For those interested in reading Forsaken: A Novel as a group, we’ve put together a selection of questions and websites that may help facilitate discussion. For teachers and professors who are considering the novel for use in class, we’ve also assembled tips, questions, writing assignments, vocabulary, and instruction materials that may be useful in your preparation. If you’d like for Ross to visit your book group or classroom, please contact him by email.
—Sara Martin Lyke
A. READING GROUP TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
- How important is Chapter 1, “My Testament,” in the telling of the story? Is it setting the stage for the time period? Is it an introduction to Charlie’s character? Do you think there was a narrative purpose to Fitz and Charlie’s conversation regarding Christianity and Transcendentalism? Could “My Testament” stand alone as a short story?
- Both Charlie’s mother and Nat Turner were students of the scriptures. Did either or both of them justify their actions through their own interpretations? Discuss a modern example of scripture and its interpretive use in society.
- Compare Walter Plecker’s generalization about race (page 139) with the conversation George Washington Fields has with Charlie (page 167). How are they similar? How would you label their opinions?
- Virginia Christian was electrocuted one day after her 17th birthday. Studies have shown that young adults do not have the full use of the frontal lobe of their brains (decision-making and logical thinking) until their mid-twenties. Do you think her execution was justified? How do the courts handle this age group today? Did you agree with Harriet when she said maybe it was better Virgie died? If so, why?
- When Harriet was asked during the inquest why she did not go into the room where her mother was lying, she said, “My heart just failed me, that’s all.” Does this glimpse of Harriet create her character for the rest of the novel? Why was Charlie so intent on Harriet’s happiness?
- Red and Pace are important in Charlie’s story. Briefly describe each character and his relationship to the narrator. Were they a part of Charlie’s growth as a person? If so, how?
- “Then I heard what sounded like a chain jangling on the cobblestones.” This is our introduction to Lucky, the pit bull. Who or what does Lucky symbolize in the narrative? What role does Lucky play for the reader? How would you compare Maebelle’s response to Lucky with Charlie’s response? What would you say about Mrs. Wingate’s response to the dog?
- Would you say Charlie ultimately finds redemption in the novel? If so, what events or characters in the story show his progress toward redemption? If not, what factors would you say hold him back?
- When Harriet reads from the gospel of Matthew on the train as she and Charlie are making their escape with Sadie, she asks Charlie why Christ did not mention the lonely in the Sermon on the Mount. How does Charlie respond?
- What is the meaning of the word, “forsaken”? Why would the author choose it as the title for the novel? Are there individuals or ideals in the book you would say are forsaken?
- What is the significance of Mount Nebo for Charlie, Harriet, and Sadie in the last chapter? Give examples. What do you make of the imagery in the last paragraph of the novel?
- The events in the novel happened more than a century ago. Do you see any relevance between those events and the news today?
Historical Events Shaping Virginia in the Early 1900s
B. CLASSROOM TIPS FOR TEACHERS
The historical novel Forsaken includes many authentic, interesting subjects that affect our lives today. Encourage students, instead of relying only upon this single source, to consult a variety of sources and in the process, establish their own understanding of the truth of the time. As narrator Charlie Mears writes, “I’ve learned the truth hides somewhere in the shadows of what happens.”
Through this book you can encourage students to sample a wide variety of genres: maps, newspapers, court records, novels and poetry of the period, biblical references, and political essays.
Form collaborative research groups to examine events, historical accounts, injustice, redemption, social disorder, laws affecting the time, survival, and fear.
Below are suggested exercises for exploring and enjoying the novel.
For each character have students examine his or her importance for Charlie’s growth and survival, where appropriate.
“Some evenings after supper Mother would sit with me in the parlor and read the scriptures.” character Mother – page 7
“I had retreated into despair when my friend Fitz died. Loneliness had become my shepherd.” character Fitzhugh Scott – page 69
“What if I said to you, Charlie, that in the courtroom I knew there was a black child counting on me for her life, and that at home, I knew there was another black child counting on me for hers?” character George Washington Fields – page 167
“He was smiling the broad smile of our boyhood days. He ran like a wild thing. His mutilation made him all the more feral, as if everything human had been taken away.” character Red – page 263
“I resented him because his instincts for the news were better than mine. He resented me because I’d had it easy, a college snob.” character Pace – page 18
“My heart just failed me, that’s all.” character Harriet – page 28
What would you say is the significance of the pit bull, Lucky? Is he just a dog?
