Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Tender Mercy of Roses includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anna Michaels. 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.
Set on the rural border of Tennessee and Alabama, The Tender Mercy of Roses chronicles the murder and search for the killer of popular rodeo cowgirl Pony Jones. Pony is found in the northern Alabama woods amidst ethereal circumstances with white Cherokee roses covering her body. Furthermore, the woman who discovers Pony’s body, Jo Beth Dawson, was once a well-respected detective in the very town where Pony was murdered. Haunted by Pony’s ghost, Jo Beth undertakes the journey of a lifetime to find Pony’s murderer and come to terms with her own past.
QUESTIONS & TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
- The novel opens with the ghost of Pony narrating the circumstances of her death. What is your initial reaction to Pony’s character? Do you like her? What do you learn about her life? About her murder?
- Discuss the signs from the universe that tell Titus his daughter has died. What do you make of these primal images? Do you connect them to Pony’s mother and her ancestry? How does Pony’s mother affect the story as a whole?
- Spiritual undertones permeate the novel. On page 17, Jo Beth says she can hardly tell the difference between a pity and a blessing. What do you think she means? Discuss the similarities and differences between a blessing and a pity, especially for Jo Beth.
- On page 32, Jo Beth describes her home state of Alabama: “The state is a land of deep caves and steep ravines and red clay colored by the blood of fathers and brothers and sons too young to bear arms. But it’s also a land rampant with beauty and promise where the great American bald eagle keeps watch over the rivers…” How does the setting help shape the story? Why do you think Jo Beth refers to Alabama as a place “where anything could happen?” How do you think the story would have been different if it were set in an urban environment, such as New York City?
- Discuss Pony’s mission from her mother. What is it? Is Pony successful in completing the mission? Why do you think the mission is important to Pony’s deceased mother?
- Turn to page 68 and revisit Jo Beth’s fateful day. Do you blame Jo Beth for what happened with the suicide? How does the death relate to her past? Do you think her guilt over the young boy’s death was responsible for her descent into alcoholism?
- Consider Pony’s role in the rodeo. She was the first and only woman to ride bulls professionally against men. What can you infer about her character, based on this knowledge?
- What do you make of Sam’s character? Is he sympathetic? Do you agree with his decisions? What would you have done in Sam’s situation?
- On page 140, Jo Beth remembers one of Sam’s sayings: “There is no such thing as coincidence.” Do you think this motto could serve as a theme for the novel? Find examples of moments of coincidence in the novel. What opinion do you think the author has of coincidences? Discuss the other themes that drive the novel: sin and redemption, the past that both haunts and heals.
- Do you think guilt is the catalyst for any of the character’s actions in the novel? Consider Jo Beth, Titus Jones, Sam, and John Running Wolf in your response.
- Discuss the role of Cherokee roses in the novel—from when Pony’s body was discovered to their scent. Consider the title, Pony’s birth, and Pony’s death in your response. What do you think the roses symbolize?
- Toward the end of the novel, Jo Beth’s character begins to change. Analyze some of the changes you note in Jo Beth. Who or what do you think is responsible for her newfound resolve? What role does Pony’s spirit play in Jo Beth’s transformation?
- What did you make of the ending? Were you surprised by Titus’s turn of heart toward Mark Dawson? How does the title foreshadow the ending?
- Predict what you think will happen between Jo Beth and Titus. Do the two live happily ever after? Is the ghost of Pony Jones finally at rest?
- Although she is dead from the moment the story begins, the ghost of Pony Jones is the central character in the story. Her death—and her persistence after death to find justice—moves the story forward. In a similar way, Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones (2002) narrates her story and helps lead her family to her killer. Have a movie night with your reading group and watch the movie version of The Lovely Bones. Compare and contrast Pony and Susie. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different?
- Research upcoming exhibits in your area that feature Native American culture. Or, visit the website for the National Museum of American History (http://americanhistory.si.edu/) to search for interesting facts about Native American culture. Present your findings to your group, and share why you think the author chose to use Native American imagery to shape the story. Consider the power of mysticism and the role of spirituality in the novel.
- The southern setting plays an important role in this novel. For your next meeting, host a southern-inspired potluck dinner. For recipes and inspiration, try www.southernliving.com/food or www.southernplate.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH ANNA MICHAELS
This is your debut novel. What was the inciting factor that led you to write this story? What inspired you? What was the journey like from conception to publication?
