Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
In the opening pages of Lick Creek, Emily tries to imagine what it
is like to work in the coal mines. "There's a power inside the
earth," her brother Delmar tells her, making her jealous of this
mysterious underground world from which women are excluded. In what other
ways is Emily's life circumscribed by having been born female? Discuss the
contrasting picture Brad Kessler paints of the lives of men and the lives of
Emily loves Gianni with a simple trust and spontaneity that stands in
stark contrast to the reluctant manner in which she later allows herself to
fall for Joseph. How has her ability to love and trust been affected by the
coal mine disaster that took the lives of her father, brother, and childhood
sweetheart? By her smoldering resentment of the power company Joseph works
for? And by the bitter aftereffects of her encounter with Robert Daniels?
Set in the remote mining country of West Virginia, Lick Creek has
as its historical background the introduction of electric power to the
region in the late 1920s. Kessler's tale examines the relentless march of
progress that threatens to totally transform rural life without bringing any
immediate benefits to the people. In addition to the human cost of progress,
what other themes does Brad Kessler explore? Discuss the clash of cultures
and classes that the novel portrays. In what ways does the plight of this
one Appalachian farm family illuminate what one critic has called "the
quintessential American story of the struggle between the powerful and the
Brad Kessler depicts Emily's mother, Ada, as a woman who has a way of
knowing things before they happen. But when her husband and son are killed,
Ada claims she has lost her gift. "What was the use of finding things
in dreams, she'd say, if she couldn't tell a mine was about to blow when
fully awake?" What purpose does Ada's special talent serve in the
novel? Why does it disappear, and then return suddenly just as Emily is
about to run off with Joseph? What is your personal view of this kind of
extrasensory perception? Do you believe it exists and can be trusted? Why?
What role does the natural world play in the novel? Do you agree with
reviewers who have described Brad Kessler's prose as lyrical and his imagery
as tactile? Why? Are there any images that stand out in your mind? What
other novelists does Kessler's writing style call to mind?
After the coal mine tragedy, Emily's mother retreats so totally into her
own grief that she seems to forget that she still has a living daughter. She
springs to life only when a power line accident brings the injured Joseph
into her home in need of care. Why do you think she has ignored her own
daughter's needs for so long, yet is so solicitous toward a stranger? How
important is it to Ada that there is a man in the house again? Do you think
she would have been as eager to help if the person needing care had been a
woman? What do you make of the relationship between Ada and Emily? Were you
surprised by the intensity of the emotional good-bye scene between mother
and daughter when Emily runs off with Joseph?
In one of the central events of the novel, power company executive Robert
Daniels befriends Emily and ultimately beds her, taking advantage of her
lack of sophistication by plying her with rum and Coke to aid in his
seduction. Several reviewers have characterized the encounter as a
"rape." Do you think the term is justified? Although Emily herself
never uses the word rape and never puts together a clear picture of
what actually took place, her sense of violation leaves her consumed by a
need to exact revenge. Do you think the intensity of her outrage is
What are we to make of Daniels's pleasure at running into Emily again at
the power company's inauguration ball? Why do you think he is so oblivious
to her feelings? Is his complete unawareness of her fury a manifestation of
the power imbalance between them, or is it a consequence of a difference in
the male and female perspective on date rape? How do you think the author
wants us to view the seduction? Do we judge the encounter differently with
today's sensibilities than we might have in the 1920s when the story is set?
Do you think it is always clear when a date rape has taken place? Do you
think it is possible for society to arrive at a definition of date rape that
is equally just to both men and women?
Why do you think the author makes Joseph a Jewish Russian immigrant? Late
into the night, as he excitedly tries to convey to Emily his passion for his
work as a lineman, Joseph reflects that "electricity flows over the
face of the earth but is landless, that it sojourns endlessly like a Gypsy,
and that what it seeks, above all else, is to burrow back into earth, to be
grounded; and that secretly he seeks the same, like his father and father's
father and so on for generations back." Discuss what this passage might
mean. Do you think, as one reviewer suggests, that the author intends this
passage as a metaphor for the journey of the Jewish people in the diaspora?
How does Joseph's identity as an outsider figure in the novel?
When Emily's long-simmering rage erupts as she returns to the Roncevert
Hotel, her first impulse is to set fire to Daniels's office, "to
carbonize the place in a great conflagration, just as the mine had been
burned, just as all of them had gone up in flames." But when she can't
find a match or anything to spark a flame, she decides to steal two stacks
of bills from his safe, rationalizing the theft by telling Joseph,
"They owe me this money. Not only me, but Delmar and my father and my
mother." How do you feel about Emily's actions and her attempt to
justify them? Only after Joseph floors the accelerator of his truck in panic
and nearly runs over a guard as they make their escape does Emily begin to
experience some remorse. Discuss what you think Emily is going through as
the cataclysmic events she has set in motion begin to sink in, leaving her
wishing she could "return to earlier that afternoon or last week or
month and live it all again, but differently this time."
What are we to make of Emily's unsent letters to her mother? Were you
surprised by their intimacy? Did they change your opinion of the nature of
the relationship between mother and daughter? Were you surprised, as Emily
herself seems to be, by how much she misses her mother, Garvin, her home,
and everyone in Lick Creek? Have you ever written letters to someone not
knowing whether you would ever mail them? Did it free you, as it apparently
freed Emily, to reveal your deepest feelings? Why do you think the letters
remained with Joseph after Emily's death and not with Ada?
Why do you think Kessler ends his novel the way he does? Does Emily's
death feel like an appropriate end to the story or does it come too
abruptly? Were you anticipating a tragic conclusion? Do you like the
symmetry of a story that begins with one tragic accident that claims the
lives of Emily's father, brother, and first love, and concludes with
another, a streetcar accident that takes Emily's life? Can you think of
other examples of symmetry in Lick Creek?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Scribner.
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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