Themes and Conversation Starters
It seems it’s not enough these days to call a book fiction. Going to Solace somehow wound up on the shelf labeled “Grief and Bereavement.” As if it were non-fiction. As if that were its tone.
It’s not and it’s not.
Going to Solace is about the specific, surprising, inventive ways in which the living do all they can do to hang onto life. It’s about the life around the threat of death. It’s not about grief, it’s about kicking-a–.
The novel tracks a handful of characters as their paths cross in a part of the world where path-crossing is geographically determined. In the mountains, there are only so many places where it makes sense to cross from east to west, something the indigenous peoples of the region knew from forever ago. These places–these “gaps,” as we call them today–developed into literal paths, then roads, then railroad lines with communities and towns accruing where people naturally congregated. We’re in a part of the world where all kinds people’s paths must cross, in a hospice setting where all kinds people’s paths must cross.
In addition, amplifying this theme of path-crossing, we’re in 1989–a year when two things were occurring in the Blue Ridge Mountains: medical professionals from around the world were establishing practices in small towns; and HIV patients were also requiring care in these smaller communities. So the challenge of encountering and working with and living with different kinds of people widens from the local to the global.
The book takes place over Thanksgiving week. So often Thanksgiving stories skew to either saccharine platitudes or cynical sniggering about nutty relatives. And family stories—at least stories of the American South, particularly those we tell on TV—usually mean stories about black families or white families, not both.
My novel Going to Solace takes a different tack. It’s about how imperfect people bring astonishing resourcefulness to the terrible challenges of life. It’s about how we can (and do!) meet circumstances—and each other—countering tragedy with inventiveness, horror with humor, preserving life and decency in spite of ourselves, forging meaning in the process.
In the spirit of welcoming as many readers as possible into that story, I wrote Going to Solace to be both regionally plausible and racially relative across characters who could be of either European or African ancestry or both. This is something readers don’t notice until they begin to compare notes. For this reason, Going to Solace catalyzes rich discussions among shared readers, book clubs and in classrooms.
Some characters in the novel are described in such a way that readers can imagine them as black or white or anything in between. A nurse, for instance, is said to be “the color of a wet potato.” For some readers, that potato is dark, for others it is pale.
At the same time, these relative characters are surrounded by characters whose appearance is unequivocally defined. Thus, a subtle hierarchy emerges: those with darker skins are the better educated people in positions of authority. Any characters who readers imagine to be white look up to and follow leaders who happen to be people of color.
Having accompanied this book into many book club conversations, I’m delighted to report that all kinds of readers “see” these characters in all kinds of ways leading to ah-ha’s not only about the novel, but more importantly about the readers themselves. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about myself by listening to the ways in which other people tell the story of Going to Solace according to their own imaginations, experience and presumptions.
If you’d like to see if we can work out a way for me to meet with your book club or reading group, contact Jane Hunter at Timothy Ross Publicists.