Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Rain Falls Like Mercy includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jack Todd. 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.
Rain Falls Like Mercy opens in Wyoming with the murder of Millie Stojko, a teenage girl fleeing an abusive home in 1941. Her murder sparks a fervent manhunt led by Sheriff Tom Call, whose determination to find the girl’s murderer is matched only by his growing love for Juanita Paint, the wife of rancher Eli Paint. Meanwhile, World War II rages overseas, and when Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese, life in Wyoming is altered forever. Tom leaves Juanita, his unborn son, and his manhunt to fly fighter planes in Europe, while Eli and Juanita’s family worries after Eli’s son Leo and grandson Bobby, who are fighting in the Navy. While the war presses on, Pardo Bury, the man responsible for Millie’s death, is sentenced to several years in jail at his father’s insistence for an unrelated crime. After the war ends, life appears to return to normal for Tom and the Paint family until Pardo, recently released from prison, and his new cohort Arlie Swain go on a multi-state killing spree that ends with a tragic showdown between Tom and the murderers.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Rain Falls Like Mercy intertwines multiple storylines, including the love affair between Juanita and Tom, Pardo Bury’s murderous rampage, and WWII. Which of the novel’s different stories most captivated you? Why?
2. The novel opens with two quotes, one from the infamous serial killer Charles Starkweather and one from the play “As You Like It.” Why do you think the author chose to open his novel with these quotes? Discuss how they relate to the plot of Rain Falls Like Mercy.
3. While giving an interview, rancher Eli Paint explains to a newspaper reporter that in order to write about the West, “the truth is in the tall tales” and that if “you want to get a subject as big as the West in your sights…then you got to be able to tell a story as big as this country” (p. 17-18). What does Eli mean when he says truth is different than fact? Do you agree with him?
4. One of the recurring themes in Rain Falls Like Mercy is the effect of violence—from the brutal murders committed by Pardo and Arlie Swain to the fighting in WWII. Even while fighting overseas, Tom Call is still haunted by the violence he witnessed back home. Which do you think has the deepest impact on the characters, the war or the murders closer to home?
5. In your opinion, which character is the most morally righteous? What makes a character “good,” despite being flawed? Explain your answer.
6. During her affair with Tom Call, Juanita Paint explains her love for Tom and Eli as being “completely different” and that she “can’t even say that she loves Tom more, only that she loves him in a way that sweeps everything else before it, like a tidal wave” (p. 125). Do you believe she loved Eli as much as she loved Tom? Is it possible to love two people equally? Why or why not?
7. Once the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, life for the characters in Rain Falls Like Mercy drastically changes, especially for Tom and Juanita. Were you surprised at how their relationship ended? Why or why not?
8. After Tom leaves for war and Juanita discovers she’s pregnant, she decides to tell him that the baby is Eli’s—even after she discovers her son is actually Tom’s. Do you agree with her decision to lie to Tom? If you were in her situation would you have done anything differently? Explain your answer.
9. While serving on the Tennessee, Bobby Paint befriends Lucian Quigley, an African-American soldier who teaches Bobby about the racial politics of war. Discuss how these politics have and have not changed since WWII.
10. Sheriff Tom Call, one of the novel’s primary protagonists, overcomes numerous challenges—including his capture and time as a prisoner of war and sustaining severe burns from his plane crash—only to be killed by Arlie Swain towards the story’s end. Were you surprised by Tom’s ultimate fate? Why or why not?
11. After her killing spree with Pardo Bury and murdering Tom Call in cold blood, Arlie Swain returned home to her mother as though nothing had happened. Discuss why you think the author may have decided to not bring Arlie Swain’s character to justice. How do Tom’s death and Arlie’s lack of punishment reflect the novel’s representation of crime and justice?
12. Rain Falls Like Mercy ends with the death of Eli Paint, closing the novel with the image of a magpie, flying west. What do you think the magpie symbolizes?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Rain Falls Like Mercy is the third and final novel in Jack Todd’s historical trilogy. Research the other two novels, Sun Going Down and Come Again No More. Try hosting a reading group challenge and read all three titles!
