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  • In the Land of Second Chances
  • Written by George Shaffner
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780345484987
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In the Land of Second Chances

A Novel

Written by George ShaffnerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by George Shaffner

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In Ebb, Nebraska, things are pretty much as they were fifty years ago–aside from that coffee shop–and that’s just the way folks like it. Plucky Wilma Porter is the proprietress of Ebb’s only Bed and Breakfast, and she knows everything there is to know in town: the mental state of Clara Tucker Booth Yune, a rich recluse who says only two words at a time; the gossip at Loretta Parson’s Bold Cut Beauty Salon; and the sad series of events that have led poor Calvin Millet to the edge of desperation. Calvin is the owner of Millet’s Department Store, a village mainstay for generations, but many fear that it–and the downtown–won’t survive his terrible run of bad luck.

Wilma prays for a miracle to save Ebb’s special way of life, but she’s surprised when it arrives in the form of a traveling salesman, if that’s what he is. Vernon L. Moore claims to peddle games of chance, but he sticks his nose in odd places and says things like, “uncertainty is the spice of life.” He is welcomed nonetheless, because he seems to have the power to change minds, save fortunes, and fix broken hearts.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Sad Edge of a Slippery Slope

My name is Wilma Porter. I own the Come Again Bed and Breakfast, which is the only B & B in Ebb, Nebraska, and the only one in Rutherford B. Hayes County that is recommended by two Internet directories. I bought the place from Clement Tucker, our very own Warren Buffett, who contracted an acute case of Midlife Crisis about five years ago and decided to build himself a modern house with all the latest conveniences.

The Come Again is a single-turreted, three-story Victorian mansion that was built by Silas Tucker the Second shortly after the Civil War. There’s a single, grand oak tree in the front that antedates the house and a black asphalt driveway leading up to a formal porte-cochere and a little parking area for my guests. Last year, I had the house painted bone white except for the roof, which is black. I think the contrast is meaningful.

Clara Tucker Booth Yune, Clem Tucker’s older sister and Ebb’s most prominent recluse, occupies the entire third floor of the Come Again on a permanent basis. There are six bedrooms on the second floor. I live in the one that faces the back garden; the other five are for rent. Each bedroom has its own bathroom; the Cornhusker Suite even has a Jacuzzi. Downstairs, there’s a living room the size of a tennis court, a parlor for the TV, a den, which I keep for myself as a rule, and a giant-sized dining room that will seat sixteen. Except for my kitchen, which is commercial grade, the entire house is decorated in beautiful old antiques that Clem Tucker left behind or I bought cheap at estate auctions and refinished myself in the basement.

Like most folks who live in Ebb, I was born right here, but about an hour after I got my high school diploma I jumped on a bus to North Platte. I came back with my two daughters after the divorce fifteen years later. Both girls are grown up and gone now. One is up in Omaha and the other is over in Council Bluffs, across the river.

By most measures, Ebb is a small town. It is the county seat, but only two thousand people live inside the city limits. There’s not a lot to do here most of the time, and that’s the way we like it. If we need some excitement, we can drive up to Lincoln. For twenty years, every politician in this area has been elected on the “No Wal-Mart, no how” platform. We take a similarly dim view of fast-food franchises, slow-food franchises, convenience-store franchises, and all other franchises with big, backlit signs in primary colors. The only exception is the new Starbucks on Main Street, but Ebb is so small that we only have the one.

All the rest of the stores on Main are unique and most of them have been in operation for more than fifty years. The biggest and most famous is Millet’s, the last remaining department store in the tri-county region. Millet’s, which is pronounced like “mill-it” and not like “mill-ay,” sits right at the corner of Bean Street and Main, where it’s been ever since Joshua Millet opened it up back in 1920. It has survived the Great Depression, rural flight, three bank bankruptcies, World War II, a flood, and God knows how many droughts and tornadoes. Now it is owned and managed by Calvin Millet, June and Joshua III’s only child. Calvin is a smart, hardworking young man, and everybody in Hayes County shops at his store as if it was a patriotic duty, but we’re all afraid that Millet’s will not survive his run of terrible bad luck.

