This reading group guide for Glory over Everything includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kathleen Grissom. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In the follow-up to her beloved novel, The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom returns to the riveting story of Jamie Pyke, the son of a black slave and a white plantation owner forced to flee his Virginia home to avoid being sold as a slave. Glory over Everything opens in Philadelphia in 1830, where Jamie now passes as the white Mr. James Burton, an artist and silversmith of renown. But when his lover, Caroline, finds herself pregnant, James fears that his years of deception will unravel with the birth of their child. In the meantime, James learns that slave catchers have abducted his young servant, Pan, the only son of Henry, the fugitive slave responsible for James’s safe passage to Philadelphia years before. Aware of his debt to Henry, and mourning Caroline’s tragic death in childbirth, James undertakes an odyssey to North Carolina to rescue Pan. With help from Sukey, a former Tall Oaks slave, and a series of Underground Railroad sympathizers, James must face up to his true identity and some of his greatest fears.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “I had met Henry twenty years earlier, when, at the age of thirteen, I arrived in Philadelphia, ill and terrified and fleeing for my life.” How does James’s flight from Tall Oaks mark his life going forward? Why does Henry come to James’s aid, and what does he represent to James? What details from their early interactions complicate their relationship as adults?
2. “I had never and would never consider myself a Negro. In fact, the idea disgusted me.” How does James reconcile his biracial identity with his own racist attitudes? To what extent does his denial of his ethnicity serve as a means of self-preservation in the racist society he inhabits?
3. Why does Pan’s unexplained disappearance distress James? Compare and contrast the dangers from slave catchers that Pan and James face. Why do you think Kathleen Grissom chose to alternate these characters’ narratives at key points in the novel?
4. Why does James conceal his biracial status from Caroline Preston, the married daughter of socially prominent Philadelphia aristocrats? How does her pregnancy threaten James’s entire existence? How might Caroline’s discovery of his biracial status have altered the trajectory of the novel? Why do you think Kathleen Grissom chose not to pursue that storyline?
5. “‘I can provide [room and board] for you in my home, where you will be downstairs with our household help.’” As a newly minted apprentice at Burton’s Silversmith, why does James feel insulted to live below stairs with the black servants? How do Delia, Ed, and Robert react to having a white person living with them?
6. Describe James’s relationship with Mrs. Burton. What role does the bird Malcolm play in their bond? How is their connection strengthened by the tragedies they have experienced? How does James’s discovery of the Burtons’ views on slavery affect him?
7. From the reactions of his white and black acquaintances, how convincing are James’s efforts to pass as a white silversmith in Philadelphia? What does Delia’s theft of James’s letter in the aftermath of his adoption by the Burtons suggest about her intentions? What reasons might Delia have for outing James?
8. “I had loved [Mrs. Burton] as a mother. . . . A difference existed after she learned the truth from Delia. Yet I did not hold her responsible; for how could I blame her for an inability to love the part of me that I, too, loathed.” How does Delia’s revelation of James’s race affect his relationship with his Mrs. Burton? What does her dismissal of Delia imply about her acceptance of James?
9. James refers to his attraction to Caroline Preston as an “uncomfortable fascination.” How does Caroline characterize her feelings for James? Given their differences in age and social class, what explains their connection? To what extent is Caroline’s mother, Cristina Cardon, an enabler of their illicit affair?
10. Discuss the remarkable events that converge to liberate Pan from the Southwood plantation. What does the collaboration of Sukey and the Spencer family in the daring rescue suggest about the racially progressive views of many white Americans during this era? Given the unique dangers James faces in his efforts to retrieve Pan from the plantation’s overseer, Bill Thomas, why does he persist?
11. “From above, thick corded vines netted with Spanish moss draped down to ensnare us. With each vine I pushed away I thought of cottonmouth moccasins, the copperheads, and the rattlesnakes that were known to inhabit the place.” What does the Great Dismal Swamp represent to runaway slaves and their pursuers? Why do the runaways seek refuge there, despite the many dangers? Why does the Spencer family, along with many others, fear it?