2. Author Jack Todd drew on his family’s history to best create an accurate, convincing historical novel. Create your own history lesson; have book club members share one interesting piece of their family histories during your discussion of Rain Falls Like Mercy.
A Conversation with Jack Todd
Your trilogy spans almost a century of American history. How much research did you have to do while writing this series? How did researching Rain Falls Like Mercy compare to the research for your other books?
I am a very quick writer, but I spent 10 years working on this trilogy, so obviously the research was a major component, especially with Sun Going Down. In researching that book, I read everything from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (a great pleasure) to books on the mechanical complexity of the Mississippi River steamboats. (Not so pleasurable.) I also re-read Evan S. Connell’s wonderful Son of the Morning Star, on General Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn. (A character named Evan Connell appears in Rain Falls Like Mercy. Emaline meets him on the street as she heads out for her evening walk in Sheridan.) Along the way I acquired a library of over one hundred titles dealing with the history of the Old West. It makes delightful reading.
Of the three books, Come Again No More required the least research, partly because some of it spilled over from Sun Going Down, partly because it is based much more on stories that I heard directly from my parents. The same is true of Rain Falls Like Mercy, except that I did have to do extensive research into the history of World War II. I’ve read many books about that war, but my knowledge of the war in the Pacific was sketchy at best. Researching that aspect of the war brought home the true horror of combat in places like New Guinea, Guadalcanal and Okinawa.
Many of the characters and events in Rain Falls Like Mercy are based on real people and historical moments, some of which are from your own family’s history. Did you find it challenging to fictionalize real details while creating the storyline for the novel? Why or why not?
It is always challenging, but it was particularly challenging with Robert E. Lee Watson, who is based on my mother’s much-adored younger brother, Jimmy Wilson. I wanted to make Bobby a real, multi-dimensional character, while not writing anything that would reflect badly on his memory or upset his descendants. The same, of course, was true with writing about Emaline, the character based on my mother, but I have been working with her character for so long, through three novels, that she has taken on a fictional life for me quite apart from the gentle woman I remember, drinking her tea as she read Chekhov at the kitchen table.
Rain Falls Like Mercy is a very poetic title. What is its significance of this title to you, and how did you come to choose it for your title?
Obviously, the title upends the central metaphor of the famous passage from The Merchant of Venice, in which “the quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” The irony here is that book begins as the mercy of rain has ended the great drought of the 1930s, but that the quality of mercy is so very absent in the affairs of men, whether it is the ruthless killings carried out by Pardo Bury or the mass murder of war.
The novel intertwines several storylines, from a love affair to soldiers fighting in WWII. Did you have a favorite story while writing the book? Which was the most challenging to write?
My favorite story, repellent as it is in some respects, was the story of Arlie Swain. She really grabbed me as a character and made the writing of that section (“Down the Road a Piece”) relatively easy. The other character I am especially fond of is the Choctaw cowpoke Two Spuds, so the scenes he is in were easier to write.
The most difficult, by far, was the opening of the “Fire on the Water” section, about the Battle of Pearl Harbor. The battle has been written and seen so many times (including the wretched Pearl Harbor movie) that it is hard to make it fresh. With little or nothing in the way of direct information as to how the Bobby character reacted that morning, I had to imagine what he would have felt and done and attempt to make it real.
One of the novel’s tragedies is the failed relationship between Juanita and Tom, which ended once Tom left to fight in the war. When developing their relationship, had you always planned on their love affair ending? Did you consider any alternative outcomes?
I definitely considered different outcomes. In one version of the novel, Pardo Bury kills Eli Paint rather than Tom Call. But that didn’t feel right. From the beginning, there is something tragic about Tom’s relationship with Juanita. Such a dizzying love affair in such difficult circumstances. The love affair ends the way it does because it felt right and true, as though that is really what would have happened to people in their situation, with Pearl Harbor and the war coming at a time when their relationship had barely begun.
How did you decide which characters fighting the war would survive and who would be casualties? Did you always plan on having Bobby survive the war and return home to his sister?
