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Book Club Kits: Saints at the River

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

When a twelve-year-old girl drowns in the Tamassee River and her body is trapped in a deep eddy, the people of the small South Carolina town that bears the river's name are thrown into the national spotlight. The girl's parents want to attempt a rescue of the body; environmentalists are convinced the rescue operation will cause permanent damage to the river and set a dangerous precedent. Torn between the two sides is Maggie Glenn, a twenty-eight-year-old newspaper photographer who grew up in the town and has been sent to document the incident. Since leaving home almost ten years ago, Maggie has done her best to avoid her father, but now, as the town's conflict opens old wounds, she finds herself revisiting the past she's fought so hard to leave behind. Meanwhile, the reporter who's accompanied her to cover the story turns out to have a painful past of his own, and one that might stand in the way of their romance.
Drawing on the same lyrical prose and strong sense of place that distinguished his award-winning first novel, One Foot in Eden, Ron Rash has written a book about the deepest human themes: the love of the land, the hold of the dead on the living, and the need to dive beneath the surface to arrive at a deeper truth.Saints at the River confirms the arrival of one of today's most gifted storytellers.

Discussion Questions

1.      Is the narrative voice convincingly female? If so, what details make Maggie come alive? If not, what seems missing or mistaken?

2.      Is Saints at the River a novel about suffering and loss?

3.      What is at stake for each of the main characters in this novel? How do their individual losses connect or divide them? Do these losses motivate their actions and reactions?

4.      How do you think the river functions in the story? Is it a metaphor? Is it a catalyst? Does it really take on a life of its own as Luke and his followers seem to believe? Would you consider it a character?

5.      Could this story take place in any other part of the world? Could it unfold without the river?

6.      Maggie tries to remain neutral during the first two-thirds of the novel, but finds herself regretting that position later. What do you think causes this change?

7.      What similarities exist between the Kowalskys and Luke?

8.      How does love manifest itself throughout the novel? To what extent (if at all) is it tied into forgiveness?

9.      In the second half of the book, Maggie, to her consternation, begins to remember good moments with her father. What is the role of memory in the novel? Does Maggie’s changing memory make her any less reliable a narrator?

About Ron Rash

Ron Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New York Times bestselling novel, Serena, in addition to three other prizewinning novels, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight; three collections of poems; and four collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award. Twice the recipient of the O.Henry Prize, he teaches at Western Carolina University.

An Interview with Ron Rash

Q: Your first works weren't novels... 

A: My first published work was a collection of stories (The Night Jesus Fell to Earth?). Then I worked in poetry for almost a decade. I didn’t consciously set out to write novels. Both started with a single image I first tried to make into a poem.   I’m a narrative poet, which makes the transition to fiction easier. I’ve spent the last twenty-six years of my life writing seriously. I averaged three to five hours a day six days a week. I’m fifty now, and I’ve worked for a long time. I’m glad what success I’ve had has come slowly, because it has allowed me to work under the radar and concentrate solely on my writing.

Q: What do your two novels -- One Foot in Eden and Saints at the River – have in common?

A: Both books are set in the same landscape, the same county, Oconee, in the most mountainous corner of South Carolina, located along the South Carolina border. Some of the same obsessions as well, especially the impact of the dead on the living, the erasure of a culture, the way landscape affects people psychologically.

Q: You’ve mentioned in the past that there was always "one image" in your head starting each of your works. What was the "one image" for Saints at the River?

A: The first image was of a child's face looking up through water.  I wanted to write a novel about environmental issues, but one that refused simplifications. I picked a situation where I was essentially in conflict with myself, the part of me who is an environmentalist and the part of me who is a parent.

Q: What do you enjoy most about book signings and readings?

A: One thing is meeting people who've heard or read my work and found something there that has given them pleasure. I’ve also enjoyed meeting other writers. Particularly in the South, there’s a real sense of camaraderie among writers. 

Q: What's your most amusing "author event" story?

A: My first public reading EVER was at the New York Public Library. I was thirty-two and had won the General Electric Younger Writers Award. I asked them to mail me the prize money but they said I had to come to New York and do the reading to get the money. I really needed the money so I went. I told myself I’d never see any of those people again and, besides, they’d never understand my accent. It turned out to be a wonderful experience.

Q: Who are some of the writer’s that you think readers should be reading or who should be better known? 

A: Donald Harington from the Ozark Mountain region. His work is tremendously underrated; Chris Holbrook out of Kentucky; and Catherine Landis. I think she's the real deal. 

Q: Have you had mentors? 

A: Lee Smith and Robert Morgan have been supportive and their work important to me. They are both exceptional writers and exceptional human beings. 

Q: What have you been waiting for someone to ask? 

A: What is it that makes someone become a writer? I have vivid memories of my grandfather -- who couldn't read or write. I asked him to read Cat in the Hat and he made up a story. He always "read" it differently. His stories were more entertaining than my mother's. He taught me language can be magical.