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  • Written by Elizabeth Inness-Brown
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  • Written by Elizabeth Inness-Brown
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Written by Elizabeth Inness-BrownAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42511-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

One winter morning James Jack Wright finds ninety-four-year-old Marguerite Deo—the woman he has always known as “Tante”—lying dead in the woods outside his cabin, clad only in a flowered nightgown. With this arresting scene, Elizabeth Inness-Brown ushers readers into her mysterious and lyrical narrative, the story of two closely braided lives that forces a reconsideration of our notions of maternity, loyalty, love, and perhaps death itself.

As James Jack sets out to fulfill Marguerite’s unusual last wishes, the narrative unveils the secrets of their pasts. It arcs from Depression-era New Orleans to a barren New England island at the turn of the century, from an illicit passion and an unforgivable crime to the relationship between a small boy and a tough, reclusive woman who turns out to possess an unsuspected capacity for love.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

One

The fire had gone out not long before he woke. The air in the cabin was cold enough to chill his nose but not cold enough to show his breath. The stove, when he reached out, was still as warm as his hand.

Inside the sleeping bag, his body had generated its own heat, and the goose down kept it there, cocooning him. It was good to know he could survive a night in the cabin if he wanted to, that he could survive even the deep cold of a night in February. The only difficulty was convincing himself to leave the warmth of the bag.

He did it by imagining the smell of coffee. Down at the house, Tante would have the coffee percolating on the stove, boiling it with the chicory that gave it a burnt taste that went away only when he stirred in sugar and filled his mug to the lip with milk. The kitchen would be warm, the fire hissing and popping. Tante would have forgiven him by now, as he had already forgiven her. She would be ready for him to come back, she would not say a word, and they would go on as ever. After thirty-five years, after the whole of his life and a third of hers, forgiveness came easily to them, and often. The passing of time pressed them to it, made nothing else important enough to stop it. All you ever really have is time; she taught him that.

He dressed inside the bag, took his boots from its bottom where he'd kept them warm, climbed out and put them on. Opened the stove door, stirred the ashes, made sure the fire was out. Rolled up the sleeping bag and put it into ripstop plastic, and put that into more plastic, and put that into the cupboard to protect it from mice and squirrels. Laid a tarp over the cot to keep the dust and droppings off. Cast his eye about the place. Pulled his coat from the hook and put it on; pulled his hat down to his eyes, wrapped the scarf around his neck and face, stuck his hands into his gloves, and went out the door into the cold.

It was first light, a winter dawn. If he'd wanted to take the time to climb the ridge, he could have seen the blush of sunrise warm above the horizon. But here on the western slope the light was colorless, flat. His footsteps cracked the icy air. Judging from the way his breath hovered, the temperature was well below zero.

Around him the trees seemed to hold themselves still. They looked almost dead, like the trees onstage in a high school play. His high school play. Because he was good with wood and because he had a truck and because he could drive a nail straight, he had been asked to design the set. He had made a forest of trees, bringing summer into the drab auditorium. Each of the three nights, he had refreshed the dream with new-cut saplings, their leaves kept green by the moist medium in which they stood. But as powerful as the illusion was, the trees had looked dead to him. He could tell a live tree when he saw one, and those trees had looked dead, more dead even than these looked in the dead of winter.

The first slope down from the cabin to the house was slick, thin snow over leaves. He reached his hands ahead to the trees, grabbed their brittle limbs to steady himself. Twigs broke off in his hands. To inhale froze his nostrils, to exhale thawed them. The air was raw on his cheeks and lips.

When the slope leveled, he relaxed his caution. In winter you could see deep into the woods. He watched for what he might see, for what might be there, looking for nothing in particular. Sometimes you caught deer off guard, stripping the bark from young trees, or spotted woodpeckers after you heard them, drilling old trees in search of frozen insects. He was in no hurry; he had no place to be, no job to do but keeping himself and Tante warm. He liked that about being a carpenter in winter; he liked that about winter itself. The way everything slowed down, became elemental. Nothing mattered but staying warm.

