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Caution! Contains spoilers! Don't read until you've read the book!
Signs in the Blood
1) One of the central themes of this book is faith – faith in a leader and/or an idea. What are some examples of this in this book and in real life? When is blind faith good? When is it dangerous?
2) What are Elizabeth 's feelings toward her late husband and why? What are her feelings toward Phillip and why? Does she change over the course of the book?
3) Vicki populates her imaginary Marshall County with a diverse set of characters. What would draw such wildly different groups to the same area? Which groups are the most believable?
4) Many readers have told Vicki that they wish Elizabeth had gotten together with Harice, “even just for a one-night stand.” What's your opinion on this? Why or why not?
5) What do you think the title means?
6) Whom did you first suspect of Cletus's murder?
7) How did you feel about the Little Sylvie story? Was it confusing to you to jump back and forth in time? Does it add to the present day story?
8) How does the Little Sylvie story echo the theme of the danger of blind faith?
9) How do you feel about the resolution of the Little Sylvie plot?
10) What, for you, was the most memorable scene or most interesting character in the book? Why?
EXCERPTS from SIGNS IN THE BLOOD — The first Elizabeth Goodweather novel
From Chapter 1 ~ You Just Got To Have Faith
When Dessie Miller lay dying at home, her family overflowed the little house in a bittersweet reunion. Food was on the table at all hours of the day and of the night, continually replenished as newcomers arrived with their contributions. “This here’s the tater salad that Mommy always loved” accompanied an aluminum dish pan heaped with a pale yellow mound of potatoes, chopped pickles, and hard-boiled eggs, all glistening with mayonnaise. A gaunt chain-smoking woman, just off her factory shift, set down a cardboard tub of fried chicken with a dismissive wave of her cigarette, “It ain’t but Colonel Sanders but I reckon someone kin worry it down.” A grizzled farmer in clean overalls handed a covered bowl to one of the daughters, “Them greasy cut short beans is some Ollie canned; she cain’t come cause she’s down in the back, but she cooked ‘em up fer you uns.” The Ridley Branch Freewill Baptist choir sang “O Come, Angel Band” in the living room and two teenage grandchildren got saved in the kitchen.
Elizabeth Goodweather sat quietly at one end of the plastic-covered sofa. The heat in the crowded house was stifling but she couldn’t step out to the porch, not yet, not while Pastor Briggs was praying aloud for Dessie and for all the “miserable sinners” gathered there. He went on and on in the hypnotic chant that was the way of so many old time mountain preachers, his voice rising and falling, a loud inhalation at the end of each phrase keeping his message from ever coming to a full stop.
The sonorous words rolled out, almost in an auctioneer’s chant “Yes, it’s the hour of decision, brothers and sisters, the time when you make your choice… you make your choice between the fire below… and it’s a hot fire… and it’s an eternal fire …”
I hate the emphasis on damnation, thought Elizabeth, but I know it’s what these folks expect out of a sermon. Across the room she saw Miss Birdie Gentry, one of her long-time neighbor friends. Birdie and her middle-aged son Cletus lived in a tiny log house down by the paved road that ran beside Ridley Branch. Cletus was what people called “simple”, but he and Miss Birdie took care of each other and scratched out a living from their tobacco patch and garden. Miss Birdie’s eyes were fixed on the preacher and her lips were silently moving.
“…but there’s a lifeline… and it’s a heavenly lifeline.., and Jesus, he’ll pull you out of the pit…”
Many of those in the little room were swaying and nodding now; some of the women held up their open palmed hands in an almost ecstatic surrender. “Thank you, Jesus,” someone murmured. A few cigarette-hungry men shuffled uneasily by the door, held in place by sharp glances from their wives.
Elizabeth bowed her head, hoping fervently that she would not be noticed there on her corner of the sofa. She had come to say goodbye to Dessie, the old woman who, some twenty years ago, had first welcomed her and Sam to Ridley Branch, here in the mountains of North Carolina. Dessie had been in her mid-sixties then, sturdy and vigorous. She could hoe tobacco for hours on end or dart up the steep mountain trails after a wandering milk cow. Dessie and her husband Odus had taken Sam and Elizabeth under their wings, helping the newcomers to adapt to country life and teaching them how to do the myriad tasks that were part of life on a small mountain farm.
From planting potatoes to plowing with a mule, from milking a cow to butchering a hog, Dessie and Odus had helped the young couple, delighted to be passing on their knowledge of the old time ways. From them, Elizabeth and Sam had learned the vocabulary of the mountains, had learned that a small creek was called a branch and a bag was called a poke, had learned to say “holler” for hollow, “mater” for tomato and “baccer” for tobacco. “It’s about communication,” Sam had said when Elizabeth’s inner English major winced at these pronunciations. Now, of course, with the passage of years, the mountain dialect had flavored and enriched her own speech and she could appreciate its unique music.
. . .
