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The Barrowfields Reader’s Guide

By Phillip Lewis

The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis


In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal certain aspects of the story in this novel. If you have not finished reading The Barrowfields, we respectfully suggest that you do so before reviewing this guide.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Discuss the nature of the town of Old Buckram in the mountains of North Carolina. Have you ever been to a town like this? Do you think it is based on a real place in North Carolina or elsewhere?

2. Talk about the decaying gothic mansion in Old Buckram where the Asters lived. Do you think the house served as another character in the story? Was the house haunted? Did Henry, as the narrator, try to dispel the notion that the house was haunted through his descriptions of it over time?

3. Discuss Henry’s relationship with his father, first as a 10-year-old child, and then later as a 16-year-old boy. Did Henry’s view of his father change during this time? What was most responsible for bringing about the change? Did Henry ever see his father as a hero, and if not, should he have?

4. Why did Henry’s father feel so compelled to complete his magnum opus (his novel) before the death of his mother, Maddy? What prevented him from doing so?

5. Why was it important for Henry that his father intercede to prevent Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying from being banned by the county and later burned on a pyre? Discuss the repercussions of this event for both Henry and his father.

6. Did you blame Henry for never returning to his mother or sister after he left for college? Why was he unable to return? 

7. Discuss Henry’s relationship with his sister, Threnody. Why were they so close at an early age, and why did Henry allow them to grow apart? 

8. Despite a physical attraction, what was it about Story that drew Henry’s attention to her so dramatically? Did he suspect that she had a traumatic event in her past that might link the two of them? 

9. Are Henry’s efforts toward helping Story address her issues with her own father a way for him to repent for his abandonment of Threnody? What was it about Story and her relationship with her father that brought about Henry’s reconciliation with Threnody?

10. Does young Henry’s repression of painful memories as a psychological defense mechanism shape the way and order in which he tells his father’s story, as well as the story of his relationship with Threnody?

11. Discuss the role of the Barrowfields in the story. Were the Barrowfields intended to be representative of a larger theme in the book (for example, pertaining to Henry’s father)?

12. Discuss the role of “burning” in the story, and the irony of Henry’s father saving Faulkner’s book from destruction while not his own.

13. Given the numerous opportunities in the book for magical realism or surrealism (such as the macabre gothic mansion, the Barrowfields, and the witch horse), why do you think the author opted to resolve each such opportunity with stark realism?

14. Did you discover that many of the place names and character names have some extrinsic significance? For example, “Old Buckram” refers to “buckram,” which is a material that is used to make book covers (such that much of the story takes place within the covers of an old book). “Avernus,” the family cemetery, derives from a word used to refer to the entrance to the underworld. “Harold Specks,” the mountain priest who gave the sermon at Maddy’s funeral, is based on “haruspex.” 

15. Did the ultimate fate of Henry’s father surprise you? What were the two events that were most salient in driving him to his eventual fate, and how were they related?

16. Why was Henry incapable of divulging his father’s fate until the end of the book? Had he been intellectually honest with himself about this father until his discussion with Threnody about their father, and would he have shared this information with the reader if not for the discussion he had with Threnody about the day of his father’s departure?

17. Whose fate in the story was ultimately more tragic: Henry’s father or Henry’s mother?

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