The path widened. This was the old quarry road. He came into it where it hooked left toward the lower quarry, hidden some half mile back. Downhill, the road was still open; he kept it that way with his truck, to make it easier to bring down firewood. But toward the quarry the road was recognizable only because the growth was younger and thicker than the rest of the woods. Most people would have missed it.

A hum came, first soft and distant, then louder. A single-engine plane passed overhead, just under the low clouds.

He glanced left, up the overgrown road, and saw something. Something red against something white. He almost dismissed it. But the red glowed fresh and bright, and the thought that some animal might be hurt and bleeding drew him a few steps into the woods.

He kept waiting for what he was seeing to make sense to him. But even when he recognized the red rosebuds on the white flannel, even when he knew what they were, his mind refused to comprehend what his eyes saw, concocting instead other reasons that Tante's nightgown might be out there in the woods. The wind, a wild dog, birds. Something had taken the gown from the clothesline, had dragged it here and left it. For several long minutes his mind did not accept what else was there, accepted only the nightgown amid some strangely shaped and tinted rocks. Rocks whitened by hoarfrost. Rocks that gave the impression of a face, rocks shaped like fingers, a calf, a foot.

Then like a puzzle it came together, and he saw the picture complete. Tante. One leg bent under her, the other foot bare. Her torso twisted. Her arm flung over her eyes so that he could not see if they were open. The sleeve of the nightgown drawn back, her arm exposed: the web of blue veins, the loose flesh, the bones of her arm from wrist to elbow, the hand with only four fingers. The nightgown clean and white against the ground. Like fresh snow with roses leaping red and vivid from it.

He sat on the ground next to her. Tried not to look at her. Took off a glove and reached toward her. Where his finger touched, an oval melted from her hand. But the flesh was cold, no warmer than the ground she lay on.

He wanted to take her into his arms then, hold her to him. Warm her. Breathe life back into her. But he couldn't.

When he felt his own hand freezing, he stood again, put his glove back on, and squatted to put his arms beneath her. It was like lifting firewood. She was a rigid, ungainly corpse.

He moved carefully to avoid trees, to keep from hitting her against them, her outstretched arm, her foot. More than once he slipped and nearly fell. He did not look down into her ancient face, afraid of what he might see.

He took her back up to the cabin, the nearer of two places; took her back to his bed. There, he removed the tarp and laid her head on the pillow where his own had rested, not an hour before.



The sheriff's office was in a new brick building, which it shared with the post office and a video store. A flag snapped against a flagpole planted in a concrete circle in the parking lot. Between two white lines, a black car gleamed. Otherwise the lot was empty.

Stepping into the glass entryway was like stepping into an airlock or one of those radiation baths in a science fiction movie. Somewhere a machine roared ferociously, filling the box with hot air, a buffer zone between the cold outside and the warm inside. A place to preheat visitors, so they would not bring the cold inside with them.

In this space, just opposite a handwritten sign that read no smoking, stood a woman smoking a cigarette, wrapped up and slouching in a big winter coat, her hair and part of her face hidden by a hat. James spoke to her. "Cold out," he said. Two words together was all he could manage. She only nodded and took another deep drag, looking out into the parking lot as if she were expecting someone else.

He crossed the space in two steps. Opened the inner door. Stepped into the hallway with its shining linoleum floor. Found the door labeled county sheriff. Opened it. Stepped inside.

The sheriff's office had freshly painted green walls. There were no curtains on the broad windows that looked out on the parking lot; the blinds were raised up. Behind a long counter another woman sat at a desk, flipping the glossy pages of a magazine. She was not in uniform. He did not know her, but she looked familiar, about as familiar as the woman in the entryway.

It had been a long time since he had been to the sheriff's office. Things had changed. The woman's desk was sleek and modern, U-shaped. Behind her glowed the blue screen of a computer, swimming with red and yellow fish. Or birds. He couldn't tell.

James cleared his throat; the woman flipped a page. James thought he saw lawn mowers, other bright red-machinery. Tractors. He thought it must be a farm catalog. "May I help you?"she said, not looking up.

"Sheriff here?"

"No," she said, and now looked up. "Oh," she said, as if she knew him or as if the sight of him had startled her. "Can I help you?" She rephrased the question as if it meant something different.

He hesitated to speak, uncertain how to put it. "It's a death," he said.

