Prairie Nocturne Discussion Points
1. The Overture to the story is an excerpt from Susan’s diary, ostensibly discovered in the year 2025: “A story wants to be told a certain way, or it is merely the alphabet badly recited. At the right time the words borrow us, so to speak, and then out can come the unsuspected sides of things with the force like that of music. This is the story of the three of us, which I am more fit to tell now than when I was alive.” Did this statement hold different meaning for you after you finished reading?
2. The reader first sees Wes when Susan does – when he lets himself into her house in the middle of the night with a spare key he has been keeping for four years since they last parted. What does this opening scene reveal about Wes? Why does Susan so readily allow Wes back into her life?
3. Do you think Susan is the strongest character in the novel? Wes muses that “Soldier Samuel Duff was too fearless for his own good.” Can the same be said of Susan?
4. Wes not only encourages Monty’s dream of becoming a professional singer, but also provides the means. Discuss Wes’s motivations. Did your opinion change when you read the story’s ending, specifically Wes’s conversation with Susan about Monty’s father?
5. In one instance Wes laments that “once more he was helpless against too much memory”. Consider examples of how events in the past continue to impact the characters.
6. Discuss the issue of race, particularly in the context of the time. Monty has to deal the most obviously with racial prejudice, but are there other instances of prejudice in the book? What accounts for Wes’s vehement dislike of the Ku Klux Klan, which Monty in particular notices?
7. A writer has to make various decisions in the creation of a book. One is the method of narration, whether to make the “voice” of the story the invisible author’s own or first-person by a protagonist. How might Prairie Nocturne have been different, in each case, if Wes, Monty, of Susan had been made the narrator?
8. Susan’s relationships with both Wes and Monty go against the standards of society – Wes because he is married and Monty because of the color of his skin. Why do you suppose Susan enters into these relationships that are destined to have complications?
9. Why do you suppose Wes and Whit never told Monty the truth about his father’s death? Why does Susan also opt for silence about it, even burning Mose Rathbun’s hat? Does Monty deserve to know the truth?
10 Phil Sherman tells Wes there is speculation that Susan and Monty have romantic feelings for each other. “[Wes] hadn’t foreseen, hadn’t headed this off in time, hadn’t calculated that their courage could be greater than his”. How, as Wes believes, is Susan and Monty’s courage “greater than his”? Does this apply in any other ways in the story?
11. When Monty suggests during the rehearsal at Carnegie Hall that Susan act as his accompanist, Wes is the one who tips the scales. Does he realize what he’s setting in motion, both for Susan and Monty as well as repercussions he might encounter?
12. Ivan has said, “If I have any creed that I wish you as readers…will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life.” How does Prairie Nocturne reflect larger, more universal themes?