12. Why does Sukey’s delivery of her baby in a cave in the Great Dismal Swamp cause James to panic and flee? How does Pan respond to James’s act of cowardice? To what extent does James redeem himself in Pan’s eyes through his treatment of Sukey’s infant daughter, Kitty?
13. “Where, then, did I belong? Was my birth an accident of fate, or was my life intended to have some purpose?” How do the circumstances of James’s birth and upbringing shape his sense of self at the beginning of the novel? By the end, what events have enabled his new understanding and acceptance of himself?
14. How does Kathleen Grissom’s use of multiple narrators deepen your appreciation of the work? If the author had chosen to include other characters’ perspectives, whose would you have been especially interested to read, and why?
15. In James’s last letter to his mother, Belle, he reveals his decision to change his daughter’s name from Caroline to Belle. What role does his servant Robert play in the radical transformation of James’s feelings for his mother? Discuss how the conclusion of the novel brings the arc of James’s character full circle.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Ask members of your club to consider the social and political causes that are most important to them. How willing would they be to risk their lives to improve the lives of total strangers? Consider what leading a double life as a secret member of the Underground Railroad would have been like in nineteenth-century America.
2. Glory over Everything confronts many serious questions of race and prejudice. Compare the state of race relations in the nineteenth century with those of the present day. To what extent does racial prejudice persist in our country? How does James’s anxiety as a biracial person passing as white compare to the concerns of a person of mixed race in America today? Consider the case of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who claimed to be and passed as African-American.
3. Toward the end of Glory over Everything, James undergoes an epiphany in his thoughts about race, himself, and his role in the world. Ask members of your group whether or not they have ever experienced epiphanies relating to their personal identities, faith, careers, or relationships. If they have, discuss what spurred these realizations. How did these epiphanies enable them to change or refocus their lives?
A Conversation with Kathleen Grissom
Can you reflect on how your phenomenal success as a first-time novelist has affected your life?
Over these past few years, what to me has the most meaning are the exchanges that I have had with so many wonderful book clubs. That the readers connected so deeply to the characters in The Kitchen House gave me a sense that I had done my job. From the beginning I wanted others to experience the story as vividly as I had.
You have related the unusual origins of The Kitchen House: how a historic map of a house you were renovating in Virginia included a detail about slaves that began to obsess you and kindle your creativity. How would you compare that experience to the series of events that led to your writing Glory over Everything?
In many ways the experience was very similar. Once again, in Glory over Everything, the characters appeared spontaneously and insisted that I write their story. After finishing The Kitchen House, I had every intention of writing about Crow Mary, a Native American woman who led a fascinating life. I went out to the Crow reservation in Montana to study her culture and to search out more documentation. Yet, while researching Crow Mary, though I felt her spirit, something was stopping me from absorbing her culture in the way I knew I must. In fact it began to feel as though a veil had come down and Jamie, Belle’s son from The Kitchen House, was standing in front of Crow Mary to let me know that I was to tell his story first. So, with some initial reluctance, that is what I did.
The success of The Kitchen House was due in part to its adoption by book clubs around the country. Why do you think The Kitchen House lends itself so well to group discussion and interpretation?
Though some might expect The Kitchen House to be a story of race, most come to see it as a story of humans, all caught in the trap of slavery. The Kitchen House is a story of complicated characters and nontraditional relationships. Through discussion these are looked at closely and, as is often the case, new insight brings clarity and even compassion.
In Glory over Everything, you revisit many members of the Pyke family that you portrayed in The Kitchen House, but you shift the focus of your narrative to Belle’s son James. Can you compare your experiences in narrating books from both a woman’s and a man’s perspectives?