The woman smiled. "Sure," she said. She kept smiling and looking at him, as if waiting for something. When he didn't say anything more, she gave a little laugh. "Murder, suicide, or accident? Hard to tell these days, isn't it? They just seem to throw themselves into the road. I hit two raccoons just the other day. And my uncle hit a moose, up there on the mainland. Totaled his truck."

James shook his head. "No," he said.

Keeping a finger at her place, the woman shut the catalog, swiveled her chair to the left, and stood. Her clothing struck him as peculiar for a woman who worked in a sheriff's office: a long white sweater over black pants, and shiny black shoes that clacked against the floor. Her blond hair was short enough to reveal her ears; her earrings were silver birds that hung down from chains and swung against her neck. She looked like someone who should be working in a department store. "What happened?" she asked, coming toward him, the catalog still in her hand, her expression curious.


From the Hardcover edition.
Elizabeth Inness-Brown|Author Q&A

About Elizabeth Inness-Brown

Elizabeth Inness-Brown - Burning Marguerite

Photo © Jane Myers

Elizabeth Inness-Brown is the author of two acclaimed collections of short stories, Satin Palms and Here. Raised in the North Country of New York State, she now teaches writing at Saint Michael’s College and lives with her husband and young son on South Hero, an island in Lake Champlain, Vermont.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Elizabeth Inness-Brown, author of Burning Marguerite

Q: Where did you get the idea to write Burning Marguerite?

A:
The idea for Burning Marguerite came from the writing itself. Originally I started with the notion of writing a book about a contemporary woman who discovers, in her thirties, that she is Native American. I myself had recently discovered that I am part Sioux, and I also know a local woman who in midlife discovered that she is Abnaki, which is a little-known northeastern tribe. I began writing random scenes, and I wrote them—dozens, maybe hundreds of pages—for three months, searching for the story. Then one day I wrote a scene in which a man goes into a sheriff’s office. I didn’t realize he was there to report finding a body until he opened his mouth to say so, but once he did, I suddenly had many questions: Who is the dead woman? Why was she in the woods? What is this man’s relationship to her? Why has he come to report this to the sheriff? And as I started to answer those questions—again, by writing scenes—the "idea" for the novel took shape.

The day I sat down and began to write in Marguerite’s own voice, she took over. Her voice flowed from me so easily, it was as if I had tapped into a former life, as if I were truly listening to her speak to me from beyond death. The novel evolved fairly quickly from there, and the original idea pretty much got left in the dust.

Q: Marguerite is a compelling and complex character, a strong, independent woman who in many ways seems before her time. What inspired her character?

A: Parts of Marguerite, like parts of every character in the book, come from specific people in my life; parts come from me, and parts are imagined, of course. Marguerite is named after Marguerite McKee, an elderly woman who was my next-door neighbor when I first moved to Vermont. The real Marguerite was completely blind, and toward the end of her life suffered from small strokes that took away all her memories except those from her youth, which she relived as if they were at that moment happening. When I went to visit her, she would narrate what she was seeing—and as she spoke, she really was seeing those memories, she was no longer blind. She was living in her mind’s eye. I think perhaps it is this idea and this narrative voice that I tapped into as I was writing Marguerite Deo, although I certainly didn’t realize it until much later.

Other parts of Marguerite come from my mother-in-law, Emily Ellis, who died about a year ago. At the end of her life, she was as frail as one could imagine, yet she was always intent on not being a burden to her sons, just as Marguerite doesn’t want to be a burden to James Jack. And as I write this, I realize that yet another part of Marguerite comes from my grandmother, Virginia Royall Inness-Brown, who died quite a while ago, but whose imperiousness, command of situations, and beauty Marguerite definitely shares.

As for the parts that come from myself, during the writing of this book I was trying to have a child of my own, and I found myself using Marguerite as a way to imagine how I would bring up that child—what values I would teach, what ideas, what I would teach him to appreciate and love. The summer after I finished the first draft, I did in fact become pregnant, and I gave birth to a son, Michael, a month before my forty-fourth birthday. And now I do, in fact, often find myself living out the role I imagined for Marguerite. More surprisingly, when I returned to the book to revise it, I also discovered just how accurately I had imagined, for Marguerite, the experience of mothering a small child.

