America. Often we hurry past them, but later we reflect on the twists of fate that may have brought them so low—poverty, illness, mental problems, addictions, domestic violence. As Christians, in the spirit of Matthew 25:31–46, we may be moved to help “the least of these.” For me, a turning point was when I saw a local news item in Florida. The recession had hit hard, unemployment was rife, and the housing boom had turned to bust. The report showed how entire families were being displaced, losing their homes and belongings to repossession orders. In desperation, many were reduced to living in vans or in run-down motels on the outskirts of Orlando’s sprawl. I was moved by the plight of the children in particular—deprived of stability and security. Even their favorite pets and toys had to be abandoned. As I learned more about these problems and how Christian ministries tried to respond to them, I decided to write a story. But I did not want to focus on the hardships; I wanted to focus on the rebuilding. To my mind, too much attention is given to the falling down, and not enough to the getting back up again. So The Sign Painter
aims toward hope and healing—a new future for homeless families, but also a reminder about the help our communities may be able to offer. The Sign Painter covers some weighty problems of homelessness, unemployment, drug trafficking, and drug-related violence. Why did you choose to include these difficult issues?
Before addressing this question, let me first say that my primary aim here was to create an entertaining, encouraging novel. To say that the story is about these difficult problems really does not, at least as far as I am concerned, capture the true heart of this novel. The Sign Painter
is a message of hope.
That said, the problem of homelessness does not exist by itself—it is part of a larger situation that our cities and our communities face. What I wanted to show was how certain churches have become involved in reclaiming their communities. There are some real heroes in this struggle, and they operate on the same principle as Jesus: One lost soul at a time The special operations and police maneuvers executed by Paul and Granville were so fun to read and so expertly detailed. Did you do any special research for those scenes?
This was a very special component of preparing to write The Sign Painter
. Two friends on the local police force in Florida helped enormously in creating realistic characters. The character of Paul is actually a retired federal officer, and his portrait was based on friends who work in Washington.
As I was sketching these preliminary scenes, I had a dear friend whose church went through a very difficult period of upheaval. Over lunch with several pastor friends, they mentioned how sometimes what really was needed was a private investigator who was first and foremost a believer and who would work with the church toward restoration and healing. That was how the idea for Paul began—a roving former federal agent, dedicated to helping churches through threatening times. How does your approach to writing a stand-alone novel differ from that for the series novels that you’ve written?
Well, in some cases, I feel like one novel contains pretty much everything I want to say on a subject. In others, I am kind of glad to walk away from the characters involved. But since completing The Sign Painter
, I find myself working through scenarios where Paul and his new Florida team help other churches. So who knows? There may actually be another episode, in the fullness of time. Which of the characters in The Sign Painter was the most fun to write? Which character was the most difficult?
Bob Denton became a real surprise for me. Initially I thought he would be a sort of “walk-on” part, someone who just serves as Amy’s boss, and when the drug issue arises he then becomes a red herring—a person under suspicion who turns out to be a good guy in the end. But when I actually started writing, this man just took on a life of his own. He completely refused to do what I expected of him. Characters can be very bullheaded at times. Bob was determined to fall in love with Amy. I can’t describe it any better than that. It was heartbreaking to read about the broken relationship between Bob Denton and Bob Jr. What did you want readers to take away from their relationship?
This was very personal, and quite rough to write. There are people I’m very close to who have fallen into the trap of addiction. Enduring their trials and struggles has been tough. But the experiences have also opened my eyes to how a person needs help to break free. And some people, alas, do not either seek or wish to do so. For the story to work, I needed a Bob Jr. to represent those people who are content to dwell in the dark. The themes of community and belonging are very prevalent in this book. How have these concepts been important in your own life?
I left home at age twenty and traveled to Europe for graduate studies. I basically never returned. After graduating I taught university for a year, then worked for an Arab consortium for three years, then became a consultant living in Germany. It was here, in Dusseldorf, that I came to faith.
For my entire adult life, community has never been easy, or readily available. This is one of the hardest aspects of living overseas. I have made homes in seven different countries, and each time it has been necessary to rebuild my community—new friends, new church, new sense of belonging. In some cases this was very difficult. When I began work on this story, I found myself hearing repeatedly from the former homeless what it meant to rebuild their personal communities. How hard it was to trust, to hope, and what a vital role the church played in helping them heal. It was at this level that I most identified with them—how crucial it was to find a church that truly lived the concept of open doors and open arms. What are you working on next?
I stay very busy crafting new stories in a variety of genres. This period of my life has become especially intense, as I have also become involved in teaching creative writing at the university level, and I am engaged in several multimedia projects, including film production and radio broadcasting.