Lake People Teacher’s Guide

By Abi Maxwell

Lake People by Abi Maxwell


The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Abi Maxwell’s Lake People, the haunting debut novel about one woman’s journey to discover her family history and her own identity.


Set in the tiny New Hampshire town of Kettleborough, Lake People begins in 1982, when Alice Thorton learns that her parents had abandoned her beside a lake shortly after her birth. The shock of that discovery, of knowing she was unwanted, sparks her desire to know more about her origins, her family history, who she really is, and why her parents abandoned her. Befriended by the town’s librarian, Alice scours the books and newspapers that will reveal her own story.

The narrative proceeds in shifting time frames, mirroring Alice’s attempts to fit together the puzzle pieces of her life. Raised by foster parents Paul and Clara Thorton, she has no knowledge of her true lineage: her great-great-grandmother Eleonora, who brought her family to Bear Island from Sweden; her grandmother Sophie, who would turn Alice away when she was born; Elenora’s daughter Ida, who answered a mysterious call and was swallowed by the lake.

Alice has heard the stories. Paul has told them to her, but she has no idea how they relate to her, even though she feels some special claim over them, “as though by the lake and its people she alone had been chosen” (p. 103). Indeed, everyone seems to know these stories, the lore of an insular small town, and that Alice is the offspring of a socially unacceptable union between Sophie’s son Karl and Jennifer Hill, a young woman of the poorest class. Because of that union, Alice is shunned.

And this is the central paradox of the novel. Alice is both shunned and “chosen.” Rejected by her parents and grandparents, Alice is an outsider in both the higher and lower strata of Kettleborough society. But on a deeper level, or because of some larger fate, she has been chosen. As an infant, she miraculously survives a frightening plunge into the ocean inside her foster parents’ van , her second near-death experience by water. And after years of feeling unmoored, witnessing a murder, and living with a man who does not love her, Alice is called back to the island by an impulse she doesn’t fully understand but cannot resist. Once there, she answers another mysterious call that leads her to a life-changing experience.

Complex, intensely lyrical, at times magical, Lake People explores one woman’s inner and outer journey toward home and self-acceptance.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Many novels have been written about family and family history. The search for self-acceptance and self-knowledge is also a major theme in Western literature. In what ways does Lake People offer a distinctive treatment of these subjects and themes? What is most fresh and surprising about the novel—about the story it tells and the way it tells it?

2. What is the effect of the way the narrative shifts time frames? Why might Abi Maxwell have chosen this structure rather than a more straightforwardly chronological narrative?

3. What role does the lake play in the novel? Does it exert some supernatural power over those who live near it, and over Eleonora’s family in particular? Or is the lake’s power merely a projection of unconscious fears and wishes? Or is there some other explanation for the gravitational pull it seems to exert?

4. Why do Alice’s grandparents give her up? How does this feeling of not being wanted affect Alice throughout the rest of her life?

5. What role does social class play in the novel?

6. What is the significance of Alice falling into the ocean at the very moment her foster mother sees a whale emerging from it? Why would her mother think that her infant disappearing just as the whale appeared added “some order to the mystery” (p. 72)?

7. How does the story of Devnet and the death of George Collins—which twelve-year-old Alice witnesses and then revisits twenty-four years later—relate to the rest of the novel?

8. In what ways are secrets important in the novel? Who keeps secrets and why? What is the effect of revealing or discovering the truth?

9. Why does Kenneth intercept Simon and Alice’s letters? Why does Rose burn them? Is it chance or fate that brings Alice and Simon together again?

10. Why does Alice make such inappropriate choices of lovers in Mike Shaw and Josh? What is she trying to get from them? In what ways does it feel right that she finds her way in the end, and after many obstacles, to Simon?

11. Near the end of the novel, Alice thinks: “Now, as I walk through this town, I wonder just how many people know my story, and how it is possible that in all these years, no one has ever thought to tell it to me” (p. 198). Why haven’t the townspeople told Alice what they know about her past? Why hasn’t Alice asked more directly? Is there something necessary in her discovering who she is in the way she does?

12. The final paragraphs of Lake People point to a mystical experience. Alice says: “I could believe that all of us, and the journey I had just taken, had never existed and would always exist” (p. 210). What does she mean by this? How can it be true that something had never existed and would always exist?

13. How are readers to understand Alice’s journey over the frozen lake to the “Witches” and her encounter with the bear-woman? She feels certain it really happened, but if so, it violates the laws of ordinary reality. How can this seeming paradox be resolved or accepted?

14. In many ways, Alice has been searching for home throughout the novel. Why does she come to feel that the lake is her home and to see herself as “a child of that water, and not the unwanted infant that I truly was” (p. 205)? How does knowing the true story of her life help Alice accept herself?

Suggested Reading

Julia Alvarez, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents; Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre; Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist; Kent Haruf, Plainsong; Mary Lawson, Crow Lake; W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage; Jodi Picoult, Keeping Faith.
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