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Love and Lament Paperback – August 6, 2013
Reading Group Guide for Love and Lament
1. Love and Lament is set in the decades following the Civil War. What impact does this have on the characters? How does Thompson evoke this historical period, and in what ways are the characters a product of their time?
2. The Devil continuously reappears throughout the novel, in dreams and superstitions. What is the Devil’s role in this novel? Is there something in the novel that represents the opposite—perhaps like a messenger of good fortune?
3. What kind of God is in Love and Lament? How does he judge man? What are Cicero’s and Mary Bet’s relationships with this God? How do these relationships change throughout the course of the novel?
4. Cicero beings seriously to question his fate after the death of his daughter Myrt. On page 116, he exclaims that he does not deserve the fate God has given him. This is a crucial development in Cicero’s character. Does Mary Bet ever reach a similar realization after reflecting on her life, and if so, at which point?
5. The Hartsoe family’s history influences each of its generations. Discuss the fate of the Hartsoe family and its origin. How does this history influence Mary Bet’s? What is the significance that, at the age of nine, Mary Bet’s mother gives her the family Bible and defines her role as the keeper of family history? What makes Cicero’s fall into madness such a fitting turn of events?
6. At the moment when Mary Bet aims her gun at her father’s horse, “She was just as scared of failing her father as of shooting the horse” (pg.125). For her entire life, Mary Bet maintains an intense sense of responsibility toward her father. She covers for him whenever he slips from a sane or moral path, and for a long time does not wish to marry or leave home. Why does Mary Bet hold such devotion to him?
7. After Mary Bet puts down her father’s horse, she wishes Siler were there to comfort her: “he was the only one who would understand and there would be no need for words, or signs either. Just his presence, and his deep, knowing eyes, looking for something long gone” (pg. 126). Why didn’t Mary Bet cry after she pulled the trigger? Does this act cause a shift in her character?
8. Siler goes through a significant transformation as he enters adulthood. What initiates this change? How do you interpret Siler’s death and his final message, “I have make a terrible mistake” (pg. 343)? Mary Bet considers the grammatical error to be an intentional attempt to place himself halfway between the past and the present. Do you agree?
9. Upon moving to Williamsboro and getting to know her fellow tenant, Amanda Tomkins, “Mary Bet regarded her friend, hidden behind her deformities and her suffering, and decided there was something noble about her” (pg. 228). What does Mary Bet learn from Amanda? What does Mary Bet learn from her friendship with Flora, and what makes each of these friendships equally important?
10. Towards the end of the novel, Mary Bet visits her father and learns from him not to throw her life away because of the things she remembers from her past. Discuss the significance of Mary Bet’s final dream, which contains the last appearance of the Devil, and her inability to recall its details in the morning.
11. Before Leon returns home, Mary Bet has a premonition that he will die in the war. Yet, he makes it back safely and they marry. In what ways is this a turning point against the Hartsoe curse and against the idea of fearing one’s own memories?
12. How does Love and Lament compare to Thompson’s previous novel, The Reservoir? Discuss similar themes, character traits, and use of style.
Two years after the release of his first novel, The Reservoir, Thompson returns to its southern gothic setting. In 1893, five-year-old Mary Bet Hartsoe watches—from the side of a rural North Carolina road, a doll clutched in her arms—as the Devil approaches her on horseback. Although this turns out to be a case of mistaken identity, Mary Bet marks this moment as the first she believes that her family is cursed. The novel spans the years that follow through WWI, and for Mary Bet, these tumultuous years of southern reformation are punctuated by the death of her mother and her eight siblings, as well as her father’s mental decline. At times, Thompson’s narrative staggers under the weight of his attempt to relay great passages of time. However, the voice of the narrator feels authentic to the era, and Mary Bet springs off the page as a character. She is confident but conflicted, and her realistic journey will keep readers engaged. --Emily Roth
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The novel begins as the 19th century nears its end and continues until the end of World War I when Mary Bet’s life finally takes a different turn. Mary Bet was born in 1887 and she spent the next three decades seeking solutions to her questions and uncertainties and trying to discover her true purpose in life. Her quiet strength and determination, her kindness, her manners, her fears and her sorrows are all presented in detail, making her into a character we grow to know and identify with; we feel her burdens and share in her pain as she faces the sorrows rained down upon her family. We are privy to her doubts about herself and her faith in an ever present G-d, her fear of death and the devil, and on the other end of the spectrum, her ultimate optimism in the face of trauma. She rarely shows anger and most often exhibits common sense in her dealings with people. Throughout her life, Mary Bet is pretty even-tempered, kind and generous, but she has committed her own sins in the past which have continued to loom larger in her mind. She must come to terms with them. She wonders if her family could be cursed. The family’s genetic field is threaded with madness. Even Mary Bet sometimes feels that she is not quite tethered to the ground. She once had an imaginary friend. She believed the devil was coming for her. She witnessed her father’s bouts of madness when he talked to himself, admonished himself, tried to shoot himself.
