Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for One of Us includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Tawni O’Dell. 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.
From New York Times bestselling author Tawni O’Dell comes a fast-paced thriller where a forensic psychologist is forced to face his own demons when he returns to his childhood home of Lost Creek to find the community terrorized by a serial killer.
Dr. Sheridan Doyle is the go-to shrink for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office whenever a twisted killer’s mind eludes other experts. But beneath is accomplished exterior, he’s still Danny Doyle, the awkward, bullied boy from a blue-collar mining family, haunted by a past marked by tragedy.
When Danny returns to Lost Creek, his hometown, he comes face to face with the town’s legacy of violence when a dead body is discovered at the famous gallows where the Nellie O’Neills, band of rebellious Irish miners were executed one hundred years prior. The body also has an eerie connection to the wealthy mining family behind the deaths of the Nellie O’Neills. When Danny teams up with veteran detective Rafe to get to the bottom of the crimes, he realizes he’s coming dangerously close to uncovering secrets of his own past.
In this masterfully told psychological thriller, the past and the present collide to put Lost Creek’s long-lived ghosts to bed.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you think O’Dell chose to call her novel One of Us? Who does the “us” in the title of the novel refer to? Discuss the importance of allegiances in Lost Creek. How do those allegiances play out throughout One of Us?
2. Of the Nellie O’Neills, Danny says “it was impossible to live in Lost Creek and not know something about them even as a young child.” (p. 4) What is the story of the Nellie O’Neills? Do you think that they were correct in their actions and the reasons behind them? How does their story affect the citizens of Lost Creek?
3. Max tells Danny that he was inspired by Danny’s writing, particularly the quote “What lies in our power to do, list in our power not to do.” (p. 19). Discuss the quote. Where did it initially appear? How does this advice apply to Max’s life and to Danny’s own? What actions does Danny take that ultimately change his life?
4. Although Danny has achieved success as Sheridan Doyle, almost everyone in Lost Creek still refers to him as Danny. What does each name indicate both the people who refer to Danny as such and about Danny himself? Discuss the importance of names throughout One of Us.
5. Danny first encounters Rafe as a young boy, on the day that his mother is being arrested and “for the first time in my young life I felt I could be honest.” (p. 35). Why does Danny feel safe and able to speak truthfully in Rafe’s presence? Later Danny calls Rafe “A man I admired but didn’t envy. A man I wanted to mimic but didn’t want to be.” (p. 75). Discuss their relationship. What lessons has Rafe taught Danny? How do the two men relate to each other as adults?
6. After her encounter with Marcella Greger, Scarlet says “I probably could have trusted her to keep her mouth shut. That’s not the point. I didn’t like the idea of her knowing.” (p. 105) Do you believe Scarlet? Why do you think she acted in the way she did with Marcella? What were your initial impressions of Scarlet? Did they change throughout One of Us? If so, how? Were you surprised by her secret? Why or why not?
7. Who is Carson Shupe? Why does Danny maintain a relationship with him, visiting him in jail and planning to attend Carson’s execution? When Carson asks Danny, “Do you think I deserve this?” (p. 271) about his impending execution, were you surprised by Danny’s response? Why or why not? How does Carson’s crime serve as a counterpoint to the other crimes in One of Us?
8. In recounting her reaction to seeing the effects of the mine explosion, Scarlet says, “What I saw bothered me but I didn’t feel bad . . . I didn’t feel in any way responsible for what I was seeing or that my father was responsible either. I sensed something wasn’t fair, but injustice without a defined villain is only bad luck.” (p. 83) Do you think Anna was right to take Scarlet to see how the citizens of Lost Creek were reacting to the tragedy? Do you agree with Scarlet’s assessment that, without villains, injustice is simply bad luck? Are there villains in One of Us? Who are they?
9. Danny says that, as a child, he let Tommy believe that his nightmares were about his mother and his sister “because I could never reveal to him what they were really about. They were shameful. I was afraid of the mines.” (p. 55) Why is Danny ashamed of his fear? Does he ever overcome his fear? If so, how? What’s Tommy’s reaction when Danny does admit to being afraid of the mines?
10. Describe Danny’s first meeting with Scarlet. Why do you think that the encounter induces a panic attack for Danny? Does their initial meeting foreshadow their final one? If so, how?
11. When Gwendolyn Dawes and Arlene Doyle meet, Danny describes them as “a wild rose and a hothouse orchid who have both managed to survive in the same scorched earth.” (p. 291) Describe both of the women. Is Danny’s description of both accurate? Why does Danny believe that his mother is “better equipped to deal with the inconceivable than the rest of us” (p. 284)? Were you surprised to learn the truth of Molly’s disappearance and how it related to both of the women?