Calvin was a homely baby, bald and sort of wedge-headed, but he grew up to be tall and handsome in a gangly, fair-haired sort of way, kind of like Gary Cooper. He was too skinny to play high school football, a form of religion in these parts, but he studied hard and got good grades even though he worked in his father’s store. After graduation, he went up to Lincoln and got himself a four-year degree in accounting, and then he joined the Air Force to see the world. They sent him to Bossier City, Louisiana.

Calvin had hardly been gone for any time at all when his parents were killed in a train accident. I could tell at the funeral that he had already started to lose his hearing. He’s fine now; he wears tiny little hearing aids in both ears, but the Air Force had to give him a medical discharge so he came back home to run the family store. A year or so later, he married Mary Beth Tucker, Clem’s only child and a bit of an airhead, but a real beauty and the catch of the county from a financial point of view. Six months after that, Lucy was born. I know what you’re thinking, but the human gestation period in rural America is only six months for the first baby. After that, it’s nine months.

When Lucy Millet was eight years old, she contracted some sort of neurological disorder. I hear it’s similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, but more aggressive and unnaturally painful. Anyway, a real sick daughter was more than her momma could handle, so she pulled up and left for L.A. Just disappeared in the middle of the night. Took the Jeep and the dog and the George Foreman cooker and left Calvin a note saying she was real sorry.

Mary Beth’s departure caused quite a buzz at the Quilting Circle. Most of us are divorcées ourselves, so we aren’t inclined to be critical of any woman who leaves a man. In fact, we have a support system in place so that a woman can do it right: counselors, lawyers, day care, even police protection. But Mary Beth didn’t use the system, and her husband and sick daughter suffered for it. She hasn’t been welcome in these parts since.

Apparently, being a waitress to the stars was not keeping her in the manner to which she was accustomed, so Mary Beth came home anyway but just long enough to sue Calvin for divorce. Since she had only abandoned her husband and sick child in the dead of night, and taken the dog and the Jeep to boot, the court was sympathetic to her predicament. Calvin now pays her alimony. In case you were wondering, the judge is married to a Tucker, once removed.

Little Lucy Millet is the sweetest little blonde-haired girl you have ever seen and she is smart as a whip, but she isn’t getting any better. For the last three years, Calvin has flown her all over the country looking for a doctor who can cure her, but all they’ve done is slow the disease down and, according to rumor, empty the Millet bank account. Calvin has health insurance through the farmer’s co-op, just like everybody else in these parts, but most of Lucy’s treatments have been experimental, and that means that the HMO won’t pay for them. Unless somebody gets those insurance companies under control, I figure that two aspirin and a glass of water will count as a medical experiment before I’m dead.

The tornado hit last month while Calvin and Lucy were away at the Mayo Clinic. That was too early for tornadoes as a rule, but the weather has been unseasonably warm all year. Luckily, it was a tiny thing as twisters go. It missed the town and everything else in Rutherford B. Hayes County except for Rufus Bowe’s grain silo and Calvin Millet’s place. Actually, it tore the roof off of Rufus’s silo and dropped it on Calvin’s house—dead center. I drove out to see what happened with my best friend, Loretta Parsons, who is Ebb’s sole resident black person and the owner of the Bold Cut Beauty Salon. Calvin’s home was a sight to see. It looked like a pile of rubble with a great big aluminum teacup sitting in the middle of it. You wouldn’t think that anybody’s aim could be that good, not even God’s.

After the tornado, Calvin and Lucy stayed with me at the Come Again for a few days until he found them a cracker-box of a house to rent in Carson, about fifteen minutes down the road toward the Kansas line. Calvin hasn’t talked to Buzz Busby about rebuilding yet, even though that place is so small and so far away from town. I would know for sure if he had.

We’re all sad for Calvin Millet and worried sick about poor Lucy—any caring person would be—but I have to tell you the honest truth: we’re just as scared of rural America’s variety of the domino theory. If Calvin’s finances fall apart, then Millet’s Department Store will fail. If Millet’s goes under, then the county’s political resolve will collapse and we’ll get a Wal-Mart store one week later—in a ravine ten miles from nowhere because the land will be dirt cheap. The next thing you know, everybody in the county will be shopping for bargains in the ravine, so Loretta will have to shut her doors, and so will the Starbucks and every other place on Main except for the Corn Palace and the Yune Library. Then the girls won’t bring their kids back after they get divorced and that will be the end of Ebb as we know it.