Charlie and Harriet get to know each other in her older sister’s cottage garden. Later, they meet in her uncle’s rose bower. Do you see any special meaning in these places?
How are mountains significant in the novel?
Make a list of the different birds Charlie notices as he tells his story. Do the birds have any relation to the events or emotions he is experiencing?
Charlie was born at twilight. Other significant events in the novel occur in the “gloaming,” as he calls it. What would you say is the significance of twilight in the novel?
Why is the story of Nat Turner in the chapter “My Testament” important? How does fear influence our lives today?
Why was Charlie so intent on Harriet’s happiness?
Discuss Dr. Walter Plecker’s generalizations about African Americans on page 139. Why was this a prevailing attitude?
How does Charlie find redemption in the novel? Think about his relationship with Lucky, his visit to Charlottesville to the grave of his college friend, the article he writes attempting to get editor P. B. Young to hire him, his conversation with Harriet in the valley near Mount Nebo, or any other elements that were significant.
On page 300, Charlie writes, “I saw that Harriet had the Bible open to the gospel of Matthew. I leaned my head against the seat back and closed my eyes. She began to read.” What is the passage Harriet reads aloud to Charlie? What is its significance?
A picture of Virginia Christian appears on the cover of the novel. Can you think of any other characters whose pictures could have been used instead?
What is the meaning of the word, “forsaken”? Who is forsaken in the novel?
Select an important issue of the historical period of the novel and take a stance in an essay.
Identify cultural attitudes that influenced the verdict in Virginia Christian’s trial. Write an essay about how you think Virgie would fare in a courtroom now. Do you think juveniles are treated fairly by courts today? Do you think her color would influence the court?
Assume the role of a reporter and write an expose on the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.
Charlie quotes many biblical passages in the novel. Select some of the passages, and in an essay, explain why the passages were important to the narrator.
Look up the American poet Walt Whitman. Write an essay about him, explaining why you think he would be so important to the character Fitzhugh Scott that he would want lines from Whitman’s poetry inscribed on his tombstone.
Write an essay that compares and contrasts the significance of the biblical Mount Nebo with the Mount Nebo in the novel.
African American history during the Jim Crow era includes poverty, racism, disrespect, hopelessness, and protest. Investigate the Jim Crow laws of this period, provide examples, and describe how these laws were changed.
Draw a map of Virginia that shows the events of Charlie Mears’ life in Forsaken.
Create a timeline that shows the important events in racial history in Virginia from the time of Nat Turner’s Insurrection in 1831 to the time when Charlie and Harriet escape to Utah in 1913.
addled, advocate, aforethought, akimbo, Anglo Saxon, askew, bower, brouhaha, cistern, clapboard, clemency, commonwealth, confabulation, constable, cuspidor, daft, degenerate, eugenics, façade, felonious, fob, haunches, heinous, indictment, insurrection, Kecoughtan, miscegenation, pallet, phantasm, plaintiff, pomade, porcelain, prow, stevedore, suffrage, temperance, testimony, transcendentalism
About the Author
Ross Howell Jr. graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in English and American Literature. He later earned a Master’s degree in English and American Literature from Harvard University and an M.F.A. degree in fiction writing from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.
A winner of the Gray-Carrington Scholarship Award, the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, and the Raven Award at the University of Virginia, Howell is a member of the Raven Society and Phi Beta Kappa. He was the recipient of a Danforth Foundation fellowship to attend graduate school.
His fiction has been published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Sewanee Review, Gettysburg Review, and other magazines. He writes, freelance edits, and teaches at Elon University. His home is in Greeensboro, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife Mary Leigh, English cocker spaniel Pinot, and two rescued pit bulls, Ellie and Sam.