Reading Group Guide
1. Julie is only in her teens when the novel opens, yet she has
already learned to face life's hardships with a resiliency that is
remarkable in one so young. We think of adolescence as a time of
rebellion, yet Julie offers very little resistance to anything Mama
and Papa tell her to do. Why do you think she is so accepting of
her role? Sometimes Julie inwardly simmers at what she is asked to
do, "but I didn't have any choice," she says. Is that true? What
choices does she have?
2. Even though two of her sisters are older than she is, Julie
is the one everyone counts on. "Everything that was hard fell to
me, and everything that nobody else wanted to do fell to me." Why?
What is the author saying about Julie? About those who depend on
her? About the time and place in which she grows up? "Because
you're the strongest one in the family. And because everyone has to
do what they can," is her mama's explanation. What do you think of
that philosophy? In what ways do people live up or down to what is
expected of them?
3. When Julie helps her father carry her dying brother down the
mountain, "it was the prettiest night you ever saw...It was the
first time I ever noticed how the way the world looks don't have a
thing to do with what's going on with people." Talk about both the
beauty and the impersonality of nature in the novel. What is the
author saying about the cycle of human life? Where does religion
fit into Julie's world view?
4. Before Julie meets Hank she thinks about falling in love with
"a strong man that knowed what he wanted and could teach you."
Contrast this image with what she finds in Hank. "I don't know why
his look stung me so deep at that instant. We don't ever know why
we fall in love with one person as opposed to another," she says.
Is this true? Is it something a young girl might think, but that a
mature woman might have a different perspective on? Talk about the
importance of chemistry in a love relationship. Is it more or less
important to you than shared interests and values? Why? What do you
think of love at first sight?
5. Julie imagined her marriage would be something wonderful, but
finds it different from what she expected. Her mama's view of
marriage was simple: "Like everything else it is work, hard work."
Do you think marriage is hard work? Contrast the way Julie responds
to their hard life with the way that Hank responds. How do you
think the different outlooks of Mama and Ma Richards have
contributed to their offspring's readiness for the responsibilities
6. Throughout the novel, we are given very detailed descriptions
of the difficult and often unpleasant chores that Julie performs --
from butchering a hog to laying out Mr. Pendergast's body after he
dies from the fire. Does this help you to understand just how hard
life was in Appalachia at the turn of the last century? Do you find
Julie's capacity to endure despite unrelenting sorrows
7. "It was like we formed a special kinship in the kitchen,"
Julie says after sharing some unexpected pleasant moments with her
mother-in-law. She experiences similar intimacy in her kitchen
cooking a meal with her sister Lou. Discuss the special place that
the kitchen can hold in women's lives. Julie experiences a similar
bonding experience with two new women friends from church who bring
her homemade jelly and clothes for the baby she is expecting. Why
do you think the author has Julie find sustenance from women during
the harsh winter and so little emotional support from her
8. When Hank realizes Julie has been conned out of money by a
lawyer, Hank smacks her across the face and cruelly insults her.
Discuss Julie's reaction to his temper. When they make up in bed,
Julie thinks "In the dark what mattered was we was together and
naked...We would always find a way to live, a way to get back, as
long as we could love." Do you share Julie's faith in their love?
9. When Gap Creek rises and floods their house, something snaps
in Hank who, shotgun in hand, threatens to shoot himself, and maybe
Julie, too. "I ruint your life...I ought to kill us both," he
shouts. As the disasters continue to pile up that bitter winter,
Hank slides into a deep depression broken by fits of rage. Do you
wonder why Julie continues to stick by him? What do you think of
10. All alone in the house with the nearest neighbor a mile and
a half off, Julie goes into premature labor with no one to help
her. She finds a way to deal with the agonizing pain and fear by
simply looking at it as hard work. Discuss the concept of
childbirth as the work women were "meant to do." Do you think this
view of her role exalts or diminishes a woman?
11. When Hank arrives home to discover that Julie has given
birth, there is a dramatic change in him. He lovingly tends to his
sick wife and baby, does all the chores, and, as Julie observes,
"It was like Hank had got a lot older." Why do you think he is now
ready to take care of his family? Do you think he is able to become
strong because, for once in their marriage, Julie is in a weakened
state? Or do you think the strength, faith, and gentle nurturing of
his young bride have finally rubbed off on him? Is the change in
12. In her fevered state after childbirth, Julie is visited by
her dead father in a vision and he tells her she will live and
continue to work and love. How does Julie use work to get her
through her grief when her baby dies? A continuous thread
throughout the novel, work is always hard and necessary, sometimes
ennobling, and often the only path to survival. Talk about the
various functions that work serves in the novel. In our lives? What
is your own view of work? If we didn't need to work for the
material benefits it provides, what would its value be?
13. Novelist Robert Morgan is also a prizewinning poet, and
critics have praised Gap Creek for its "starkly beautiful"
imagery and "simple but luminous" prose. The New York Times
Book Review says Morgan's "stripped-down and almost primitive
sentences burn with the raw, lonesome pathos of Hank Williams's
best songs." What do you think of Morgan's writing style? Can you
think of any other fictional characters -- in novels or in movies
-- whom Julie reminds you of? Do you enjoy reading this kind of
fiction? Why or why not?
Note to Readers
When I began writing Gap Creek I knew I wanted to tell
a story loosely based on the first year of marriage of my maternal
grandparents. They had gotten married about a hundred years before
on Mount Olivet and moved down to Gap Creek in South Carolina. I
knew them as elderly people when I was very young. Grandma, who
kept me during the day while my mother worked in the cotton mill,
died when I was three. I wanted to tell a story about a woman like
her, who did heavy men's work on the farm, and spent her life
working for others, for her sisters and her husband, her children
and grandchildren, the sick and needy of the community.
I tell my students that you do not write living fiction by
attempting to transcribe actual events onto the page. You create a
sense of real characters and a real story by putting down one vivid
detail, one exact phrase, at a time. The fiction is imagined, but
if it is done well, it seems absolutely true, as real as the world
The hardest work I did on Gap Creek was trying to get
the voice right. Julie, who tells her own story, is not well
educated and is not much of a talker. In fact, she feels
inarticulate. She feels she expresses herself best with her hands,
with her work. The trick was to create a plain voice, with simple,
direct sentences, that could express the complex emotions and
intimacy of marriage, even poetic experience. When I finally heard
that voice in my mind I was able to write the novel rather