There was never any thought of having Bobby killed in the war. Throughout the trilogy, I attempted to remain true to the main events in the lives of the characters who were based on figures drawn from life. My mother told us many times of her anxiety as she waited for word after Pearl Harbor and of the brief postcard which finally brought her the good news. There was no way I was ever going to change that. At one point, I thought of having his cousin Leo killed in the war, because so many soldiers, sailors and Marines were killed. But the real-life Leo, Lyle Jones, survived the war, opened a trading post on a Navajo reserve and until very recently, ran a ranch in Wyoming. To bring home the horrors of battle, I chose instead the entirely fictional character, Lon Bury, Pardo’s older brother.
You have very strong feelings regarding war culture, and in your author’s note, you write that Vietnam was “a war which was as immoral and unnecessary as World War II was moral and necessary” (p. 300). In your opinion, has there been a justified war since WWII? Has there been a cause that America should have fought for but didn’t?
I think you can make a good case for humanitarian interventions in places like Kosovo, Somalia and Libya. The other wars since World War II, I believe, should not have been fought. They were enormously costly in terms of lives lost, squandered billions and eroded prestige and the results in places like Korea, Vietnam and Iraq were ambiguous at best.
Afghanistan is a separate, difficult case: a good argument for intervention can be made on the grounds of the Taliban’s brutal treatment of women and the fact that the country was, undeniably, a training ground for terrorists. The tragedy of Afghanistan is that the George W. Bush administration went venturing off in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq without finishing the job in Afghanistan, leaving behind a mess which has never been sorted out. The Taliban was given time to regroup and the result today is anything but clear.
Above all, I think that citizens in any democracy need to question every war, whether it’s called a police action or a military intervention or whatever. Anything that involves the use of military force is qualitatively different from all the other decisions a government makes and it is vital that the process be transparent and that citizens of independent mind stand up and be counted. I do believe that it is only the worst and weakest sort of citizen who goes along blindly with any sort of misadventure a government can conceive. When you go to war, people are going to die, lives are going to be ruined and the national debt is going to climb, sometimes ruinously. War should never be undertaken lightly, even when (particularly when?) the cause is demonstrably just, as during World War II.
In Rain Falls Like Mercy, Bobby Paint’s Navy buddy, Lucian Quigley, tries to explain the politics of war and race to Bobby. He tells Bobby that freedom is false and it’s a democracy only “as long as you go along with the herd” (p. 161). Do you think this stands true for today’s political and war culture, or has America progressed?
It may not always seem so, but America HAS progressed enormously, even since World War II and certainly since the time of Sun Going Down—which was written when women and blacks did not even have the right to vote. There is still much to be done and there is a powerful regressive element in American society attempting to claw back what has been done, but the progress is undeniable.
You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction works. Do you prefer writing one genre to the other? What are some of the challenges unique to novel writing?
I much prefer writing fiction. The most difficult challenge with fiction, I find, is that anything can happen and the story can be told in either way. With nonfiction, you are almost handed a structure by the story you’re trying to tell. Ultimately, however, I find that with fiction, at a certain point the story takes over and begins to tell itself. That was certainly true of the entirely fictional “Down the Road a Piece” section of this book. Throughout the trilogy, the hardest parts to write were those based most closely on actual events, particularly when I had diaries and letters describing those events at hand. It was difficult to write those sections without lapsing into the tone and voice of those who left such a vivid record. Their recollections were absolutely essential but they were not writers, so I had to find a voice which remained true to them without being drowned by their very folksy way of telling things.
Now that you’ve finished the trilogy, do you have any other upcoming projects? Have you considered writing another trilogy?
I don’t know if I would write another trilogy—it’s a major investment of time and effort and I should point out that the Paint Trilogy was initially conceived as a single novel, Sun Going Down (which in itself is probably two novels).
I am currently at work on a contemporary novel called The American, about the profound clash of values in the Vietnam generation. The narrator is a man named Edward Paint who, among other things, is at work on a history of the Paint family. However, it is entirely different from the trilogy in tone, setting, subject matter and almost everything else. It’s not at all a sequel to these novels but it is, in a sense, a prism through which they might be viewed in a different light.
I have at least a half-dozen other novels in some stage of development, including one called Paradise Rodeo, which is a direct sequel to the Paint novels, and Lucian’s Walk, which imagines the very difficult journey made by the first Lucian Quigley as he walked through the horrors of the reconstruction south, intent on finding his wife and children.