This reading group guide forThe Skeleton Box includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Bryan Gruley. 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.
The Skeleton Box recounts the story of a murder in the small town of Starvation Lake, Michigan—a murder that journalist Gus Carpenter is determined to solve. There is a lot at stake for Gus: the victim—Phyllis Bontrager—is the mother of his ex-girlfriend Darlene, the best friend of his own mother, Bea Carpenter, and was found dead in Bea’s house after an attempted break-in turned sour. With the help of Luke Whistler, a former Detroit Free Press reporter, Gus sets out to uncover the truth behind Mrs. B’s death and the break-ins plaguing Starvation Lake. But what he doesn't realize is his new protégé, Luke, has his own agenda, one that circles back to buried secrets that may forever change Gus's assumptions about his own family.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The prologue to The Skeleton Box begins: “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned…”(p. 7) Readers later discover that this text is included in a letter written by Father Nilus Moreau as a confession of the many sins he committed during his tenure in Starvation Lake. Consider how this letter sets the tone for the novel. How does this letter act as a lens for understanding the story? Why do you think the author chose to book-end his novel with this letter?
2. What kind of symbolism can you glean from the name of the town—Starvation Lake? In what way are the residents of this town “starving”?
3. How would this novel be different if Darlene were the narrator?
4. Throughout the novel there are repeated examples of friction between Tatch’s group on the hill—the Christians—and the rest of the town. Discuss this tension, considering the ways in which the residents of Starvation Lake describe the Christian camp. Does one group segregate themselves from another?
5. Discuss Dingus and the role he plays in the novel. Is he a sympathetic character? Do you like him? Why or why not? How would you describe Dingus and Gus’s relationship in one word?
6. The game of hockey is an important part of the culture of Starvation Lake. In the following quote, Dingus is asking Gus to speak to Tatch about missing the game the night of the break-in: “He’s your buddy. Couple of goalies, you think alike, right? If ‘think’ is the right word for goalies.” (p. 70) How do stereotypes help characterize Tatch, Gus, and the rest of the town? Why do you think hockey is so important to them? What significance does being a goalie have, given that they are “the only ones on the team who understood how alone we were between the goalposts”? (p. 91)
7. Discuss Bea’s relationship to her two best friends and the church. Was her falling out with Soupy’s mother related to her turning away from the church? Do you blame her for no longer attending mass? Consider the irony of Bea’s troubled relationship with the church in your response.
8. Why do you think Gus suspected Breck but never suspected Luke Whistler? Did you ever suspect him?
9. Family ties are what implicate everyone involved in the break-ins and Phyllis’s murder—ties that are strong and cause the characters in the novel to act in irrational ways. Discuss family relationships in the book, using Gus, Bea, Whistler, Darlene, and Breck as examples. How are each of these characters galvanized by a desire to right a wrong in their family’s history?
10. Revisit the momentous scene in Mr. Carpenter’s garage when Bea gives Gus the lockbox. (pp. 220-230) What details do you notice in hindsight? Would you have made the same choices as Gus and Bea if you were in their situation?
11. The Skeleton Box is a loaded title. To what moment in the novel does the title refer? Are there other implicit references in the title?
12. “Always first, frequently right” (p. 264) is a phrase repeated throughout the book, first by Whistler and later by Joanie—both employees of the Detroit Free Press. Whistler does tend to show up first to a story—why do you think that might be? Did you understand his motivation for writing the book? Were any of his choices ‘right’—as in moral?
13. On page 307 Gus reflects on the championship hockey game of his childhood and wonders: “Whether I could have done something differently to make things right.” Is Gus plagued by a similar guilt regarding his mother? His relationship with Darlene? His relationship to the town of Starvation Lake? Can you think of any other characters similarly haunted by regrets?
14. Discuss the ending of The Skeleton Box. Does the truth set Gus free, or is discovering the truth about his family a burden? Do you think this is a situation where “ignorance is bliss”? Discuss.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Religion and faith are discussed frequently throughout The Skeleton Box—from Tatch’s camp, to Bea’s lack of faith, to the crimes committed by the Catholic Church. At the end of the novel, Gus tells Darlene he believes in: “doing my best, trying to be a good guy.” Take a moment with your book club and answer Darlene’s question: “What do you believe?”
2. The Skeleton Box is the third book in a mystery series featuring the town of Starvation Lake. If your group hasn’t done so already, read the first two books in the series—Starvation Lake and The Hanging Tree—and discuss the novels. Which characters overlap? Does the picture of the town differ in any of the novels? How so? Which novel did your group like the best? The least? Why?
3. Hockey is an important element in the novel—it is the one thing the town can agree on, the one way that everyone in Starvation Lake is united. Attend a hockey game with your group, paying special attention to the goalie. Why do you think the author chose to have Gus play this position? What makes this position so important? Share with your group a time you felt like a goalie—however figuratively. What was it about the situation that made it feel as though you were defending something or someone alone against a large group of people?
