Sunday, January 23, 2011

Death's Half Acre Study Guide

Death’s Half Acre Readers Guide:


My “Colleton County,” named for Sir John Colleton, one of the royal proprietory lords, is a fictional amalgam of three or four counties a little southeast of Raleigh where the sandhills meet the coastal plains. We are now about 120 miles from the coast, but shark teeth have been found nearby. I grew up and still live on a farm similar to Deborah’s, on land that’s been in the family over a hundred years. This is not very long by standards of the original coastal colonies, but considering my family’s yeoman roots, not surprising.

My original NC ancestor was the son of a Virginia planter. He arrived in the county around 1766, having acquired a land grant of three or four thousand acres. He came with six or seven sons. Each of those sons had seven to ten children, and so on down the line. When you divide the land fairly for several generations, not much is left. Indeed, when my great-grandfather came home from the Civil War, it was to a sharecropper’s hardscrabble life and he died when my grandfather was twelve. By dint of hard work, my grandfather and his three unmarried siblings managed to acquire this farm and to hold on to it despite the Depression, boll weevils, and tobacco wilt. When his two daughters died, the farm was divided five ways. My cousin and I are the only two left here, the others live “off” and there is no more commercial farming on the place, just kitchen gardens and fruit trees.

At the moment, I can sit on our back verandah and look out over fallow fields to stands of oaks, sweetgums, and pines in the far distance. Deer come out to graze in the evening and we still hear roosters crow every morning. Once the housing industry regains its values and land values start soaring again, I’m afraid these fields will sprout orange surveyor’s ribbons. My cousin Shelby, who still lives on a tiny sliver of the original 18th Century land grant a few miles away, shakes his head and says, “They’re farming houses right up to the creekbanks now.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a different context: “. . . I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”

Nor am I.

Which is why I wrote Death’s Half Acre.

Reading Group Guide/Questions for Discussion

1. It is often said that a Margaret Maron book is “a mystery and more” in that she puts serious economic and social issues into the traditionally-plotted whodunnit. Home Fires and Storm Track examined lingering racial problems. In Hard Row, it was migrant labor and domestic violence. What are some of the issues in Death’s Half Acre?

2. The south is still referred to as “the Bible Belt.” Do you think the Church of Jesus Christ Eternal is typical of the area or an aberration?

3. Is there significance in the fact that the church has no widows when the book opens, but will probably acquire windows soon after the book ends?

4. Dee Bradshaw is a spoiled slacker who identifies with her father’s patrician background rather than her mother’s quite plebeian origins. Does she come to understand and admire Candace? What changes her perception?

5. What did the dollhouse symbolize for Candace? For Dee? For Cameron?

6. Deborah sits in judgment on two main cases: two women who came to blows over a dog and a chicken, and three adolescent boys and their four-wheel ATV’s. What are the larger issues behind these cases?

7. At one point, Deborah says, “Confession may be good for the confessor’s soul, but it can play havoc with the heart and soul of the person forced to hear that confession.” Discuss.

8. Someone once said, “The mission of the modern newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Deborah attributes part of the problems of local government to the lack of an effective newspaper to play watchdog and ombudsman. Is she right? How effective is your own local newspaper in rooting out corruption?

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