This reading group guide for River Road includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Carol Goodman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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Nan Lewis’s life has been on a downward spiral ever since her daughter, Emmy, was killed in a hit-and-run drunk driving accident on River Road six years ago. She’s recently been denied tenure at the upstate New York university where she teaches creative writing then Nan accidentally hits a deer driving home from a faculty holiday party on River Road. Or was it a deer? The next morning she learns that one of her favorite students, Leia Dawson, was also killed in a hit-and-run on the same road and Nan’s car has significant damage. As her community turns against her, Nan must uncover who exactly killed Leia and how she’s connected to this tragic event. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Early in the novel Nan says “That kind of woman
would have a drink right now after the ordeal of that interrogation in the police station, but I never
drank in the daytime and never
before class" (page 37). How does Nan’s denial factor into her day-to-day life? In what ways does it affect how the community treats her after Leia Dawson’s death?
2. The Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis, is traditionally associated with deer. Discuss the symbolism of Nan hitting a deer on her way home from the faculty holiday party.
3. Like Nan, Sue Bennet lost a child to a drunk driving accident and, consequentially, believes that drivers who've had DUIs "should be registered like sex offenders" (page 63). Discuss Sue’s belief. Do you agree with her, or no? How does grief change our view of the world?
4. Nan blames herself for Emmy's death because she was too busy writing and punishes herself by not writing anymore, yet she teaches her students the Alice Walker quote “writing is a very sturdy ladder out of the pit” (page 53). To what degree is Nan culpable for her daughter's death? Do you believe that writing is a path towards emotional healing?
5. In many ways Hannah Mulder is Nan’s foil and her mirror image. Compare and contrast how the two women handle trauma and grief.
6. On page 89 Sergeant McAffrey observes, "a person takes a child's life, they've destroyed their own life. They'll never be free of that." Can there be personal and public absolution for someone who accidentally kills a child? Should there be? Examine the ways Nan goes from victim to publicly accused criminal.
7. All the characters in River Road
are playing a role to a certain extent: Ross in front his students during his lectures, Nan hiding her drinking from her co-workers, Leia in her social life. What is
authenticity? Do you every find yourself playing a role in your own life?
8. Acheron College is named for the mythological river Acheron, which was one of the tributary rivers to the Underworld in Greek mythology, and River Road is the location where both Emmy and Leia, along with numerous other victims, have been killed in car accidents. Discuss other mythological parallels you see in River Road
. What sort of influence does a place’s name have?
9. The college legend says Charlotte Blackwell killed herself out of grief, but at the end of the book we learn, according to her husband's diary, that she died chasing after her dog on the ice. Which version resonates with you more? Why do you think the legendary version was constructed? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Greek mythology plays a significant part in Nan’s creative writing class and in River Road
as whole. Have each member of your group write a short modern day version of their favorite Greek myth and take turns work-shopping your pieces.
2. Consider reading The Opposite of Loneliness
by Marina Keegan, a girl who, like Leia, was killed in a car accident right after her college graduation, as a companion book. How do you think the book Leia’s family creates would have compared to Marina’s book? How does reading a book published after the author’s death change your understanding of it?
3. At the end of the book the town re-dedicates The Peace Garden in memory of their loved ones, and to “hear the voices of those they had lost” (page 325). Create your own Peace Garden by going around and sharing stories about loved ones who have passed away too soon. A Conversation with Carol Goodman Where did the idea for River Road originate?
In January 2013 I was driving home from a weekend trip to Boston with my husband when I hit a deer. It was dusk, the end of a long day, and the deer came out of nowhere. I pulled to the side of the road, crying, so upset my husband was more alarmed by my reaction than hitting the deer. We got out to look for the deer but couldn’t find it. My husband reassured me that the deer was probably all right. I tried to believe him. But for the next days the feeling of that impact, that awful thump
, stayed with me. I told people the story and wrote about it, even writing a poem for a class I was teaching, trying to exorcise the experience.
Then a week or two afterward something truly tragic happened. Two young girls, college students at Bard College, were killed in a hit-and-run. My daughter who was going to Bard at the time emailed me early the next morning so I’d know she was all right. The incident happened just a few miles from my house, to girls the same age as my daughter, at my daughter’s college. Like everyone in the college and town community, I was struck by the tragedy. I read the emails from the college president, the police report, watched video of the suspect (who was caught a mile down the road buying beer, one of the girl’s phones stuck in her bumper) walking into court. I heard people talking about the incident in the supermarket, the café where one of the girls worked, and amongst my daughter’s friends. I was, of course, devastated for the girls and their parents most of all, but I also found myself thinking about the woman who had committed the hit-and-run. What terrible place had her life gotten to that she would do something like this? How could a person live with knowing they had taken two young lives?
