Blackberry Winter Teacher’s Guide

By Sarah Jio

Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio


Questions and Topics for Discussion


In 2011, Sarah Jio burst onto the fiction scene with two sensational novels—The Violets of March and The Bungalow. WithBlackberry Winter—taking its title from a late–season, cold–weather phenomenon—Jio continues her rich exploration of the ways personal connections can transcend the boundaries of time.

Seattle, 1933. Single mother Vera Ray kisses her three–year–old son, Daniel, goodnight and departs to work the night–shift at a local hotel. She emerges to discover that a May–Day snow has blanketed the city, and that her son has vanished. Outside, she finds his beloved teddy bear lying face–down on an icy street, the snow covering up any trace of his tracks, or the perpetrator’s.

Seattle, 2010. Seattle Herald reporter Claire Aldridge, assigned to cover the May 1 ”blackberry winter” storm and its twin, learns of the unsolved abduction and vows to unearth the truth. In the process, she finds that she and Vera may be linked in unexpected ways…



Sarah Jio is a frequent contributor to major magazines, including Real Simple, Glamour, Cooking Light,and Redbook, and is also the health and fitness blogger for She lives in Seattle with her family.Sarah Jio is a frequent contributor to major magazines, including Real Simple, Glamour, Cooking Light, and Redbook, and is also the health and fitness blogger for She lives in Seattle with her family.



Q. Emily and Bee from The Violets of March make an appearance in Blackberry Winter. Is it fun for you to circle back to old stories that way? Will we see Claire and Ethan again some day?

Yes! I love plucking characters from previous books and giving them little cameos in future novels. As a reader, I think it’s such a treat when my favorite authors do this, and I get a kick out of it as an author. While my novels are not related or sequential, I do like to think that the worlds in which my characters exist overlap a bit.

Q. You mention in your author’s note that a song by Hilary Kole was your inspiration for the book’s title and for the two blizzards that set the scene in the opening pages. Were there any other inspirations behind the Vera and Claire’s stories?

No particular inspiration for Vera and Claire-they really just came to me so vividly. For both of them, I really dug deep into the emotions of motherhood, and tried to think about how I’d feel if I lost a child. How would it change me? I have to admit, writing this book was quite an emotional journey for me. As a result, this story will always have a very special place in my heart.

Q. You’re a mother yourself. Was it difficult for you to write the scenes depicting Vera’s anguish over her son’s disappearance? Did you find yourself imagining what you might do in the same situation?

Yes, believe it or not I actually cried a bit when I wrote this book (as cheesy as that may sound!). Picture me at my desk typing away with a box of Kleenex at the ready. That was my reality as I delved into the emotions that surrounded Claire and Vera’s personal heartache. Most heart–wrenching for me to write about was the scene in which Vera’s son’s teddy bear is found lying in the snow. My sons are all stuffed animal lovers, and that scene still breaks my heart-even though I wrote it!

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m hard at work on finishing up my fourth novel, The Last Camellia, which will be published by Penguin (Plume) on May 28, 2013. It’s a suspenseful, page–turner that combines a bit of history, mystery, and a sprinkling of romance.


  • The novel is set both in the 1930s and the present day, and the narration switches back and forth between Vera Ray and Claire Aldridge. Why do you think the author chose to set up the narrative this way? What does it lend to the story? How does it help the reader get a better sense of the events of the novel?

  • In the opening pages of the novel, Claire alludes to a “phantom pain” in her abdomen. Did you have a sense of what had happened to her before the details of her accident were revealed? How did learning the truth about what happened to Claire alter your perception of her and Ethan’s relationship? Why do you think the author held back the details of the accident at first?

  • This novel deals closely with the gulf between the rich and the poor, particularly in the 1930s. Were you surprised by the apathy the police demonstrated over Daniel’s disappearance? Is Vera surprised?

  • How would you characterize Claire’s relationship with Dominic? Is it a threat to her relationship with Ethan? Why do you think Claire turns to Dominic instead of her husband initially?

  • Claire and Ethan seem reluctant to talk to one another throughout much of the novel. How does this contribute to the growing distance between them? What finally spurs them both to close the gap?

  • Consider Abby and Caroline. What role do they play in Claire and Vera’s lives? How do the women support one another? Would Claire and Vera have had the strength to do what they needed to do in their lives without Abby and Caroline’s support?

  • What do you make of Vera and Charles’s relationship? Vera leaves because she doesn’t want to be the reason Charles loses all that he has. Do you think if she hadn’t left, they could have stayed together? Do you believe him when he tells her that he wishes she would have let him make that choice for himself?

  • Why does Vera believe that Lon Edwards will help her find her son? Would you have done the same thing in her position? Can you imagine her state of mind when he tells her he won’t help her?

  • How does researching Daniel and Vera’s story allow Claire to heal? How does learning what happened to Vera compel Claire to move forward with her own life?

  • Vera and Claire’s storylines intermingle in many ways. What did you make of the revelation that Charles was a Kensington? In what other ways are Claire and Vera tied to one another?

  • Do you believe that Josephine pointed Vera towards the leaky rowboat? What were her motivations for kidnapping Daniel? Did she believe she was doing the right thing?

  • What did you make of Warren’s revelation? Were there any hints earlier on that might have clued the reader in to this piece of the puzzle?

  • How does the significance of the title come into play at the end of the novel? What does it mean to Claire to have the gardener tell her that blackberry vines “choose souls to protect?” Are you hopeful for Claire and Ethan’s future?
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