Discussion questions for reading groups
1. Discuss the ways in which the tornado itself might be considered a character in the novel.
2. Despite suffering from mental illness, Mae can sometimes be a forceful woman. Compare her behavior and reactions over the course of the novel. When is she strongest? When is she most debilitated? How might her life have turned out if the tornado had never happened?
3. In Greek tragedy, the hero suffers a reversal of fortune and downfall, which is caused by a tragic flaw. Although the Graves family initially experience miraculously good fortune, they then suffer an obvious and quite serious reversal of fortune in the aftermath of the storm. What are the individual flaws in Paul, Mae, and Lavinia that contribute to their reversal of fortune?
4. The chapters alternate between the town and the Graves family, particularly in the first half of the novel. What is the effect of these alternating views—the more general views of the townspeople as opposed to the tighter focus on the Graves family? What is the effect in the second half of the novel as the focus shifts entirely towards the family?
5. At the end of the novel, Mae makes a decision that changes everything for her family. Are her decision and actions necessary? Are they self-serving in some way, or are they selfless?
6. One of the major themes of the novel is loyalty. Characters are variously loyal to their families, themselves, the town, or even to ideas. What are the three main characters most and least loyal to?
7. A clear moral code is at work among the townspeople in the immediate aftermath of the storm—food, shelter, and clothing being given to those who need it. When does the moral shift occur that allows the townspeople to begin punishing the Graves family? In what ways might people feel morally justified in turning on them? Why do those few who do not turn on them essentially do nothing to help?
8. The novel ends almost 80 years later with Little Homer, now an old man, visiting Marah. Why is it important for him to see his childhood home again? Why is it important for the reader to see him standing on the street corner, looking at the house?