You may think that I’m exaggerating, but this town is perched on the sad edge of a slippery slope. I went to church and wished to God I could help in some way, but He sent us a salesman. That’s right, a salesman. At least that’s my theory. You be the judge.
George Shaffner|Author Q&A

About George Shaffner

George Shaffner - In the Land of Second Chances

Photo © Will Weems

George Shaffner has worked in the computer industry for twenty years, most recently as CEO or COO of three international computer companies. He is the father of three children, who are all math refugees.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with the Author

Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor who lives near Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Morgan Gray: Was there a particular character, image, or idea that prompted you to write In the Land of Second Chances?

George Shaffner: Several years ago, I discovered that my mother-in-law was feeling incredibly mortal and, in fact, quite fearful, because her brother-in-law was dying of cancer. That was a surprise to me because she’s been a devout Catholic all her life. So I wrote a short essay for her that explored some rational reasons for the existence of God. It seemed to make her feel better. A few years later, I found out that one of my arteries was 95 percent blocked. Besides taking it easy after angioplasty, I had some things to sort out for myself. The one at the top of the list–here’s a surprise–was my immortality, or lack thereof. In other words, I had failed to convince myself of it. When I started Second Chances, I knew I could solve the First Paradox of the Benevolent God, which is the philosophical door to reasoned faith. What I didn’t know was that there was a second paradox and a third. Each one of them was like a door to another room, and another piece of the puzzle.

JMG: So had you been thinking about that first paradox for a long time?

GS: I’d been thinking about "reasoned faith" for some time, but I didn’t have a way into the argument. I don’t know where inspiration comes from, but my guess is that it comes from the subconscious. It’s as if each of us has two brains: one working on what you can see and hear; the other working in the background. Whatever the reason, I didn’t derive the solution to the first paradox; it simply landed in my head already solved. Then I began to write.

JMG: This is your first novel. How was writing it different from your nonfiction work? Did the discussion of logic and philosophy from your previous book, The Arithmetic of Life and Death, wind its way into this book in any way?

GS: The two books were very different. The first book was written for "math refugees" with MTV attention spans, meaning that none of the forty essays could exceed fifteen hundred words. It was very clear to me, however, that the road to "reasoned faith" was a longer, more complicated trip. Novels are the perfect place for any sort of intellectual trip. If you set up your characters properly, they’ll argue every side of the problem, and invent some new ones along the way. Quite literally, they’ll force you to examine every aspect of your hypotheses, to be diligent in your process, and to make sure that you’re actually right in the end. Before I began Second Chances, I didn’t have a fiction or a nonfiction agenda. What I had was an interest in looking at faith in a more rational, more sensible way. Now that I’ve been down the fiction path, though, I have no plans to return to nonfiction. I have at least six more novels to write.

JMG: So you have lots of material stored up!

GS: It’s odd, but I do. Seven years ago, at the ripe old age of fifty, I would’ve been hard pressed to come up with a single novel idea. Now, after my first midlife crisis and the remedial one that followed it, I have a backlog that is growing faster than I can write.

JMG: The title In the Land of Second Chances has many possible meanings, alluding to everything from games of chance to the afterlife and the town of Ebb. How did you choose this title? Were there any other ones that you considered, and then abandoned?

GS: One of the hardest things about writing is arriving at a title. The reason is that it’s a team event. All kinds of publishing people are involved, some of them anonymously. Every time I’ve sent a working title up the publishing food chain, it’s been squashed like a fat bug on the windshield of a fast-moving Chevy. As a result, In the Land of Second Chances was a derived title, rather than an inspirational one. I sat at the computer and worked through the various themes and angles of the book, often exploring them for hours at a time with the help of an on-line thesaurus. Eventually, I arrived at The Mansion of Second Chances. That was a bit too "goth" for the committee, but it was close enough to lead us all to the Þnal result.

JMG: The town of Ebb is in itself a character in the book. Did you draw on your past experiences growing up in Nebraska to shape your vision of the town? Could you "see" it in your mind’s eye while you were writing? How is its name significant–the ebb and flow of life, of constant change?