A Conversation with Bryan Gruley
Why did you decide to set this story in a small Michigan town? Did any particular aspects of your childhood inform the creation of Starvation Lake? What effect does small town life have on the narrative in general? Would this story have a different ending if it weren’t set in Starvation Lake?
I chose a small northern Michigan town mostly because I’m familiar with the territory, having spent a lot of time in my life at my parents’ cottage on Big Twin Lake, not far from the real Starvation Lake that is the namesake of my fictional town. When I started writing the first book in 2002, I had thought that a small town would be more manageable for a rookie author. That wasn’t quite the case, but I stayed with it anyway. The particulars and circumstance of an ending in, say, Detroit, might have been different, but I doubt its essentials would have.
Along the same lines, did anyone from your life inspire the characters in this story? Are there any nonfiction elements in The Skeleton Box?
I don’t base major characters on people I know. The story was inspired by the true story of the mysterious death of a nun in northern Michigan in the early 1900s (see the acknowledgments). There are indeed nonfiction elements in The Skeleton Box, but most are places (Kalkaska, Traverse City, Midland) and institutions (the Detroit Red Wings, Sanders) that I’ve borrowed from the real world.
This book is the third in your Starvation Lake series. How did the experience of writing this book differ from the other two novels? How was it similar?
It was similar in that I wrote in Gus’s voice about many characters I knew from the previous two novels. It was different insofar as, of course, the story was different, but especially (at least to me) in how Gus’s perspective on life had evolved after spending more time back in Starvation Lake, and how much more certain he grew that his fate rest with Darlene. I also made a conscious effort to dial back the amount of hockey in the book.
Do you agree with Bea that truth does not always set you free, that in fact sometimes learning the truth actually makes life more difficult?
Absolutely. Which isn’t to say that Gus shouldn’t have learned the truth about his mother, her mother, and Nilus. But I’ll let the reader decide whether it was good for him, or a burden.
Who is your favorite author?
I have no real idea. I’ve long loved Hemingway, especially the Nick Adams stories, partly because several are set in northern Michigan. Salinger is a favorite, especially his Nine Stories, and especially the story “The Laughing Man”, which my Notre Dame professor Bill Krier once said contains the greatest line ever written in American literature (“For poise, I picked up a stone and threw it at a tree.”) I love Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Harris (the first two books) and Alice Munro and Michael Connelly and Richard Russo. I’ve certainly forgotten some. My favorite essayist is someone you’ve probably never heard of—Brian Doyle of Portland, Oregon—but should get to know, immediately.
You attended the University of Notre Dame for your Bachelor’s degree, a famous Catholic institution. Did the influence of Catholicism in your own life play a role in this novel? How so?
My Catholic background played a big role in the writing of this book, though not particular to Notre Dame or the Catholic high school and grade school I attended. Some readers may conclude that I have lost my faith. They would be wrong. I certainly struggle with it, especially when I pick up a newspaper and read about the church’s hypocritical and sordid handling of sexual abuse cases.
On your website, www.bryangruley.com, you have recipe for “Egg Pie” posted to download. Are you a cook? What is your favorite meal to prepare?
I didn’t come up with that recipe; my old friend, the talented chef and cookbook author Domenica Marchetti, did. I wouldn’t credit myself with being a “cook,” but I do love to grill on the deck over our garage, and I haven’t heard many complaints about my efforts.
Compare and contrast writing a novel with writing for a newspaper. Which do you find more difficult? Does one inform the other? How so?
One’s more a sprint, the other a marathon. In both cases, you are constrained by the details you can gather (nonfiction) or imagine (fiction). Of course the imagination is rooted in real-world observations stretching back to the day your were born, and a good journalist can often find more of what she or he needs if they have an imagination that will take them to places—physical or mental—they wouldn’t otherwise have gone. Fiction requires more voice, nonfiction more distance, but in both cases, the writing should be clear enough that the reader understands what’s on the page, and engaging enough that the readers wants to turn that page.
Do you play hockey yourself? If so, what position? Do you follow professional hockey? Who is your favorite team?
I play wing. As my pals will attest, I’m not especially fast and don’t have particularly good hands, but I love to be out there, and I think I’m still learning things about how to play (my pals would say, “Finally, Grules.”) My favorite team is the Detroit Red Wings, the best franchise in hockey for the past two decades.
Who are you reading now? What is next for you as a writer? For Gus Carpenter and Starvation Lake?
I just finished Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, which took me five months, even though I loved it. At the moment I’m re-reading The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, which will probably take me until 2012; Michael Harvey’s We All Fall Down; and Bin Laden’s Bald Spot, a collection of poignant, frequently hilarious short pieces by Brian Doyle. I have a busy life.
As for Gus, I have ideas for a fourth book, but I’m also thinking about an entirely different setting and set of characters entirely, so we may be saying goodbye to Starvation Lake, at least for now.