On March 14, 1885, a body is floating in the old Marshall Reservoir, in a light snow, and then under a waxing moon.
In the morning the superintendent of the reservoir, Lysander Meade, discovers a furrowed place on the walkway that he does not remember seeing the night before. Someone has crawled through the fence again—early in the year for youngsters to be out cavorting at night. He glances down toward the water and sees what appears to be a dress. It’s floating along the edge of the water, where the embankment slopes down to a picket fence. He’s seen a lot of oddities in his years—rubber condoms and smutty books and the occasional sack of puppies—but never a dress. He tries to imagine the scene. Mighty cold last night for such carryings-on. Except now he sees it isn’t just a dress, but a whole person. A woman. And a dead one at that, or what appears to be. Never has he found a dead woman, nor man neither for that matter.
So down he goes for a better look. Who would not want to see a dead woman? Could she be something to look at? Could she be a fine looking lady, or might she be one of your more common sorts? Mr. Lucas comes up from the pump house where he has been repairing a stopcock, and helps Mr. Meade with his speculations. They stand there together, Lucas a head taller, loose-limbed and slack-jawed, with stick-out ears, while Meade, wearing thick eyeglasses, bends rigidly forward at the waist, his navy jacket stretching across his back, his neat mustaches crinkling as he sniffs the air. All they can make out at first is a gray wool dress with flounces at the bottom and hair hanging like dark weeds about her head. “The grappling hook’s the thing,” Mr. Meade says.
Mr. Lucas comes back presently, hook at the ready. But now Mr. Meade is not so sure. He nudges the body closer to the shore. Then he stops and yells. “Hello, ma’am? Hello, miss? Hello?”
“I expect you’ll have to yell louder than that,” Mr. Lucas suggests.
Excerpted from The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson. Copyright © 2011 by John Milliken Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Other Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. The Reservoir is set in 1885, twenty years after the end of the Civil War. How does the memory of the war infuse the narrative? What evidence do you see that the South is still recovering?
2. Tommie and Willie are raised in large part by their aunt Jane instead of their parents. How do you think this affected the boys? What kind of a surrogate mother is Jane? Lillie also had to leave her parents at a young age--does this affect her in the same way?
3. When he finds the watch key at the reservoir, why does Mr. Lucas keep it? What meaning does it have for him, and why does he ultimately decide to give it up?
4. On page 154, Tommie thinks about how he "doesn't know if he loved [Lillie] because she desired him and held him in high esteem, or because she was so desirable herself that he melted at the thought of the smallest part of her body." Which do you think it is? Is either of those options really love?
5. Is Lillie innocent, or does she share some part of the responsibility for all that came to pass between Tommie and her?
6. With his advanced education and budding law career, Tommie seems to be headed for success before his arrest. What do you think his life would have looked like if not for Lillie's death? Would he have found trouble in some other way?
7. What is Tommie's relationship with God and religion? Does Tommie take comfort in God or does he hide behind Him?
8. Why do you think the novel is structured the way that it is, alternating between the past and the present? How does that shape the way you perceive the characters?
9. On page 323, Tommie tells Willie, "You can't undo the wrong you did. You can only do other good things. I wish I could explain that. Everybody ends up paying with their life for what they did wrong." Do you agree with him?
10. Do you believe that Tommie is contrite at the end of the novel?
11. John Milliken Thompson based The Reservoir on a real case. How does the element of historical accuracy affect your perception of the crime committed in the novel?
12. Throughout this novel, we see characters struggle to find the truth of things. Tommie wonders "what truth [the jury is] on to" (212), and Willie has to decide whether Tommie's account of Lillie's death is completely true. Why is truth so hard to come by in this novel? What do you think really happened that night at the reservoir?