GS: I’m a military brat, but I ended up graduating from high school in Nebraska and both of my college degrees are from the university of the same name. Overall, I lived there for seventeen years, which is considerably more than I’ve lived anywhere else. I’m a Nebraska boy at heart–but I was never a rural Nebraska boy. I had a lot of friends, though, who were very rural, and the nicest people I’ve known. There’s a rural side to my family, too. My mother’s family are Kentucky tobacco farmers, and the other nicest people I’ve ever known. I guess a lot of my favorite people are from the country. The name of Ebb just showed up one day. I never considered changing it. The description of Ebb comes from a town called Hickman, which is on the way to a smaller town called Panama, where the parents of my best friend lived.

JMG: What made you decide to write in the narrative voice of Wilma Porter, owner of the Come Again and general woman-about-town? What was the most difficult aspect of developing and sustaining that funny, insightful voice? Were there any other perspectives from which you considered writing?

GS: The first line I wrote was, "My name is Wilma Porter." That’s very "Call me Ishmael," and I had just finished reading a Melville book at the time, but it wasn’t Moby Dick! Compared to third-person narrative, first-person narrative is a frustrating, confining way to write, but the payoff is personality. Third person narrators are disembodied and detached; first person narrators have names and shapes and relationships, just like every other character in the story, and they can be ill-informed and opinionated and loveable and even downright wrong. There are so many more possibilities. Wilma Porter is the amalgamated voice of three funny, insightful, and very rural women from my past: my great aunt Lucy Van Cleve from Calhoun, Kentucky; my great aunt Ruth Van Cleve from Clarkesville, Tennessee; and Mona Liesveld, my best friend’s mother and the doyenne of Panama, Nebraska. They’re all gone now, but I can hear them as if they were sitting at my dining table, sipping iced teas, and telling me funny stories.

JMG: The specter of Wal-Mart looms large over the town. What is it about Millet’s Store that truly sustains the town and its personality? (The characters seem perfectly happy at Starbucks, though!) Was there a statement about homogenization and progress you sought to make in the book?

GS: Yes, very much so. The problem with a Wal-Mart is that it’s not just a Wal-Mart. It’s an irresistible urge for everyone within a fifty-mile radius to save ten dollars a week. While they’re at it, though, the little stores within that same fifty-mile radius begin to die like flies, because they can’t compete with Wal-mart on price or choice. Eventually, all the little stores go bankrupt, their owners move away, and the towns themselves begin to evaporate from the inside out. It’s an interesting commentary on us, isn’t it? All it takes to kill a lifestyle is saving ten dollars a week.

JMG: You populate Ebb with a vivid cast of characters, from Clem Tucker to Lucy Millet to, of course, Vernon Moore. How did you evoke each of these characters so vividly? Did anything they do surprise you?

GS: I have about a dozen, self-inflicted "rules of writing." One of them is "No [expletive] stereotypes." In real life, every person has a personality; a few prominent strengths and weaknesses, and a quirk or two worth noting. I don’t see why every character in a book shouldn’t have the same sort of stuffing. If a character has three lines, that same character deserves to have a history, a point-of-view, and a few annoying traits. All of my characters surprise me from time to time, just like real people do. Sometimes it’s a revelation. Other times, it’s a pain in the ass.

JMG: Vernon Moore’s philosophy is, ÒUncertainty is the spice of life.Ó How does he express this during his time in Ebb? How does he encourage the town’s residents to embrace his personal credo?

GS: Vernon has a theory of "reasoned faith" that is described in various places in the book, but especially in the chapter "Empa­thy for God." It contains the most important question he asks, which is, What would you want most if you were all-powerful, all-knowing God? The answer is the foundation of Vernon’s philosophy. In a simple, elegant way, it makes sense of God, the universe, and us, all at once.

JMG: Those are pretty weighty topics. Did you find it difficult to synthesize and simplify them for the book?

GS: To me, that was the challenge of the book. I had to make the philosophical stuff as easy and straightforward as a recipe for brownies: two cups of this, one tablespoon of that. It also meant that I had to write a book that could succeed on two levels: one was to write a very human story about hope; the other was to have a simple but philosophical search for a recipe for faith. The interesting thing is that most people read the book at the first level, but then they find out later that the second level has affected them, and in a very positive way.