12. When Scarlet asks Danny how he feels about his mother, his response is “I love her.” Scarlet says, “I’m stunned. I expected so much better from him, yet at at the same time, I realize this means he fully understands the rules of the game.” (p. 201). Why is Scarlet stunned by Danny’s response? What does this show about Scarlet? Do you think she’s misread the situation when she says Danny “fully understands the rules of the game”? If so, how?
13. In the mine, Rick tells Danny, “Your problem is you think too much.” (p. 237) Do you agree? How do Rick’s works cause Danny to rethink his mother’s actions? Do you agree with Rick that Arlene Doyle is a strong woman? Why or why not?
14. When Danny returns to Lost Creek and sees Tommy, he says “My dejection lifts as I realize wanting to lay eyes on [Tommy] again isn’t the only reason I needed to come home.” (p. 53) What other reasons does Danny have for needing to come home? Do you think his trip was successful?
15. Of his time in Vietnam, Rafe says “It may have been the worst thing that would ever happen to me, but it was also the most significant.” (p. 247) What does he mean? How was he changed by his time in Vietnam? What do you think that the most significant thing to happy to Danny has been? Why?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. After one of Tommy’s stories, Danny asks him what the point of the story was, to which he replies, “Does there have to be a point?” (p. 225) Do you think that there has to be a point to a story? Discuss what you look for in a book when you read with the other members of your book club, taking care to consider how your book club selections, including One of Us, have measured up to your criteria.
2. Of his hometown, Danny says, “The history of the entire region is summer up in a glance: Man ruins Nature; Nature ruins Man.” (p. 23) Read about the history of the mining industry and discuss the statement. How is it particularly true in Lost Creek?
3. One of Us has drawn comparisons to Gone Girl. Read both books, then, compare and contrast them in your book club. In what ways are Scarlet and Amy alike? How do they differ?
4. To learn more about Tawni O’Dell, read more of her writing and connect with her online, visit her official site at http://www.tawniodell.com/
A Conversation with Tawni O’Dell
You are the author of several New York Times bestselling novels, including Black Roads, which was an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Did the experience of writing One of Us differ from writing your previous novels? If so, how?
One of Us was the most difficult novel for me to write so far, but this had nothing to do with its content or any outside factors. I’ve discovered as an author that the process of writing a novel becomes harder over time, not easier. I used to think the reverse must be true, that it would be like any task, and the more I practiced, the more adept I’d become. I do believe I’ve become a better writer with each novel and I like to think that each novel has surpassed the previous one. But as I struggle to find my way with the latest one, I’m always convinced I’ll never finish it and if I do, it will be awful.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Does your process differ when you’re writing essays rather than stories?
Writing an essay is like a school assignment: I have my topic, I organize my thoughts, and I write it. I have complete control over what I’m doing. Writing a novel is like setting out on a journey without knowing who or what I’ll encounter, how long it’s going to take, or where I’m going to end up. It’s exciting but also nerve-racking. It takes me several years to completely understand my characters and decipher their stories. I often feel as though I have no control over the process even though I know on a subconscious level that I do. My mind is constantly creating and searching, but I can’t make myself put the right words on paper until I’m ready. Once I’m ready, I’m a focused, disciplined writer who will put in twelve hours a day at the computer, but I also spend a lot of time away from the computer getting to that point.
The legend of the Nellie O’Neills is incredibly compelling. Was it based on any mining stories? Can you tell us how you fleshed out their story?
The Nellie O’Neills were inspired by the Molly Maguires, a secret society of militant Irish coal miners living in central Pennsylvania in the 1870s who battled their exploitation by mine owners with violence, intimidation, and sometimes murder. Twenty of them were eventually executed. Growing up in a Pennsylvania coal town, Molly Maguire lore was all around me and I’ve always been engrossed by their story. It’s an intriguing one, partially due to the fact that there has been enormous disagreement over who they were, what they did, and why they did it. I’ve wanted to write about them for as long as I can remember but didn’t want to be creatively shackled by historical accuracy, so I made up my own version of them. For anyone wanting to know more about the Mollies, I highly recommend Kevin Kenny’s book, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, and checking out the 1969 Paramount film The Molly Maguires starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris. (It’s worth watching just to see Sean Connery and Richard Harris in the same movie.)
