Some suggested questions for group discussion:

  1. The novel begins with the line "I was ten years old when I was saved for the first time." At this particular point in time Velva Jean is referring to religious salvation, but the other times she refers to involve different kinds of salvation-literal and metaphorical. Discuss this motif and the different ways it occurs in the book. How many times is Velva Jean "saved" in the book, and by whom? What kind of statement is being made about the nature of salvation by the author?
  2. When Mama dies, it appears to the children as though their father abandoned her and indirectly caused her death. Discuss the extent to which Velva Jean carried this resentment through her life, and whether or not you recognized early in the novel that Lincoln Hart was looking over his children their entire lives. Did the revelation (via Johnny Clay's note) feel true to you, and why?
  3. Discuss Velva Jean's life under Sweet Fern's rule in her parents' house. Even though we read the story through Velva Jean's perspective, did you feel sympathetic for Sweet Fern when she had to take responsibility for her siblings? Consider how young Sweet Fern was when she married Danny Deal and how much her youth may have played a part in the way she treated Velva Jean and her brothers.
  4. Velva Jean finds comfort in the years after her mother's death in the close relationship she has with her brother Johnny Clay. Discuss the extent to which their friendship and love for one another benefits them both in their youth, and then later when they are young adults dealing with more grown up issues.
  5. Likewise, Harley Bright features prominently in Velva Jean's childhood as someone who represents danger and the unknown. Consider Harley's transformation from juvenile delinquent (leader of the Barrow gang) to suitor of Velva Jean to revival preacher. Is he a genuine antagonist in this novel? At what moments does he elicit sympathy from the reader, and at what moments do you despise him?
  6. The Wood Carver is another person with whom Velva Jean finds kinship and comfort throughout the novel, even though by reputation he is supposed to be a murderer, and by some accounts, a fantastical creature who shape shifts by the light of the moon and walks around on all fours. What does her relationship with the Wood Carver say about Velva Jean as a child and as a young woman? What kind of qualities or traits does she exhibit by being his friend?
  7. Twice in her life, Velva Jean runs away with Johnny Clay. Compare the time they run away as children with the time they leave for Waynesville as young adults. In both instances, she returns home, but the result of each journey is different. Discuss what these encounters with life outside of her immediate community do for Velva: What does she learn about herself? What "truths" about the outside world does each trip confirm, and what do they negate? How does each episode act as a catalyst in her life?
  8. Velva Jean's life as a married woman begins to lose its luster almost immediately following the Terrible Creek train accident. Do you think she and Harley would have had a different life together if her husband hadn't been badly injured? Do you believe she and Harley would have grown apart if he had returned to his job on the railroad and if he had continued traveling to preach?
  9. When Velva Jean receives the yellow truck from Johnny Clay, she knows immediately that she wants to learn to drive. What does the truck symbolize for her? In what ways does the title of the novel transcend its literal meaning and work on a metaphorical level?
  10. Compare Velva Jean's relationship with Harley Bright to her friendship with Butch Dawkins. What was the basis of Velva Jean's attraction to Harley, and what was the basis of her attraction to Butch? In what way did each man meet different needs in her life? If Butch had returned to Alluvial before Velva Jean left town, would they have worked together? Why is it important to Velva Jean's character that she leaves by herself, and not with a man, at the end of the novel?
  11. Discuss the way the attack on Janette Lowe acts as a catalyst for the novel's climax. What becomes clear about life on the mountain and the way it has changed over the years? What does the rounding up of the outlanders reveal about the local inhabitants? More importantly and specifically, what does it reveal about Velva Jean's family?
  12. How well does Jennifer Niven portray the lives of those living on Fair Mountain? Did Velva Jean's voice, as a narrator, feel authentic? How easily were you drawn into the lives of the Hart family and their neighbors? Who were your favorite characters, and why?