JMG: The book has an intriguing spiritual element in the Three Paradoxes. Were there any particular writers you referenced while writing the book?

GS: Not specifically. From a general writing perspective, though, I have benchmarks just like I have rules: Mark Twain for story­telling; Joseph Conrad for scene-setting; Walter Mosley for char­acter depth; Carl Hiaasen for humor and irreverence; and Hermann Hesse for philosophical fiction. They’re all out of reach, but what a bunch of great targets!

JMG: Vernon Moore makes a tremendous impact on Ebb in his six days there (a number that’s also significant in religion). Do you think that the townspeople had a similar influence on him? How does he change during his time in Nebraska?

GS: Vernon is not like you and me. His job is to help other people, not the other way around. Nevertheless, two people had a significant impact on him in Second Chances–both of them women. He was swept away by Loretta, but he also developed a great affection for Wilma.

JMG: How does Lucy Millet inspire the town of Ebb, particularly her father and grandfather? How does Calvin and Clem’s relationship change as a result of her illness?

GS: Lucy is Perspective. By the tragic circumstances of her disease, she is the one who reminds Clem that there is more to life than money. Paradoxically, she also reminds her father, with Vernon’s help, that there is more to life than any one life. To a significant extent, Lucy’s relationship with Calvin is a portrayal of a phenomenon that I’ve observed too many times: It is often the fatally ill patient who is the cheerleader for his or her well-wishers. Lucy has been dealt a mortally bad hand, but she is strong enough to play it. Her father has one job: to explain to her that she will get to play again, but he can’t do it without her help. I thought it was an extraordinarily ironic and difficult challenge for Calvin. Did you agree?

JMG: Yes. As I was reading, I wondered what he would do. I wasn’t exactly sure that he would accept that challenge.

GS: You weren’t supposed to know. Calvin was playing the same awful hand his daughter had been dealt. He had to feel like shit when he was playing it: He had to be incredibly angry, he had to be sad, he had to be constantly upset, and he had to be unsure of everything.

JMG: Vernon says, "I believe that God wants me to experience the absolute fullness of my life to my very last breath." Who in Ebb has fallen away from this mindset? Who ultimately embraces it?

GS: In real life, almost everyone I have ever known has fallen away from that mindset. We’ve all forgotten that our lives are an incredible, impossible gift. In the book, of course, Calvin is the most obvious example. Not only has he fallen away from the concept that life is a gift, he has rejected it. Fortunately, however, Vernon finds a way to sell him some hope, but it takes some doing.

JMG: I love the Quilting Circle–the economic and social power­house of women who shape Ebb. What is it about these women that made them so compelling to write about? Why do divorced women love to return to Ebb?

GS: Ebb is the "last oasis of nice." It’s a place where a woman can shop, or be with her friends, or even walk around at night, and not be afraid of men. Wilma and the other founders of the Quilting Circle made it that way when they invented the Quilting Circle, and then turned it into a financial and political force. Women have been on the short end of the stick for at least ten thousand years. Why isn’t there a Quilting Circle in every town? It’s a mystery to me. The world needs them; I can’t understand why they haven’t evolved.

JMG: A great deal of humor infuses this book–from Loretta’s come-hither attitude to Clara’s almost-silent one. What were the challenges of writing a novel that combined philosophy, religion, and humor?

GS: Isn’t life a gumbo of all of those things? Some parts are funny and some are sad, some are superficial and some are deep, some are exciting and some are horribly dull. As a novelist, the only part you want to throw out is the dull bit. In my opinion, the reader should laugh or cry or be surprised in every chapter. It’s Novel 101.

SPOILER ALERT: The next question reveals an important plot point.

JMG: I was surprised by Clem’s proposal to Wilma at the novel’s end! What change inspired him to ask for her hand in marriage? Why did you deliberately leave her answer open-ended?

GS: Vernon asked Clem to name his three greatest memories. That one question changed Clem’s way of thinking. As for Wilma’s answer to his proposal: Stay tuned.

JMG: While you’re writing, are there any creative processes or routines you like to follow?

GS: I make most of my new ground in the afternoon, usually between two and seven. Sometimes I write until much later, but rarely. Then I get up the following morning and edit what I wrote the day before, a process which has the effect of pointing my brain in the direction I want to go next. In the afternoon, if there’s enough IQ left in the tank, I’m off again.

