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Book Club Kits: Big Stone Gap

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Book Summary

It’s 1978 and 35-year-old Ave Maria Mulligan is the self-proclaimed spinster of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, a sleepy hamlet in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the local pharmacist, she’s been keeping the town folks’ secrets for years, but she’s about to discover a skeleton in her own family’s tidy closet that will blow the lid right off her quiet, uneventful life.Soon she finds herself juggling two marriage proposals, conducting a no-holds-barred family feud, directing the prestigious Outdoor Drama and keeping the town’s dysfunctional Rescue Squad on its toes.

The crazy-quilt of characters includes Jack MacChesney (“Jack Mac” to his friends), the stoic miner with coal dust on his hands but love in his heart; Iva Lou Wade, the sexpot Bookmobile librarian; Theodore Tipton, band leader extraordinaire; Preacher Elmo Gaspar, the snake-handling Freewill Baptist; and Pearl Grimes, a coal-miner’s daughter on the verge of a miraculous transformation, thanks to Ave’s intervention.

Read an excerpt from the novel.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think the author set Big Stone Gap during the late 1970s instead of today?

  • The coal mines are the site of danger and oppressiveness, while the caverns Ave Maria and Theodore visit reveal the beauty hidden deep in the earth. How does this dichotomy reflect Ave Maria's inner world during her yearlong crisis?

  • As the novel progresses and Ave Maria learns more about herself and her past, her feelings for Big Stone Gap change from contentment to disassociation to joy. Have your feelings for your hometown changed as you've changed? How?

  • Who is your favorite character?

  • Ave Maria refers to herself as a "ferriner," but when she visits Italy she realizes that her home is in Big Stone Gap. What other works have you read in which the hero or heroine must travel to find his or her home in the world?

  • Ave Maria's description of some events, such as kissing Theodore after the Drama and Jack Mac's reaction to her gratitude for bringing over her Italian family, differs from other people's perspectives. Do you believe Ave Maria's interpretations? Why or why not?

  • Theodore and Ave Maria have romantic feelings for each other, but never at the same time. If their feelings had been more coordinated, do you think they would have entered a lasting marriage? Do you think their 'best friend' relationship will endure after Ave Maria and Jack Mac's wedding?

  • When did you suspect that Ave Maria would fall in love with Jack Mac? What were the clues that the author left?

  • Jack Mac tells Ave Maria, "Stop thinking." Is Jack Mac correct? Does too much thinking lead Ave Maria into making the wrong choices? Are her emotions a trustier guide or equally unreliable?

  • A common theme in literature is that the heroine (e.g., Snow White, Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Nancy Drew) must lose a parent or parents before she is free to discover who she really is. Is this merely a literary convention or does it have roots in real life? Does it apply to male characters as well? How much significance does Mrs. Mac's death have to Jack Mac's personal development?

  • Ave Maria feels relief and not much surprise when she learns Fred Mulligan is not her father, and later she recognizes aspects of herself in Mario. Though Fred is not her blood kin, what traits did he pass on to Ave Maria while he raised her? How much of Ave Maria's personality was shaped by nature and how much by nurture?

  • When describing her friend Iva Lou, the majorette Tayloe, and Sweet Sue, Ave Maria focuses on the power of beauty and desirability, but she also cautions Pearl that beauty fades while character endures. How does Pearl synthesize the importance of character with the force of beauty?

  • Both Ave Maria and Worley discover their fathers aren't who they thought they were, but Worley learns of his true parentage when his father is still alive. Do you think Ave Maria's expectations of love and marriage would have been affected if she had learned the truth about Mario before her mother died? How?

  • Ave Maria is named for the mysterious woman who took Ave Maria's mother under her wing. Do you see another meaning in Ave Maria's name? Does it tie in with her developing belief in destiny and faith?

Big Stone Gap movie trailer

Big Stone Gap on IMBD.

Check the catalog for availability: Big Stone Gap [videorecording (DVD)]