Q: Do you see Marguerite as being representative of her generation of American women?

A: I would not have said so—I would have thought she was an anomaly—until I asked a professor friend of mine, Susan Ouellette, to read the book. She is a historian with a specialty in American women; like Marguerite, she also happens to be part Native American and part French Canadian. In her response to the book, she wrote: "As a women’s historian, I think that the first quarter of the century was a curious time when women had a little bubble of opportunity that then evaporated in the Depression. By the late 30s, the women who came of age in the earlier decades had become ‘characters’ with ‘strange’ habits like being self-sufficient and less sexually repressed." It seems that completely by accident I created a character who, in fact, is representative of her time. As I was writing her, though, I thought only of making her a strong person, a survivor, a fighter, someone who strives to make a decent life no matter what befalls her. I wanted her to be someone I admired, and she is.

Q: Burning Marguerite spans the 20th century and moves from New England to New Orleans and back. What sort of research did you do, and did you always feel comfortable writing about such a considerable span of time and generations?

A: I really never intended to write a novel that was in any way historical because I am a terrible student of history, but once Marguerite started talking, I obediently wrote down what she said, relying on imagination rather than research to lead the way. However, I’m smart enough to know that I should check facts, so I did. I read reference books about ice fishing, Native Americans, Vermont, Prohibition, and World War II. I watched documentary videos about Vermont history. I attended part of a course in Abnaki science. I asked friends to read the book or parts of it and check it for verisimilitude. I had a firefighter read the firefighting section. I had an ice-fishing native Vermonter read the whole book for authenticity and went ice fishing with my father. I contacted a librarian friend and asked him questions about New Orleans history and place names. I did research on the internet about French and Catholic names, and asked French-speaking friends about pronunciations and meanings. Try as I might to keep the factual references minimal—and try as I might to use my actual experiences of those places rather than invent things—I found I had to do quite a lot of research to make sure everything was accurate. I’m still crossing my fingers that it is. So the answer to the second part of your question is yes and no: I always felt comfortable when I was writing in Marguerite’s voice—I seemed to know her from the inside out—but I never felt completely sure of myself when it came to the history and other factual matters, which I tried to check as thoroughly as I could.

Q: You live on an island in Lake Champlain. Is the novel's island modeled after your own? The attitudes of its residents? Its history?

A: When I started the novel, we had only just recently moved to the Champlain Islands, and yes, I was very intrigued by the islands and so naturally found myself using them as the setting. Three islands, plus a peninsula, make up Grand Isle County of Vermont: South Hero, North Hero, Isle La Motte, and Alburg. In the book, Grain Island is a fictional combination of all four areas, using geographic and cultural elements from each, including their history. We travel over a causeway to get to Burlington, which is Vermont’s largest city, but I removed the causeway from Grain Island to make it more isolated. Marguerite’s house is based on several different stone houses hereabouts, but it’s located in yet another place. The trailer where James’s parents lived is based on a trailer down my road, but it’s not located there in the book. In short, if you tried to "walk the island" following clues gleaned from the book, you would get very lost.

But culturally Grain Island is very similar to reality, except that it’s less insular (and our general store doesn’t increase prices in the summer!). Ice fishing is very popular here; the lake in the book is very much like Lake Champlain. And the mix of people—French Canadian, Abnaki, English-Scotch-Irish—is very real, as are the changes the islands have undergone over the years, in terms of tourism, real-estate values, schools, and so on. Yet the Champlain Islands remain very much a rural, rustic place. We ourselves live on a dirt road with no neighbors in sight, and down the hill from us is a working dairy farm. When someone around here asks me what the book is about, my short answer is often "the Islands." It’s as much a book of place as a book of character.

Q: Central to Burning Marguerite are issues of love, partnerships, sexuality, fertility, and parenting. Why are these important for the story and for you as a writer?

A: Like many women of my generation, I put off even considering having a child until quite late in life. By the time I began writing the book, though, it had become an urgent desire. I didn’t intend to write about that at all, but as the book evolved, there it was. My experiences, my feelings, my internal debate clearly influenced the writing of the various characters in the book who are also struggling with that desire.

