THE AMETHYST HEART
Book Club Guide
1. The Amethyst Heart begins in the present and then employs the narrator’s flashbacks to relate the Noble family’s history. What do you know about your ancestors —their families, faith, daily life? If you had the chance, what would you ask your great-grandparents, and how could their stories help you live your life today?
2. In the first chapters, we see an alienated, frustrated teenager in Little Am, who hides behind her “ghoulish” attire and indifferent attitude. Over the course of a few days spent alone with her great-grandmother, Little Am sheds her protective armor to reveal the lively, engaging young woman beneath the dark clothes and the sullen expression. What factors brought about such dramatic change? Has something like this happened to you or someone you know? What can the oldest and the youngest members of your family (neighborhood, church) contribute to each other’s lives? Discuss ways you can help nurture good cross-generational relationships.
3. What is the significance of the amethyst brooch? What if it had been a ruby pendant, a string of pearls, or a diamond ring?
4. Discuss the real family heirloom at the core of The Amethyst Heart.
5. There are several romantic subplots woven throughout this story. Which one appealed to you the most and why?
6. Though World War II (1939-1945) is more familiar to most of us, it was World War I (1914-1918) that set the tone for what one writer has called “this terrible century.” Horrific new modes of combat (chemical weapons, air attack, trench warfare) resulted in unprecedented casualties. Many soldiers who survived the war returned home scarred beyond recognition—some with missing limbs, some wearing masks to hide freakishly disfigured faces. In The Amethyst Heart, battle-scarred veteran Harper Wainwright is called “freak” by town boys, turned down for jobs, and is rejected by his girlfriend. Yet Amethyst Noble falls in love with him. Why do you think she is able to look past Harper’s deformities? What is it about his character that makes him a heroic figure in this story?
7. The fictional setting of Cambridge, Mississippi bears a resemblance to the real-life town of Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi. In 1963, James Meredith became the first African-American student to attend classes at the school, but that historic enrollment was marred by violence when an angry crowd of white segregationists (including students) confronted National Guard troops called out by then-President John F. Kennedy. Against this backdrop of disharmony, the black-white relationships in Amethyst Heart’s Cambridge present a striking foil. How does this anomalous situation help us to view the present with hope?
8. In the chapter called “The Offering” we are privy to the inner thoughts of Amethyst Noble in September, 1946, as she takes part in the first racially integrated service at Dix Godwin’s church. Thinking back on her family history and recent events in her own life, she ties her thoughts together in this sentence: “Everything fit.” Does “everything fit” in your own story? If not, how can you learn to see patterns of God’s design in the “winding roads and intersection of lives” in your own family history?
9. Is Amethyst Noble the hero of this story? If so, what are her most admirable qualities and how did she acquire them? Who else can be considered a hero/heroine in The Amethyst Heart?
10. Why does Conrad fail to “come around” the way Little Am did? Does this less-than-happy ending for his story bother you, or is it satisfying? Why do you think he turned out the way he did, given his family heritage and good parenting? Do you think the author uses Conrad’s story to illustrate our fallen nature, or to show how a child can absorb negative influences despite the family’s best efforts? Does the author leave room for redemption in Conrad’s life, or is she content to leave those questions unsettled? How or why?
11. What does this book teach us about the value of remembering the past? Does it present that lesson forcefully or with finesse? What other lessons does it have for the reader? Are there any particular ways in which the story moves you to do something different in your own life? Which character do you find most inspiring and why?
Some Observations on The Amethyst Heart
This story began in my mind many years before I wrote it–when I was in graduate school, in fact, working on my Ph.D. at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. During those years I lived in a small apartment behind the oldest antebellum mansion in the county, a large white planter home called Isom Place. The house (and my apartment) were owned by Opal Worthy, a widow with a passion for history and, fortunately, the money to help preserve it.
Opal and I became good friends over the course of my tenure there. I spent many fascinating hours in the house, hearing its history and listening to her tell the stories of the people who had built and maintained it over the generations. She told me about Dr. Isom, the first white settler in the county, who came to the area to establish his practice and built a small log cabin which gradually grew into the beautiful planter mansion. And about his fiancé, who came to Oxford to marry him and brought with her, in a shoebox, the tiny seedling of a magnolia tree, which they ceremoniously planted on the front lawn. By the time I arrived at Isom Place, that magnolia had grown into a huge shade tree, ten feet in diameter and rising far above the second story of the house.
Much of the detail in the novel came from the history of the home and from the stories Opal told me about its inhabitants. Dr. Isom did, apparently, generate a good deal of Confederate animosity by treating anyone who came to him for help–soldiers on both sides of the conflict as well as slaves. The attic served as a hiding place for wounded soldiers. During the Union’s march through the South it became a hospital and headquarters (and thus was spared the burning that destroyed many other plantation homes). And in the closet of the downstairs bedroom, there was a secret passageway used (or at least so I was told) to smuggle Union soldiers out of the house and to help emancipated slaves find their way to freedom.
But while those details have their roots in history, the story itself–of Amethyst and Little Am, of their family and friends and the real treasure of Noble House–is my own creation. Amethyst is not based on Opal, although I must say that I began the novel with a feisty, spirited, stubborn and hardheaded old woman in mind (and Opal was certainly that).
Writing fiction is–at least for me–always an adventure. I may start out with a character, an idea, a direction, a theme, but I’m never quite certain where the story is going to take me. The character of Silvie, for example, was originally planned to be a somewhat minor character, until she rose up and took on a life of her own. And Bailey Blue literally did drop into the novel out of the blue–there was a knock on the door, Silvie opened it, and there he stood. I had no idea who he was or why he was there, but I followed him for a bit, and only as he developed did I discover what a crucial role he was to play in the story.
I hope that as you read this novel, you also experience that sense of discovery. My purpose in writing is not to convert anyone or to persuade them to my way of thinking, but to offer a compelling story populated by intriguing characters, and let readers make of it what they will. Fiction has a way of taking readers to places they never dreamed of going, and perhaps this more than anything reflects the touch of God upon our lives.
Penelope J. Stokes