Excerpted from Love and Lament by John Milliken Thompson. Copyright © 2013 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. 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.