The Wisdom of Hair Teacher’s Guide

By Kim Boykin

The Wisdom of Hair by Kim Boykin


Questions and Topics for Discussion


In 1983, on her nineteenth birthday, Zora Adams finally says goodbye to her alcoholic mother and their tiny town in the mountains of South Carolina. Living with a woman who dresses like Judy Garland and brings home a different man each night is not a pretty existence, and Zora is ready for life to be beautiful.

With the help of a beloved teacher, she moves to a coastal town and enrolls in the Davenport School of Beauty. Under the tutelage of Mrs. Cathcart, she learns the art of fixing hair, and becomes fast friends with the lively Sara Jane Farquhar, a natural hair stylist. She also falls hard for handsome young widower Winston Sawyer, who is drowning his grief in bourbon. She couldn’t save Mama, but maybe she can save him.

As Zora practices finger waves, updos, and spit curls, she also comes to learn that few things are permanent in this life—except real love, lasting friendship, and, ultimately.forgiveness.


Kim Boykin loves to write fiction stories about strong Southern women, because that’s what she knows. Kim is an accomplished public speaker and serves on the board of the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, three dogs, and 126 rose bushes.

  • Throughout the novel, Zora fears becoming her mother. To what extent do you think she has inherited her mother’s traits, or do you think she has successfully escaped following in her mother’s footsteps?

  • Dressing up as someone else is a common theme. For example, Zora’s mother dresses up as Judy Garland, and Winston first notices Zora when she is wearing Emma’s dress. Do you think this signifies that the characters are striving to be something more than they are, or is it simply a sign of their insecurities?

  • Zora and Winston have a chemistry that doesn’t require conversation or having anything in common other than each other. Do you think they ever really loved each other, or is it only infatuation?

  • Zora says that the reason she leaves Winston is because he doesn’t defend her when John Ridgeway alludes to her being “mountain folk.” How much of her leaving Winston then, do you think, is about his actions, and how much is about the actual comment?

  • Zora straddles two worlds: her life in the mountains and her life in Davenport. How much of a person’s character is shaped by his/her upbringing, and do you think it is something that can ever be truly left in the past?

  • When Zora is pregnant, she has a dream about Daddy Heyward, who tells her “if you ever want anything powerful bad, it’s ok” (p. 204). What do you think is it that Zora wants “powerful bad”?

  • Mrs. Farquhar and Zora’s mother represent extremes in motherhood. Mrs. Farquhar is a picture–perfect mother, and Zora’s mother is an alcoholic who offers little love or guidance to her daughter. Zora is a product of these two extreme motherly figures by the end of the novel, and becomes a parent herself. What effect do these two parenting styles eventually have on Zora?

  • Zora says that she notices how the women who come into the hair salon “want something different, a change. They want to be happy” (p. 138). After enrolling in school, Zora, unlike the other girls, doesn’t constantly change her hair. What does this say about her?

  • The novel is filled with lasting female bonds, and Zora refers to Mrs. Farquhar and Sara Jane as “the sisterhood.” How do these strong female characters and their relationships with each other compare to their relationships with the men in the novel?

  • When Zora’s mother comes to visit her before Thanksgiving, she says she is sober and has come to make amends for what she has done in the past, which includes confessing the real reason Zora’s father died. Do you think she is sincere in her desire to turn her life around, or do agree with Miss Cunningham when she says, “People like your mom don’t change, Zorie”? Do you think people have the capacity to make drastic changes in their lives, or are they always trapped in their old ways?

  • Zora and Emma share more than one similarity. What are these similarities and how do you think that impacted Zora’s relationship with Winston?

  • Alcoholism is a constant presence in the novel. In what ways does Winston’s reliance on drinking feed his relationship with Zora, and in what ways does it pull them apart?

  • When she thinks about Sara Jane’s happiness with Jimmy, Zora wonders if “her time will ever come.” At the end of the novel, do you think she has found “her time,” in her own way? How so?

  • Several characters in the novel pretend to live different lives, including Mother Hannah, who believes she received a brooch as a gift from Florenz Ziegfeld. However, Zora is guilty of living in a fantasy world with Winston. To what degree do you think living in a fantasy is harmless, and when does it turn dangerous?

  • Ethyl Fontaine seemingly hated Zora when she first came in to get her hair done, but then requested that Zora style her hair when she knew she was about to die. In what ways does something as simple as a haircut impact both the customer and the stylist? What, to you, is “the wisdom of hair?”

  • We never fully learn Winston’s history with Emma, but we know he tries to drink the pain of her death away. Do you sympathize at all with Winston, as a victim of a tragedy, or do you think he’s weak and unable to move on with his life?

  • Zora says it is in her nature to keep things to herself, and Sissy Carson says to her, “You’re too damn private, Zora. You can’t keep everything inside of you. It’ll kill you just like it did Ed” (p. 117). Has there ever been a time when you haven’t told even your closest friend an important part of your life? Do you agree with Sissy that you can’t hold everything in, or do you think it’s ok to keep certain aspects of your life private?
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