More important than that, though, I think I was also writing about the loss of one’s parents. My own mother died—a suicide—when I was eleven years old. This is something I have stringently avoided writing about all my life, not wanting to making capital of it and perhaps not being able to. But late into the writing of this book I realized that that, too, was an element here.

Right from the beginning I had it in my head, too, that each of my characters should find some happiness in love. It only seems fair. It’s what every person wants, needs, and deserves.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the elements of the forbidden in your story—a relationship between a white woman and a Native American man considered beneath her class, another between two women, an illegal abortion/sterilization, a single mother raising a child in the 60s, etc.?

A: Ah, yes. Well. Isn’t forbidden fruit always sweetest? For the novelist as for anyone else. For the novelist, the forbidden hides within it conflict, which is the source of story; I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said that to write a story, you have to make someone want something they can’t have. For humanity, as for my characters, reaching for the forbidden is a way to get that thing that they want—which often turns out to be something that should not, in any case, be forbidden. Like happiness.

I was about to say that it is rather sad, from a novelist’s perspective, that so few things are forbidden us anymore, and that perhaps this is why so many writers reach into the past for stories. But there still are and always will be so many "forbiddens"—if not forbidden by law or culture, then forbidden by families, by spouses, by nature, by events beyond our control. I don’t think we will ever run out of forbiddens.

Q: Burning Marguerite is full of vivid natural details--fire and ice, poisonous and life-giving flowers, the forest, the lake. What role does nature play in your story?

A: The same role it plays in my life. I am fascinated by nature, in love with it, a student of it. I live in the country, surrounded by trees, the lake, my gardens, animals, the weather, and I love nothing more than to be outdoors, looking, touching. It feeds me. But when I write, I have to sit inside, at a desk, for long periods of time. To bring the outdoors inside, I put it into my story. And vice versa: Every time I went outside while I was writing the book, I came back in with a new detail to add somewhere. I wanted very much to capture the invigoration that being outside gives me, to capture the blusteriness of this island, the wildness of it, the scruffiness of it—to capture the seasons, too, the bitterness of winter, the sweetness of spring, the overabundance of summer, the poignancy of fall.

A lot of it also comes from my occasional studies of Native American beliefs and practice. I wanted Marguerite to draw unconsciously from her own Abnaki background, to tap into that ancestry almost without awareness. A lot of the imagery comes from that and is used quite deliberately. I am anxious to see how Native Americans read the book, if they see what I tried to do.

Q: Marguerite's life, and the structure of your novel, is symbolized in Judith’s quilts and the paintings on which Marguerite works while in New Orleans. Why are these important symbols for Marguerite and the novel?

A: The use of the word "symbol" makes me nervous. As I wrote this book, I tried very hard to make sure that everything I put in could be read literally first and foremost—that is, I didn’t want to play any games with the reader. But I suppose that is a self-delusion on my part: of course a novel is a construction, some things chosen and some things left out, and ultimately even I hope that the novel can be read on several levels. That said, of course there is a quilt-like quality to the structure of the book; why didn’t I see that sooner? For me it was only a problem of organization, but yes, right from the start I was patching it together, trying by its very structure to show how these lives connected, interwoven.

To be honest, though, to me Judith’s quilts and Marguerite’s paintings represent more than anything the fruition both of their individual talents and that of their friendship. Together they create a safe haven in which each of them can "flower," pardon the pun. They cherish, support, and nurture one another. Perhaps this is why Marguerite ultimately gives up her art: she no longer has someone in her life who makes that possible for her. Or perhaps she gives it up because James Jack needs her more than she needs art.

Q: You employ some interesting stylistic techniques in Burning Marguerite. Why did you choose to open each chapter with an italicized section in Margureite's voice when many of the chapters are writing from her first-person point of view?

A: All of the stylistic elements seemed, at least initially, to happen in and of themselves. I think the very first section I wrote in Marguerite’s voice is what now appears as the very first section of the book. And even as I wrote it, I felt compelled to use italics. There was something about the "whispering" feeling that italics can give a passage that allowed me to tap into her voice. For a long time I wrote all of her sections in italics. The ones that remain that way represent, for me, bridges between the chapters—clues, maybe—a kind of connective tissue to bind the book together. Or perhaps the thread, to go back to the quilt metaphor. And those sections can be read, quite literally, as her "voice" as she is dying.

