First, There is a River Discussion Questions
1. The book’s beginning quote from Sister Corita Kent “Flowers grow out of dark moments” is obvious in its meaning, but what specific “dark moments” throughout the book force the protagonist, Emma to grow? In what ways?
2. How does Emma change throughout the book? Which of her character qualities remain constant? What does she learn from her journey?
3. Emma is a woman with some modern ideals and thoughts. How do these qualities make her life more difficult? How do they motivate her? How do they serve her throughout the book?
4. At the beginning of the book, Emma leaves her children to escape her difficult situation and heal. Do you think she might have found another way out, or did she have any choice given the strictures of the times (1900)? If so, what else could she have done to escape or repair her family and situation? Is leaving her children behind selfish, necessary, or somewhere in between?
5. Monkey Bear is a symbol throughout the story. What does he signify to Emma’s son, Toby? To Lilly? To Gage? To Emma (at different times in the book?)
6. Several characters in the book can’t see their value. Who else, besides of Emma, makes the journey through this particular theme? How does the story influence the way they grow to see themselves?
7. Cooking is a motif throughout the book. How does Emma’s cooking make her new life possible? What did cooking mean to her at different stages throughout the book (when she is living with Jared, when she first goes to the boat, when she really feels part of the crew)?
8. Why do you think the book’s title is First, There is a River? What does the river mean to Emma? Gage? The captain? Quentin? How does the river influence the story? Could the same story be told in a different setting? Why or why not?
9. How is the riverboat community different from people with stationary lives? Is there a contemporary lifestyle equivalent to life as a member of a riverboat crew? How does the river influence the towns along the way? What kind of person would it take to live that lifestyle?
10. What are the issues of class and social status in the book? Emma seems able to be a bridge between various classes traveling and living along the river. What qualities does she possess that give her this ability?
11. The love story is an important part of Emma’s healing. How is Gage a different man than Jared? How does the captain differ (or not) from Jared? What about Gage and the captain?
12. What does Emma learn throughout her journey that allows her to fall in love again? In your opinion, did she make the right choice?
13. Might she have made a different choice if she met Gage and/or the captain earlier in her life? What about later?
14. The Rashavi haunts Gage, and he isn’t sure if it is real or a dream. When does the creature come to Gage? Is the Rashavi real, or a manifestation of his fear? Is there a modern-day syndrome or psychosis that might explain the creature?
15. Lilly is an important friend for Emma and their friendship takes on many different facets. What are some of these? How does Emma connect with Lilly and why? Would Lilly have had the same growth if she hadn’t met Emma?
16. Quentin is a flawed (but kindhearted) person. Yes, he’s an alcoholic, but what other demons does he have to battle? What other weaknesses show up throughout the story? What strengths does Quentin possess?
17. Speaking of flawed and admirable, what about the captain do you love? Hate? What does he learn? What does he refuse to learn?
18. Jared is a damaged person who allows evil to take him over. What are some other traits or possible psychosis does he have? Is he in any way or at any part of the story sympathetic? Is his descent into evil a choice?
19. How did the times support Jared’s views of women and religion? Do you think he is at heart a religious or spiritual person? Why or why not?
20. The riverboat race reveals some deeper aspects of the characters. What kind of moral choices are made during the race? By whom? Both captains are competitive and driven to win, but how does Captain Yoder differ from Captain Briggham?
21. How, as you were reading, did you think the story would end? Did the final few chapters surprise you? In what ways?
22. Is Emma’s struggle and story relevant to women of today? How would her story be different if it was in a contemporary setting? What might some similarities be?
Jasper Mountain Discussion Questions
1. The quote in the beginning of the book speaks to courage. In the first scene, Jack’s father calls him a coward, and Jack believes him. Is he? In what way? Does he show he’s not a coward? How?
2. What is the internal dilemma Jack faces throughout the story of Jasper Mountain? How does this dilemma surface throughout the book?
3. How does Jack change throughout the book? Which of his character qualities remain consistent? What does he have to learn and why is it so difficult for him?
4. Courage and fear is a motif throughout the book. Who besides Jack is forced into situations they may fear? How do they deal with it?
5. Who in Jasper is hiding away from their fear? Who faces it?
6. One important character in the book is Mouse. In what ways is Mouse an adult? In what ways is he a child? How does he force Jack to change?
7. Throughout Jasper Mountain, some characters are users/abusers and some are not. Which characters are abusers but think they are not? How do they justify what they are doing?
8. Isabella St. Claire believes she is a savior to her ladies. How is she saving them? How is she not?
9. Is Isabella strong or weak of character? Where do we see each side of her? Does she change throughout the book? How? How does she not?
10. When Milena realizes what the Boarding House truly is, she stays. Does she have any other course of action? Why do you think she stays? What is she looking for?
11. Do the ladies of the Boarding House have any other choice than the life they’ve chosen? Why or why not?
12. When Milena meets Jack, she is frightened of him. Why? She questions her “insights” throughout the book, are they truly psychic revelations? If not, what else might account for them?
13. Isabella taunts Reverend McShane throughout the book. How does she view him? Feel about him? Does this change throughout the story?
14. One theme in the book is empathy for others and respect for their beliefs. Where does this theme surface in the story? In or between which characters?
15. Is Victor Creely truly evil, or is he simply narcissistic and lacking compassion? Is a lack of compassion always evil? When is it not? When does an absence of empathy cross the line into evil? Is there a line?
16. What other characters, besides Victor Creely and the officers of the mine, portray a lack of empathy? How does this affect them and others around them?
17. What characters have a keen empathy for others? In what ways do they reveal this strength?
18. Are there any parallels to the situations in Jasper that are reflected in life today? The mining company? Victor Creely and the officers of the mine? The miners themselves? The Boarding House? The community of Jasper?
19. Jasper Mountain plays a part in the lives of the people who live on it and dig through it. How does its meaning differ from character to character? What does the mountain signify to Jack? To Milena? Does the mountain and its significance change for either of these characters throughout the story?
20. What about the ending? Did Jack resolve his crisis the way you expected? Is what he did wrong? Justified? Why or why not?
21. How do you think the consequences of Jack’s actions and decisions will impact him in the future?
Theater of Illusion Discussion Questions
1. When the story opens, Sarah rushes to Lost Soul's cliff to try to stop her brother from throwing himself from it. Throughout the book, how do we see Sarah's influence in her brother's life? Is there a point where involvement in another person's life is detrimental? To which parties? Where is the line?
2. In the past, Emma left her children while she rebuilt her life and faced her husband. Given the issues Tobias and Sarah face as adults, was that the right thing to do? What other options might she have taken, given women's confines during that time (1900)? How would their lives be different if the story took place today? How might they be the same?
3. We see Tobias sink into alcoholism. What can be done to prevent this growing problem in our society? How do the other characters react to Toby's drinking and how do they hurt or help?
4. Throughout the story, Sarah battles the confines of the male-dominated world of riverboats and society in 1910. Does she go about promoting her cause an effective way? What other things might she do, given the strictures of the times?
5. The story reveals much more of Henrietta than we first see. How does your view of her change? By the end of the journey, what do you think she will do? What sort of options does a woman in her position have? What sort of constraints?
6. Sarah is an adult, but still hides things from her mother. What do you think is her motivation? Is she right? Could her life (and Toby's) be easier with Emma's deeper involvement? How? When is it time for a mother to step back and allow her children to live with the consequences of their mistakes?
7. A theme of the book is illusion versus reality. What characters are not at all what they seem? Who changes during the course of the story? Who do you change the way you look at by the end of the story? What characters helped you see something or someone that differed from your first impression?