The porch was empty except for Dessie’s old half-blind cow dog. Patsy thumped her tail and lifted her head to acknowledge Elizabeth’s presence, but stayed curled up on her scrap of faded carpet. Sinking gratefully into a weathered oak rocker, Elizabeth stretched out her long legs, propping up her sneaker-clad feet on a milk crate, and looked across the road to new-plowed tobacco fields. The red dirt lay in rough furrows, heavy clods thrown to the side and dotted with streaming tufts of deep green barley, the remains of a winter cover crop . Beyond the tobacco fields and just out of sight behind a small ridge lay her land-more fields and pastures, barns and outbuildings. And above them all rose the tall, tree-clad peak that was Pinnacle Mountain-her home. Elizabeth’s eyes traveled lovingly up the slope, relishing the vibrant yellow-greens of new foliage merging with the deeper emeralds of pine and fir. At the top of the mountain, a slash of pasture gleamed like polished jade amid the trees.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. The verse sprang into her mind, a relic of her church-going childhood. They do give me strength, even if I don’t have the same kind of faith my neighbors do. She thought of the women inside with their uplifted hands and radiant faces. It would be so comforting, so relaxing, just to believe and not think. I had that kind of faith when I was young. A bitter inner voice sounded mockingly. Didn’t you used to believe in a lot of things-Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and happily ever after? . . .
From Chapter 18 ~ A Deep Anointing
. . . This thing is real, she thought, seeing the snakes being handled casually, even roughly. These ordinary people, these farmers, factory hands, mothers, and fathers were in as genuinely a mystical state as any whirling Sufi, any meditating Zen monk awaiting satori, as any person of any faith seeking to attain oneness with God by abandoning reason and trusting to spirit. The danger was real, the snakes were real, and the faith was real. The handlers all seemed all to be in a deep ecstasy, beyond disbelief, beyond doubt, beyond fear.
Harice Tyler had passed over his two copperheads to a waiting deacon who clasped one in each hand and hopped across the dais, calling out in unintelligible staccato syllables. Tyler watched him and then, glancing toward Elizabeth, reached into the third snake box. He lifted up a fat yellow rattler and held it out to the congregation like an offering. The snake lay placidly across his splayed fingers, its questing tongue daintily tasting the air. The guitar and organ that had been pounding out an earsplitting anthem, three parts gospel, one part rock and roll, grew softer. The insistent rhythm pulsed in a compelling beat as Harice Tyler held the big yellow rattler out and said, “This is for someone.”
For a moment, caught up in the music and the mystery, Elizabeth thought, “I could do that.” She imagined holding the snake, silky and cool, strong and firm, in her hands and looking without fear into its slitted pupils. She had a momentary vision of herself dancing barefoot before the Lord, a copperhead in each hand, and Harice Tyler at her side. Harice Tyler was staring steadily at her now and holding out the big rattler, which lay unmoving in his hands.
She felt her body begin to tremble and she shifted her weight forward as if to rise. Harice’s eyes were locked with hers and seemed to be pulling her toward him She hesitated, balanced there on the razor edge between reason and faith. . . .
Elizabeth’s story intertwines with that of Little Sylvie – an earlier resident of Full Circle Farm.
I weren’t but thirteen years of age when Daddy sold me to a stranger man for a shotgun and five hundred dollars. I didn’t know that was what he done, but he done it all the same. Mister Tomlin was a rich man from over to Tennessee. He rode a handsome bay single-foot gelding named Nebuchadnezzar for some king in the Bible and he was travelin through our country buying up standing timber. They said he was looking out for a place by the river where he could build him a sawmill and float the lumber down to Newport. Mister Tomlin was an old man, something over fifty. They said he’d buried two wives and had grown children livin over to Greeneville, but he was most as stout as a young man and his hair was still as black as a crow’s wing.
Me and Clytie was up on the hillside lookin for guinea nestes when we seen that fine horse a-comin up our road. Hit was nigh dinner time and Clytie looked at me and said Lo and behold, here comes a stranger man and what do we have in the house to give him to eat? She knowed as well as I did that there weren’t nothin but some cold biscuits from breakfast. We hadn’t laid out to cook no dinner for Daddy had gone off to Ransom early that morning and we didn’t look to see him back till dark. Maybe not till morning for Daddy was bad to drink when he went into town. He’d not abide nare drop of likker in the house, but when he went to Ransom, more often than not he’d get him a bottle of whisky at the dispensary. Then he’d have to drink it all up for he wouldn’t bring it home. Romarie said that he’d solemn promised our Mommy when she was a-dyin’ not to have no likker in the house.
Mommy died birthin’ me. I was her seventh. The first one was Romarie, who was a great grown girl when I was born. She was twenty eight years old when I married Mister Tomlin; an old maid and like to stay one with the sharp tongue and mean ways she has. Romarie says hit was havin to raise up all us young uns atter Mommy died made her so ill-natured but Aetha, who’s twenty two and married to the Worley boy down the branch, says Romarie always was mean as a snake. They was three boys born too, between Aetha and Clytie, but they ever one died afore they was a year old. They’re up in the graveyard on the hill, just three little stones in a line along side of the big white rock Daddy hauled on a sled to mark where Mommy lies.
Aetha says she can remember when Daddy used to be different, back afore all the boys died. Said he was allus laughin and whistlin and grabbin Mommy round the waist a-wantin her to dance. Aetha says that it seems like with every boy child that died, some of the spirit went out of him and then when Mommy was took he turned into the hard, scowlin Daddy he is now. Course I know hit’s been hard on him, tryin to work a farm without no sons. He’s taught us girls to do a man’s work though and he sometimes hires help from the Johnson boys over to t’other side of Pinnacle. And I will say that though he is right strict with us girls, Daddy ain’t never lifted a hand to hit a one of us. The worst he ever done is to call us turdhead iffen we’re careless in our hoein and chop down a young baccer plant."
ALL PHOTOS BY CANDACE ALDRIDGE