Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and
author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's
discussion of the unforgettable Above the Thunder, an astonishing
debut novel which explores the subtle, treacherous line between living
and dying and captures in gorgeously rendered language the unexpected
entanglements of the heart that can transform a life forever.
by the loss of her beloved husband and numb over the callous
disappearance of her drug-addicted daughter, Anna has buried her grief
in her medical work and wants nothing more than to be left blissfully
alone. Yet when her son-in-law and the ten-year-old granddaughter who
she has never met arrive on her doorstep, bereft and hoping to stay
awhile, Anna's world shifts irrevocably. Despite her attempts to
maintain a protective distance from the newcomers, Anna is hopelessly
beguiled by the child Flynn, whose dark and fanciful imagination thinly
veils the scars of a damaging childhood.
Anna's life takes another unforeseen trajectory when she meets Jack, an
AIDS patient reluctantly participating in a discussion group Anna is
coordinating. Engaged in a brutal, private struggle with his
mortalityand the questionable choices that have landed him with the
virusJack recognizes in Anna a conflicted soul and a kindred spirit.
Soon the unlikely duo, with Flynn in tow, set up a makeshift home in
rural Maine, in search of peace, renewal, and the opportunity for
healing. Heartbreak hovers close, however. As Flynn's obsession with
death and reincarnation spirals toward a dangerous brink, Anna, Jack,
and the friends they call family discover both the limits of devotion
and the transformative power of tragedy.
Funny, wise, and often chilling, Above the Thunder offers an
utterly unique take on loyalty, survival, the various incarnations of
faith, and the ultimate search for home that drives us all.
As the novel opens, Anna doubts her own capacity for
compassion: "Deep down she suspected that this trait, along with the
maternal one, had never been activated in her. She doubted if it was
possible to understand someone else's suffering. Even her beloved
husband whose pain had become a private geography on which she couldn't
trespass" [p. 21]. Is this cynicism or honesty at work in Anna? Do her
relationships with Flynn and Jack change her aptitude for compassion
and/or her ability to recognize it?
Above the Thunder is rich in symbolism, particularly
surrounding Anna's voyage to self-knowledge. What is the symbolic
significance of her collection of antique hair pins? Her cell pathology
slides? What does it mean when she randomly buys a collection of books
about female hunters? Why does she have a penchant for dropping things?
What other symbols does the author weave into Anna's story?
What complex facets of motherhoodor the desire for itdoes the
author explore through the characters of Anna, Greta, Poppy, Leila, and
Jane? What distinction does Anna draw between "maternal instinct" and "motherhood" [p. 116]? What different aspects of the concept of
fatherhood are represented by Marvin, Mike, Jack, and Stuart?
Flynn's point of view is introduced abruptly at the end of the
fifth chapter. What does the reader glean about Flynn from this short,
powerful passage? What foreshadowing does it contain?
The AIDS support group brings Anna into contact with Stuart and
Jack. Is there more significance to the group than serving the plot? How
does Anna's involvement with the group affect her?
As Jack grapples with the mystery of who has given him the AIDS
virus, he muses: "Mysteries and miracles, miracles and destinations,
weren't that far apart, in his view. The stricken and the blessed both
followed the same path, faith the common point of origin. In the end,
there was no difference between Bethlehem and the bathhouses" [p. 79].
What does he mean by "destinations" here? What sort of faith has led him
to his dilemma?
How does the author weave subtle hints about reincarnation into
the text to make Flynn's prophecies more sinister and suggestive? What
is Flynn's vision of herself, Marvin, Poppy, and Anna in the next life?
What behavior does Anna exhibit that seems to corroborate Flynn's
prediction about her?
Jack does not fear death but rather fears the possibility of
continuing in the beyond: "Spirit without body was repugnant, desire no
longer limited by the boundary of skin, expanding to fill the universe,
love like sound waves going on forever, not stopped by the density of
flesh. How could he ever keep track of himself when his margins were
infinite?" [p. 198] In what way does this same fear plague Anna, as well
as Flynn? Can it be argued that this is, in fact, the theme of the
novel? How does each of these three characters handle this fear?
During a particularly alarming episode of Flynn's irrational
behavior, Anna begs the girl to always tell the truth: "You should never
hide. Never hide the things that make you who you are" [p. 158]. Yet
asking this promise of the child fills Anna with an inexplicable sense
of dread. "The truthwhatever Anna meant by it, and she didn't quite
know nowwas likely to deliver her granddaughter into the hands of the
enemy" [p. 159]. What are the possible meanings of the word "enemy" in
What is the significance of the Mahatma Gandhi epigraph, "We must
be the change we wish to see in the world"? Which of the novel's
characters yearn for change, and which ones achieve it?
Why does Greta insist that "Poppy had nothing to do with what
Flynn did. She's not responsible"? Is it possible to separate Flynn's
propensity for depression from her abandonment by her mother? Does Anna
find Poppy culpable?
What role does the late Hugh play in the way Anna approaches her
new life in Maine? How does the memory of him act as a conduit between
her and Flynn? What finally allows Anna to let go of Hugh to the extent
that she is open to the possibility of romance?
Are the adults in the novel too self-absorbed to realistically
see how troubled and endangered Flynn is, or are they earnestly trying
to allow her the freedom of eccentricity? Why does Anna muse only
half-heartedly about Flynn's possible need for professional help? Is the
consequence of Flynn's action an avoidable tragedy or an instance of
During a game of "would you rather" with Flynn, Anna chooses to
be a fig tree rather than a whale, stating, "I would always prefer to
bear fruit" [p. 139]. How can this conviction be reconciled with her
apparent distaste for motherhood? Does this moment mark a turning point
for Anna, or is she simply accessing her real feelings on the matter?
What is the significance of the birch log fire Anna smells the
morning of the tragedy?
Jack imagines infection with the AIDS virus as a kind of
pregnancy, giving him a sense of being rooted, or caught up in a
continuum. He envisions "the lineage of all those he'd ever loved and
his lovers' loved ones, through this virus, a kind of terrible,
merciless child who gestated over and over" [p. 40]. What does this odd
reflection reveal about Jack? Is he a likeable character despite his
patent untrustworthiness? How does Jack's character evolve over the
course of the novel?
What does Anna mean to convey when she tells Marvin, "Mourning is
easier than worry. Or any of those emotions you feel for the living" [p.
116]? Has she closed herself off to the possibility of love and
relationships? Or is she entering another phase of dealing with them?
About the book
Suggested Reading Majgull Axelsson, April Witchtch; Julia Glass, Three Junes; Brian
Hall, The Saskiad; Kent Haruf, Plainsong; Ann Napolitano,
Within Arm's Reach; Mark Spragg, An Unfinished Life;
Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness; Tim Winton, The Riders.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor 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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