Q: Burning Marguerite is your first novel. What was it like to switch from short story to novel writing?

A: It was very difficult until I realized that I could in fact write a novel using the same method I use for short stories, and that is: Just write, and let the story emerge. It took me many years to figure that out, and many years to develop the patience to let that happen with something as long as a novel. I can do a draft of a short story in a day; it took about five months to come up with even the roughest of drafts for a novel. Patience is the main difference, which for me means trusting the process.

Q: Who are some of your influences and what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: Probably my biggest and earliest influence is Colette—there was a woman ahead of her time! I also love Annie Proulx, Carol Shields, Tom McGuane, Marilynne Robinson. These are the kinds of books that I keep nearby as I am writing, to dip into whenever I need a shot of good, sensual prose, prose that you can dig your teeth into.

I teach writing, so I am just plumb full of advice to aspiring writers. I preach patience and persistence. Be patient with the writing; focus on the moment, don’t get ahead of yourself, make each sentence good, don’t worry about the end result before it’s time to. Be patient with the publishing process, too; don’t go there till you’re ready, don’t rush it, don’t settle. But be persistent: sit down and don’t get up till you’ve done something. Keep at it. Be disciplined. Work hard. And most of all, enjoy the process. Writing a novel is like solving a puzzle: you just have to keep at it till it’s done, but it feels so good when you get there.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Vivid yet concise, Inness-Brown’s language burns away all but the essence of her story.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Takes the concept of motherhood . . . into the realm of poetry. . . . Reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor with a touch of Nathaniel Hawthorne.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

“Densely-layered . . . dramatic. . . . Inness-Brown possesses an assured touch for conveying the vivid harshness of her setting.” —The Miami Herald

“Though written in visual, spare prose, there’s nothing simple about this story. . . . Filled with haunting places and beautifully drawn characters, Burning Marguerite is a sterling novel.” —The Baltimore Sun

“Hauntingly surprising . . . masterfully controlled. . . . A stunning debut.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“[The characters’] stories unfold in a combination of grand sweep and everyday detail. . . and indelibility but reminds us that even everyday life. . . can lead to epic crossroads—and beautifully written novels.” —The Chicago Tribune

“This careful interweaving of past and present, of death and of the life that preceded it, is masterfully conceived and structured.” —The Trenton Times

“Elizabeth Inness-Brown proves herself already a master of description.” —Time Out New York

“To read this book is to feel the quiet at its center, like a cathedral, empty but filled with the wound of silence. At its heart is an elegant and understated examination of the obligations and endurance of love.” —The Times-Picayune

“The world is filled with tales of a mother’s love, but few as wistful or wise as Burning Marguerite. Elizabeth Inness-Brown knows exactly what magic brims in a mother’s—and, yes, a son’s—heart.” —Chris Bohjalian, author of The Buffalo Soldier and Midwives

“[Inness-Brown’s] descriptive writing is rich and evocative. The reader might actually shiver at her descriptions of winter in Vermont and perspire at those of summer in New Orleans.” —The Roanoke Times

“Finishing Burning Marguerite was a bittersweet experience. I look forward to future novels by this intriguing and very talented writer.” —The Anniston Star

Burning Marguerite is a novel of hidden things, a book with sweeping range, intense feeling, delicate detail. It catches you in the web of its first pages and will not let go. It is utterly wonderful.” —Frederick Barthelme
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Elizabeth Inness-Brown’s Burning Marguerite, a powerful work of psychological suspense and emotional intensity.

About the Guide

Waking to the chill of a snow-cloaked morning, carpenter James Jack Wright finds ninety-four-year-old Marguerite Deo lying dead in the woods outside his cabin. As he confronts the mystery of her death—why would Marguerite, his “Tante” since his infancy, walk out into the cold winter night?—an unexpected tale unfolds, moving from the present back to James Jack’s childhood, to New Orleans during the Depression and World War II, and finally to a windswept New England island at the turn of the century. At the heart of the story are a forbidden love, a violent crime kept secret for years, and above all, Marguerite’s relationship with a little boy named James Jack, a bond that deepens after a terrible accident changes both their lives forever.

