READERS GUIDEGuide written by Amy Clements
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. If you had access to Edison’s machine, who would you want to summon from the dead? What would you ask? Would you want to be warned about imminent danger, as Miles’s mother did, or would you rather not know what lies ahead?
2. Discuss the many faces of motherhood described in the novel. Did Lily’s protective instincts do more harm than good? How will Necco’s approach to parenting be different? Why was it hard for Theo to trust her mother?
3. Miles’s book, The Princess and the Elephant, describes the power of myths, legends, and symbols. Is his family haunted by a supernatural force, or did their enemy become stronger and more dangerous simply through storytelling?
4. “Fire is life,” the Fire Eaters say, and “fire is breath.” How is this demonstrated by the women of Ashford? What is special about the women’s wisdom possessed by the Fire Eaters?
5. What lies at the heart of Necco’s resilience? Do her memories sustain her, or do they burden her with fear and grief?
6. Was Hannah just using Theo, or is it possible that she had fallen in love? What made Hannah vulnerable to Jeremy’s control?
7. While Theo learns more and more about the nature of addiction, does she use her leverage wisely?
8. What does Errol’s story tell us about innocence? How was his perception of himself shaped by his male role models?
9. Pru’s circus celebrates superpower and beauty. If you joined her troupe, what would your performance be?
10. What does the novel say about the nature of love (including being loved by family)? What made Miles and Lily so devoted to each other, while Elizabeth and Martin (Miles’s parents) had a shaky marriage? Would Hermes and Necco’s relationship have survived?
11. What hopes and fears do Necco and Theo share? Have you experienced a friendship like theirs—one that sustained and healed you?
12. What gives Pru the confidence to recognize her strength, shedding her image as an outsider and finding true love with Mr. Marcelle?
13. What did you predict about the identity of Snake Eyes? How did you react when the truth was revealed?
14. In her acknowledgments, the author expresses gratitude to everyone she met while working at a homeless shelter in Portland. What does the novel reveal about homelessness, survival, and life in hiding?
15. How does Burntown enhance your experience of Jennifer McMahon’s previous novels? What is unique about the way she blends ordinary life with extraordinary turns of fate?