JMG: What can your readers expect to see next from you– more from the town of Ebb, I hope?

GS: Second Chances is the first book of a trilogy. In the second, Vernon returns to Ebb to sell "some charity." You can probably guess what it is he returns to sell in the third and final installment.

Praise

Praise

“If you’ve been charmed by Jimmy Stewart and the small-town miracles of It’s a Wonderful Life, treat yourself to this unusual little novel full of hope, humor and singular characters.”
–Parade

“A folksy, wise and gently amusing look at the importance of living life to the fullest and not only trusting in chance, but embracing uncertainty as the spice of life.”
–Rocky Mountain News

“By the end of the stranger’s six-day visit . . . Chances morphs from Fried Green Tomatoes into a wisecracking It’s a Wonderful Life.”
–Entertainment Weekly

“An accessible, engaging story peppered with characters who are eccentric, conflicted, tragic and humorous.”
–Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Just what the doctor ordered.”
–Detroit News and Free Press
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Wilma Porter is, in many ways, the eyes and ears of the town. What is it about her that compels people to confide in her? Do you think that she is a reliable narrator for In the Land of Second Chances? Why or why not? How would the novel have been different had it been told from a different point of view?

2. Do you think that Ebb is the land of second chances referenced in the book’s title? What other meanings, both literal and metaphorical, do you think that the title suggests?

3. How does Vernon Moore immediately make an impact upon arriving in Ebb? What is it about his personality that compels those he meets? Does his instant charisma remind you of anyone that you’ve come in contact with?

4. "Something important was going to happen in Ebb," Wilma relates on page sixty-nine. How does this statement foreshadow the events to come? In which ways do the six days that Vernon Moore spends in Ebb have long-ranging, life-altering consequences for its townspeople?

5. Do you think it’s significant that Vernon sells games of chance? How do they hew to his philosophy that "uncertainty is the spice of life"?

6. Vernon Moore ultimately is a seller of hope. Why does he decide to take on the daunting task of convincing Calvin of a life after life? Why does Calvin Þnally come around to Vernon’s way of thought?

7. How does illness make Lucy Millet stronger? How does she display hope? In what ways is she a typical little girl? Why do you think she wants to come back to life as a seal?

8. How does "reasoned faith" link logic with spirituality and religion? Who in the novel had the most difficulty with accepting the notion of reasoned faith? What do you think about the concept?

9. Do the Three Paradoxes remind you of any other religions or philosophies? Did your thoughts about life after death change at all upon reading this book? Did your view of a benevolent God change?

10. On page 209, Clem is concerned with "the true identity of Vernon Moore." How would you answer that question?

11. On page 224, Vernon says, "it’s a bit of a long story; more like a parable really." Do you think that In the Land of Second Chances functions as a parable? If so, how?

12. How does the Quilting Circle act as a powerful force in Ebb? How do the townswomen display their affection and support for one another? Do men enjoy a similar outlet?

13. What is it about Vernon’s position as a stranger that en­ables him to gain the confidence and trust of the town? Before his arrival, were the residents of Ebb too insulated from the outside world? Do you believe that Ebb is truly the "last oasis of nice"?

14. Does Loretta’s philosophy on love change after Vernon Moore comes to town? How does her attitude toward him differ from how Wilma expresses her feelings about him? How do Wilma and Loretta complement each other in their deep friendship?

15. Do you think that Clem seeks to protect the interests of the town by his actions? In which ways is he motivated by his own selfishness?

16. What finally motivates Calvin to tell his daughter that she’s dying? What would you have done if faced with a similar situa­tion? How do you envision Calvin’s life after Lucy’s death?

17. What’s an example of a lose-lose situation in the book? Name one that you’ve faced in your own life and discuss how you grappled with it.

18. SPOILER ALERT: The next question reveals an important plot point.
Why do you think Clem proposes to Wilma at the story’s conclusion? Do you think she will accept? What do you think Vernon Moore would advise her to do?

19. Vernon Moore is a questioner. What is the value of such a mindset? Who else in the book is loath to take things at face value? Do you know anyone who shares that kind of question­ing attitude?


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