It didn’t at first occur to me to write about the incident, but in the next few months I kept thinking about the hit-and-run and reliving that moment of hitting the deer. I thought about it as I drove on River Road, a beautiful road a few miles from my house, and as I taught my classes at SUNY New Paltz. Eventually the character of Nan Lewis emerged in my head, a woman who had already had the worst thing that could happen to a person happen, who driving home from a faculty party after one or two glasses of wine, hits a deer and is then accused of hitting one of her students. Early in the book you quote Margaret Atwood “All writing is motivated deep down by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring someone or something back from the dead.” In what way was River Road a trip to the Underworld for you?
Whenever I write a book I feel that I end up taking the journey of the narrator I’ve chosen. I knew right away that following Nan would take me to a dark place. She’s already in a low place in her life and then she does something that could potentially ruin her life forever. It felt scary to explore that and yet I was somehow compelled to. Through her own recklessness Nan has done something that neither she nor the community she lives with would ever forgive her for. I didn’t know until I’d written the first chapter that Nan had lost a child herself. I’ve actually never written about a character who had lost a child because, as a mother, it is such a deep seated fear. When I began the book I literally could not imagine how anyone lived through that. Writing this book was my own way of imagining how someone might.
That Margaret Atwood quote has always resonated with me. I believe that one of the main reasons we write is to bring back to life the people we’ve lost—or even parts of our past and self that we’ve lost—even if doing that means traveling to a dark place. Who or what were your inspirations for The Blackwell Family and The Ice Hag?
There are some wonderful old mansions along the Hudson River near where I live. They have some spooky stories associated with them which I’ve borrowed from. The Blackwell Machine factory is actually taken from an abandoned factory, called Sedgwick Machine, that I can see from the train window just south of Poughkeepsie. As for the Ice Hag, well, I wrote RIVER ROAD during an extremely snowy winter. It was easy to imagine that the ice and snow was a malevolent force! As a creative writing teacher at SUNY New Paltz, how much of your own teaching experience did you incorporate into River Road?
Lots! I’m continually amazed by the stories my students write in my classes. Around the time I started thinking of RIVER ROAD I had a class in which some of my students asked if they could write memoir pieces instead of fiction. They’d tell me something that was going on in their lives and say, I just need to write about that. So of course I said, yes, you do. I was impressed by their honesty and bravery in writing about painful events in their lives and touched by their own accounts of how writing about those events helped them understand them. I wanted to honor that in RIVER ROAD while also depicting a teacher who is evading her own pain by immersing herself in her work. Teaching is a very demanding and all-encompassing activity. You can easily lose yourself in it. I think that in the end, though, it’s part of what leads Nan out of her darkness. Near the end of River Road, Nan expresses doubt whether writing can save someone’s life, “writing hadn’t pulled me out of the pit. The people who loved me—Joe, Dottie, Anat, the van Donks—had” (page 317). Which side of the argument do you fall on?
I’m not sure it’s an argument. I think ultimately writing comes from life, from the people we know and love (and even the ones we dislike), and that you can’t have one without the other. I think writing is a way of understanding life and people better, so if writing is saving your life, well, it’s really the people in your life that have given you that. You also write books for young adults. Is your writing process different when writing adult vs YA books?
Not really. I always start with a character who’s in a difficult situation and explore what happens to her next. In my Blythewood
books I wrote about a sixteen year old girl who has lost her mother and has to make her way in the world—and then happens to end up at a magical school. I wrote it the same way I write all my books, the narrator just happened to be sixteen years old. But because she’s sixteen years old her voice is different—she’s more emotional than, say, Nan Lewis. She notices different things. Nan follows in a long and great tradition of unreliable female narrators. Why do you think readers respond to these anti-heroes?
I think because we don’t know whom to trust. When someone tells us a story, do we believe them? Do we even completely understand our own actions? Are we completely honest with ourselves? The present popularity of the unreliable narrator I think comes from the possibilities of surprise and suspense inherent in believing the wrong person. River Road deals a lot with the transformative power of writing on both the reader and the writer. How do you think being a writer has affected your life?
I literally can’t imagine my life without writing. I began writing when I was nine years old. I wrote a story about a girl named Carol who goes to live with a wild herd of horses. No mention is ever made of Carol’s human family. So very early I was using writing as an imaginative escape. I continue to use writing to think through and deal with what happens to me and what I see around me, trying to make some narrative sense out of the chaos of life. Writing has also compelled me to look at all sides of a question, to always consider what an experience looks like from the point of view of someone else. And it’s made a much nosier person than I am by nature. I’m always listening to other people’s conversations and asking questions. There’s a great line in the HBO show GIRLS when Hannah, following suspicious sounds to her friend’s bedroom, says something like “Everything is my business.” Being a writer makes me feel as if the whole world is my business. What are you working on next?
I am working on a middle-grade novel called THE METROPOLITANS. It’s about a group of young kids who, on the eve of World War II, have to find a magical book at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to stop a sabotage attack on New York City. It’s a nice break from traveling to the Underworld!