I dreamed Pony. Literally. I had been toying with the idea of Jo Beth Dawson on a road trip with friends to the rodeo when Pony sprang into my head talking a mile a minute. Though it was midnight, I shot out of bed and started taking dictation. The scrawls on the back of a manila envelope became Pony’s opening monologue in The Tender Mercy of Roses. She changed everything. She brought with her a Native American heritage, a complex father I had to get to know, magical realism, murder, and one of the most unique voices in American fiction. If I sound like a proud mother, it’s because I am. But you’d have to call me an elephant or a whale or some other animal with a long gestation period. It took two years to write Pony’s story and another to bring her into the world—and I’ve loved every minute of it.
On your website, you mention you chose the town of Huntsville, Alabama as the setting for the novel, because the town has an energy that fit well with your story. Can you elaborate on the choice for the setting? Is the energy of the town similar to Pony’s energy? Could this story have been told in any other town?
Pony is definitely as energetic as the Saturn Five rocket that dominates Huntsville’s skyline. Every time she sprang onto the page, I had to race to keep up with her. Huntsville and Pony are also linked by a rich Native American history. To avoid deportation in the Trail of Tears, many of the Cherokee hid in hills and caves of that area. But the major element that drew me to Huntsville—that will always beckon me—is a feeling of magic. I can’t imagine setting The Tender Mercy of Roses in any other town.
Were any of the characters based on people in your life? Did you draw inspiration from any historical figures for these characters?
Although Pony is unlike anyone I’ve ever known, her profession was inspired by Native American cowgirl Kaila Mussell, who made history as the first female professional saddle bronc rider. Until Kaila broke that barrier, saddle bronc riding was considered too dangerous for a woman. How much more dangerous is a 2,000 pound bull! I decided riding bulls against the men in the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) was exactly what my convention-flouting Pony would do.
There is a blurb on your website that describes your work as “Southern Gothic at its best.” If you were to write a blurb for yourself, what would it be? Do you characterize your writing as “Southern Gothic?”
One of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, is considered by some literary critics to be Southern Gothic. I’m delighted to be in such good company. To the extent that The Tender Mercy of Roses has a sublime and picturesque landscape, puts an emphasis on the past, and uses tragedy to explore the psychology of the human condition, I’d say my novel fits the Southern Gothic category. However, I don’t like labels. If I wrote a blurb for myself, I would simply say, “Anna Michaels writes magical stories about people who are not real but ought to be.”
Describe the kind of research that went into the making of this novel. You mention that your characters dictate the story to you. Would you classify your writing technique as more research-based or organic? Or both?
I’m an organic writer, through and through. I show up for work, vanish into the unconscious mind, and type as my characters’ voices flow. Because research is a siren song that can mesmerize me, when I’m writing I do research on a need-to-know basis. For this book my nephew, who is a weekend cowboy, supplied me with valuable tidbits about rodeo. The Native American myths are my own creation, and the roses grow in my gardens—Enchanted Garden, Sugar’s Garden, and Angel Garden. Anything in this novel about murder investigation came from a book called Forensics for Dummies. I’m not kidding!
What do you hope readers will remember about this story?
That we live in a magical world where anything is possible…that the spirit is unsinkable…that there is always reason for hope.
Pony is a strong-willed, one-of-a-kind girl. There are several instances in the novel where Pony’s career as the only professional female bull rider is mentioned. How is Pony’s empowerment in her profession important to the story overall?
Pony, as the only female bull rider in the PRCA, is symbolic of the indomitable human spirit. If you could ride a 2,000 pound bull, you could do anything!
Who are some of your literary influences?
Fellow Mississippians—Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and even the playwright Tennessee Williams—are strong influences. I tried to capture Welty’s sense of place, Faulkner’s universal themes, and Williams’s unforgettable, flawed Southern characters. Several contemporary writers awe and inspire me: Pat Conroy and Alice Hoffman for their stunning lyric beauty, Joshilyn Jackson for her voice and her no-holds-barred honesty, Jodi Picoult and Jonathan Franzen for their complexity.
Mythical and spiritual images, especially those connected to Native American heritage, are abundant in the novel. What is your connection to Native American myths?
A strain of Native American blood runs through my veins, compliments of my mother. That probably explains why my office is filled with books about their legends and the wisdom of their sayings, why I love myth and magic, and why I love to wear Native American jewelry.
Who are you reading now? Can you share some details about what you are currently working on?
I’m reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave, which is living up to its promise to be “ambitious and fearless.” And I’m thrilled to be working on a novel I can best describe as The Help meets To Kill a Mockingbird. Though the story is set in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1955, the year Emmet Till’s death mobilized the Civil Rights Movement, at the heart of the story is a ten-year-old mulatto girl named Billie who has completely enchanted me. Every bit as sassy and wise and hopeful as Pony, Billie is taking me on a journey through a labyrinth of blues juke joints, ancient murder, and stunning secrets that will rip apart a town already cracking along racial divides. I love it. It’s pure magic!