The Past is Never

Reading Group Guide

  1. The title of this book is taken from a longer quote by William Faulkner—“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” What does this quote mean in the context of this novel?
  2. Bert’s search for her sister and her father consumes her life for many years. How does this obsession change Bert? How might Bert have been different if she’d never lost her family members?
  3. Granny Clem provides medical help to women who cannot afford or don’t have access to ordinary doctors. Some of the help she provides is illegal. Is her work morally wrong or morally justified?
  4. The book provides glimpses of history or myth surrounding the quarry and Bert’s ancestors. How do these sections inform your interpretation of modern events?
  5. Race and racism play a key role in shaping the town and people of White Forest. Though the town and the events that shaped it are fictional, there are many places in America with a long history of racial injustice. Can a town or a family ever escape the horrors of the past? If so, how?
  6. The book contains a number of references to the supernatural, particularly in the stories surrounding the quarry. Why do the characters cling to stories about ghosts, aliens, curses, and monsters rather than looking for logical explanations when terrible things happen? Is this something particular to the South?
  7. In the beginning of the book, Willet criticizes his father for being dishonest and criminal, but later Willet seems to follow in his father’s footsteps. Is Willet succumbing to destiny or forging his own path?
  8. At its core, the novel is about what makes a family. How does Bert’s concept of family evolve throughout the course of the novel? What does she learn from the family members she interacts with and from the ones who have disappeared?
  9. Granny Clem is a strong, independent woman who chooses to live outside the traditional feminine expectations of the South. Yet, she is one of the most maternal and nurturing figures in Bert’s life. How do Granny Clem’s unconventional choices influence Bert? What kind of woman do you thing Bert will be when she is older?
  10. The book explores the power of storytelling and secret keeping, particularly among family members. How do the stories the characters tell one another change over the years? Why do they keep some things secret? What is the difference between a story and a lie?
Tiffany Quay Tyson