Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
River, Cross My Heart reveals the "hidden history" of one of the best-known neighborhoods in our nation's capital. Do you think there are neighborhoods in your town or city that have a comparable "hidden history"?
The whites-only pool on Volta Place represents an ideal, a seemingly unattainable ideal, to Johnnie Mae. Do you think that at the end of the novel--despite the fact that the Volta Place pool remains a whites-only facility--Johnnie Mae has in some sense reconciled herself to segregation?
Alice Bynum cannot swim. She recognizes that Johnnie Mae's attempts to save Clara from drowning far exceed what she herself would have been capable of. Do you think this knowledge influences Alice's feelings toward Johnnie Mae? Does Alice forgive Johnnie Mae too readily?
Press Parker, who builds Clara's coffin, is so moved by the young girl's death that he donates the ornate brass handles he's been saving for his own coffin. What inspires this generosity? Have you ever witnessed--or committed--a similarly selfless act of spontaneous generosity?
What role does work play in the lives of the novel's principal characters? Is it significant that Alice Bynum has chosen "day work" over "living in" as domestic help? How does working with the laundress Miss Ann-Martha Pendel help determine the kind of woman Johnnie Mae will grow up to be?
The financial ruin of Alice Bynum's employer, Douglas St. Pierre, foreshadows the crash of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression. What effect do you think the Depression would have had on the Bynums and their Georgetown neighbors? How was your own family affected?
Johnnie Mae and Pearl are wary of each other for months after they first meet. How does each girl overcome her hesitation about opening up to the other? Have you ever had a relationship that began with such wariness yet developed into a close friendship?
Alice Bynum felt compelled to escape the humble surroundings of her North Carolina home in order to seek out new opportunities--for herself, and especially for her children. How is Alice's plight different from the plight of young people seeking opportunity in today's society?
Johnnie Mae Bynum is not Willie Bynum's daughter. How does this fact affect the relations between Willie and Johnnie Mae? Have you encountered situations in which stepparents have treated their own offspring and their stepchildren differently?
On the night of Clara's drowning, the men congregate in the Bynum kitchen, while the women gather in the Bynums' front parlor. How are these circumstances symbolic of the role that men play in River, Cross My Heart? Do the men in the novel take a back seat to the women? Why?
Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Little, Brown & Co. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Back Bay Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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