At the end of One of Us, Danny says, “I suddenly understand that a man’s life story is written before it even begins, all of his choices made for him by a history he’s helpless against yet he believes is of his own making.” (p. 294) How does Danny’s statement apply to your own writing? Did you know the outcome of Danny’s story before you began writing? Or did the plot take several unexpected turns that were not in your initial imaginings of the story?
That quote actually sums up my writing process fairly accurately. Somewhere deep in my psyche my characters’ life stories are “already written before they begin,” and I have to discover them and then document them. Like Danny having this epiphany that he’s powerless against his fate but wants to believe he controls it—I know I am the creator of my characters and their stories but I often feel more like a farmer who can only do so much with his land then has to wait for the whims of nature to determine whether anything will grow. When I begin writing, I have no idea what my novels are ultimately going to be about. I don’t have a plot. I never consider a theme. I don’t make notes or outlines. (By the way, I don’t recommend writing this way if you can avoid it.) I think this comes from the fact I’m not someone who wants to write a book and then searches for an idea. I get an idea and need to write a book.
You write so compellingly in Scarlet’s voice. Given that she is responsible for some truly horrific crimes, was it difficult to channel her?
Being Scarlet was fun. Not that I have any desire to run around killing people, but it’s liberating to write a character who only thinks about herself and her desires and gives no thought to anyone else. Just as in real life, caring about others, weighing right and wrong, navigating societal expectations, takes energy in a character. Making decisions based purely on what makes the character feel good is easy. When I wrote in Scarlet’s voice I needed to feel what she felt and she felt no pain or regret so even though she was repellent on many levels, she didn’t cause me the kind of empathetic anguish I’ve experienced writing some of my other characters.
One of Us is told from Danny and Scarlet’s perspectives. Why did you choose to structure One of Us in that way? Was it difficult to change points of view while you were writing?
From the beginning this was Danny’s story, but Scarlet appeared in my mind as such a powerful, compelling character that I felt she needed her own voice. It was definitely difficult switching back and forth from their perspectives. I have to write chronologically since my novels unfold as I go along so I’d write as Danny and arrive at a point where I felt it was time to find out what’s going on with Scarlet and then have to become Scarlet. I was always glad at first to switch from one to the other, though. After writing as Danny with all his emotional baggage, it was a relief to turn to Scarlet who was an unencumbered narcissist. Then after writing as a monster, it was a relief to get back into the head of a good guy.
Danny’s profession, as a forensic psychologist, helps drive the action of One of Us and helps the reader understand both his motivations and that of other characters throughout the story. How did you research both the job and the various types of mental illness some of the characters suffer from?
Novelists are amateur psychologists. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes people tick, why they do the things they do, what factors in their lives form their personalities, and then applying the answers to the creation of our fictional characters. I often find myself talking to my characters like a shrink: “How does that make you feel? Do you think that was a healthy decision? Let’s talk about your father.” I’ve always been interested in the subject of psychology so I’ve gathered information about it throughout my life and in the process have also learned about various mental illnesses. I’m not ever going to have a character pop into my head that has a profession I know nothing about since he’s originating in my thoughts. It made sense to me that eventually I’d write about a psychologist.
The Denver Post has praised your writing, calling you the “master of [your] craft” and complimenting the “authenticity of character” that is a mark of your writing, and, indeed, your portrayal of life in the coal-mining town of Lost Creek is incredibly authentic. How did you create the world of Lost Creek? Are any of the characters drawn from your own childhood in the coal-mining region of western Pennsylvania?
I don’t base my characters on specific people but obviously they’ve been influenced by people I’ve known throughout my life just as the towns I’ve created in my novels have sprung from the towns I’ve lived in. As a writer, everyone I’ve ever met and every experience I’ve ever had provides material for my work. Authenticity is very important to me. I strive to make my characters as real to my readers as their own neighbors and the places where they reside as vivid as their own back yards yet remain true to the area I write about. Even if you’ve never been to a Pennsylvania coal town, after reading one of my novels I want you to not only think you know what it’s like to live there but feel that you have lived there, if only briefly and if only in your mind.
What would you like your readers to take away from One of Us?
When I finish reading a great novel, my faith in and connection to humanity is revived. I feel that I’ve experienced the immenseness of our world and everything we value and abhor, everything we question and know for sure, while absorbed in the highly intimate world of the individual. This is what I hope my readers take away from One of Us and all of my novels. Despite our flaws and limitations, I want them to feel hopeful and restored in a way that ironically can’t be put into words.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on my next novel. I’d like to tell you what it’s about but I’m not sure yet.