She lives in a time when change is everywhere. There are horseless carriages, advances in civil rights, improvements for the rights of women. There is racial bias and religious prejudice which is just beginning to be addressed. So this story is about a time when not only Mary Bet searches for answers, but so does America. Should women and blacks have improved rights and benefits, the right to vote, own property; should the country go to war, conscript men, allow women to hold office, should companies discriminate, should Christians mix with Jews? It is a time when there area no miracle drugs and very few adequate treatments for disease and other afflictions.
The image of life in the heady days at the turn of the century is vivid. The reader is taken back into the past with Mary Bet. It is a world in which different classes, religions and race are stressed. Mixing is forbidden. Sometimes it feels like there is too much detail, but it is the minute explanations of everyday life that allow the reader to get to know the main character and live in that time with her, although some characters seem to come and go before they are fully developed.
The reader may wonder if Mary Bet’s insecurities and burdens were brought on by her own behavior, her own tentativeness and instability. However, she comes into her own, becoming the first woman to serve as interim sheriff in North Carolina. She manages the job well, solving crimes, reforming juveniles, and settling many petty disputes and economic issues that have remained unresolved for years.
Also, as I read, I sometimes wondered where this book was going. It seemed to march on without a goal, and yet, in the end, it was simply a very good story, a story told without the vitriol, crude language and concentration on sex that is so prevalent in many of the cruder novels of today. Mary Bet is a warm and endearing character, a bit afraid of G-d and the Devil. Religion and its dogma scare her. She has suffered so much loss that she may be afraid to love, afraid to lose again, afraid she could be cursed. This book is about her coming of age, her growing into herself and learning to deal with the contrasting aspects of life.
The title comes from a poem by George Herbert, Bittersweet.
Even though the book starts out with a family tree that warns readers of just how many lives are lost in the Hartsoe family, the emotional journey will be exhausting at times. The first half of the book is full of pain, grief and heartache, while the second half is focused on survival and perseverance. Thompson does a remarkable job of writing a poetic prose that will immediately whisk readers back in time. The rich metaphors bring the setting of Haw County alive, while Mary Bet’s strength will leave readers in awe. The narration was a bit strange at times, almost as though it is an outsider looking in and there is more to the story that is being glossed over. But overall, this is a must read for Southern Gothic Literature fans.
This review was written for the My Sister's Books bookstore.
This review was originally posted on the Ariesgrl Book Reviews website.
John Milliken Thompson's Love And Lament details the life of the Hartsoe family in the Piedmont region of North Carolina in these years. The Hartsoes were one of the major families in the region; it's men Civil War heroes. Cicero Hartsoe came back to Haw County and ran a store. He and his wife had nine children. Life was hard but family was a recompense from God for the difficulties encountered.
But the Hartsoe family seemed marked out for tragedy. Mary Bet, the youngest, watches hopelessly as one by one, all her brothers and sisters are taken. Some die from diseases that would be easily cured today, some in accidents. By the time she is twenty, Mary Bet finds herself alone in the world, her only surviving parent in a hospital for life while she is left to make her way in the world.
Mary Bet is an interesting character. Although haunted by her family history, she manages to carve out a life for herself. She moves and finds a job, living in boarding houses and then with roommates. As the years go on, she is unsure if she will ever have another family, one of her own. But regardless, she moves on and finds value in the life she is given to live.
This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction. It is difficult for most people to imagine how different life in our country was just a hundred years ago, how isolated people were due to the difficulty of transportation and how reliant on family and friends each individual was. For women to carve out a separate life for themselves in this environment was a definite show of character. The reader will remember Mary Bet Hartsoe long after the last page is turned.