Discussion Guides

1. The book opens with an italic passage in an as-yet-unidentified voice. What is different about how this passage is read when beginning the book, and how it is reread after having finished the book? Is the novel meant to be circular, returning to its own and its characters’ beginnings?

2. Inness-Brown has chosen a quote from Puritan poet John Milton for the epigraph: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” To which characters or aspects of the novel might this quote refer? Is it related to the Sheriff’s insight that James Jack, like Marguerite, was “just this side of wrong but always in the right” [p. 232]?

3. What was Marguerite intending to do when she left the house on the night of her death? How did her intention relate to what she had instructed James Jack to do for her in lieu of a conventional funeral? Why does James Jack, at first, go to the sheriff’s office to report Marguerite’s death [pp. 9–13], and why does he change his mind?

4. Comment on the novel’s structure, which alternates chapters narrated in first person (Marguerite’s story) and third person (James Jack’s story). Why does Marguerite’s story move backward in time while James Jack’s moves forward?

5. Why is the scene of James Jack’s refusal to eat, and Marguerite’s convincing him finally to try eating the petals of flowers from her garden, so moving [pp. 136–39]? Why is this scene revisited in the imagery of the flames of Marguerite’s funeral pyre on the book’s final page?

6. When they first make love, James Jack tells Faith it’s been eight years since he’s been with a woman, and the reason he gives for his celibacy is “Tante” [p. 27]. What is the nature of the bond between James Jack and Marguerite? Was Marguerite right in saying that his bond with her prevented him from finding a love of his own?

7. Marguerite reflects on her relationship with Judith, the woman in New Orleans who encouraged her to sell her drawings. On page 124, she says, “Did Judith and I become lovers? We were intimate in every way—intellectually, emotionally. We gave each other the solace of affection when it was needed; we lay down together when we were cold or lonely. We loved each other; therefore, we were lovers. Whether we crossed that final boundary or not is irrelevant, and no one’s business but our own.” What is the effect of this statement? Is Marguerite’s reticence unusual in a first-person narration? Or does it simply underscore her deep instinct for privacy, despite the fact that she is the narrator?

8. What is the significance of the struggle between Marguerite, the sheriff, and the sheriff’s wife? Why does Inness-Brown choose to set this novel within the context of infertility and its anguish? How does Marguerite claim her moral right to be James Jack’s surrogate parent?

9. Does the story seem to offer hope that the love between Faith and James Jack will be lasting, and will provide a haven for each of them?

10. Elizabeth Inness-Brown has said of Burning Marguerite, “It’s as much a book of place as a book of character” (see Author Q&A). What details bring Grain Island to life in the novel? Which details of life on the island provide the reader with a strong sense of what it would be like to live there? In what ways does the place act as a character?

11. How do the italicized sections function, and what kind of a story do they tell? How are they different from the regular chapters in which Marguerite narrates in the first person? Are they more lyrical in style than the balance of the novel? Why?

12. How surprising are the revelations in Chapter Six about Marguerite’s lover and his murder by her father, as well as the forced abortion by order of her enraged mother? Do you believe that the mother was complicit in the sterilization of Marguerite, or only the abortion? Is it significant that Inness-Brown carefully constructs her novel so that it is framed by extremes of both love and hate?

13. Marguerite is an extraordinary character; what qualities make her so? Is her fierce independence the result of her early trauma with her family? What motivates her to keep her parents’ crimes a secret?

14. Why does Inness-Brown repeat scenes of fire and ice? How do the novel’s central images of fire and ice function? What do they symbolize?

15. The entire novel functions in part as a memoir of a life, told by a very old woman. How does memory serve Marguerite? Is she at peace with the choices she made in her life? What compels her to tell her story?

Suggested Readings

James Agee, A Death in the Family; Chris Bohjalian, Midwives; Colette, My Mother’s House; George Eliot, Silas Marner; Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice” from The Poetry of Robert Frost; Thomas McGuane, The Cadence of Grass; Alice Munro, Open Secrets; Howard Norman, The Bird Artist; Annie Proulx, The Shipping News; Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones; Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries.

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