The gender actually made little difference. In Glory over Everything I heard Jamie’s voice as clearly as I’d heard Lavinia’s and Belle’s from The Kitchen House. The difference was that both Lavinia and Belle were open to me and very forthcoming; whereas Jamie, a man with a secret, was guarded and kept me at a distance when I first met him. For that reason I found Jamie both frustrating and intriguing. Fortunately, other characters, such as Pan, were quite verbal and gave me deeper insight into Jamie until gradually he became less cautious and was ready to reveal himself.
The Kitchen House relates the intimate details of the lives of the slaves of Tall Oaks, as told from the perspective of a young white girl. Glory over Everything examines the lives of black and white characters mainly from the perspective of a biracial male narrator who is passing as white. How challenging is it for you to get yourself inside the heads of the fictional characters you create? Please describe the kinds of research do you before you begin writing.
The best way for me to describe the way this process works is to say that I don’t get into their heads, but they get into mine. They come fully formed and are complete characters. I don’t always see them, but I feel who they are in the deepest sense. Jamie was not particularly likable when I first met him. Eventually I came to understand his deep fear, and as my compassion and understanding for him grew, he opened up to me.
For my research I visit the places I feel my characters inhabited. There I walk and absorb whatever comes to me. There are times when I come upon something, such as a torture device, that I feel such pain and despair that I want to fall to my knees. Often I cry over it after I uncover the details of how it might have been used. When I see something that gets me happily excited—perhaps an artifact at a historical site—I research it with joy. I’ve learned that when I have this type of strong reaction, one of my characters wants me to have the information so they can use it to better tell their story.
How did you decide to set Glory over Everything in Philadelphia? What plot opportunities does an urban setting provide that a more confined or rural setting, such as a plantation, does not?
I don’t decide on the setting. My characters do.
I always saw Jamie in Philadelphia. I’ve been there a number of times and happen to love the city, but curiously, when I began my research, I found the city to be overwhelming, just as it initially was for Jamie. It wasn’t until Jamie left for the rural South that both he and I felt less constraint.
Glory over Everything is narrated by James Pyke, Pan, and Caroline Preston. How did you decide to tell the novel from these three characters’ perspectives?
Actually there is a fourth voice—that of Sukey. In fact, hers, I believe, is the soul of the story.
Interestingly, I don’t choose who will be the characters to speak. They present themselves to me as though in a movie. They arrive fully formed and each speaks in his or her own distinctive voice. I can’t say that I decide on who will speak—instead, as the characters appear, I go with the ones who take center stage.
You have mentioned that the troubling aspects of slavery were extremely challenging for you to write about in The Kitchen House. To what extent was that the case in Glory over Everything?
Writing about slavery, I’m sure, would be challenging for anyone. However, Sukey’s narrative was so painful that I cried my way through her story. Each time she spoke, I dreaded what was to come. Yet I loved her so that I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say.
As well, I loved young Pan, and to see his innocence taken away was heartbreaking.
In writing The Kitchen House, many times I considered stopping because of the violence. This time I better understood the process, and realized that, though there were times I was in tears, I needed to write what I saw. I feel that my job is to tell the story so the reader can see and feel what I see and feel.
In many respects, the Great Dismal Swamp seems almost like a character in Glory over Everything. Can you describe your acquaintance with it, and how it became such an essential part of the novel?
Once I knew that some of my characters were headed in the direction of the Great Dismal Swamp I began to visit and research the area. In time I learned about the Maroon societies that had once lived there. These communities were formed by escaped slaves who not only found refuge in this swamp but made a home for themselves in what many consider a hostile land.
As the name suggests, the Great Dismal Swamp can appear forbidding, but after visiting it a number of times I found incredible beauty there as well. For those interested in learning more about the Maroon communities, Daniel Sayers, an anthropologist who studied the Great Dismal Swamp, wrote a book titled A Desolate Place for a Defiant People. As well, some of the artifacts that he uncovered will be displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in fall 2016.
You have said that “DNA isn’t what family is about. . . . I believe family is about love, and love is color-blind.” To what extent does the denouement of Glory over Everything bear out that conviction?
Once again, in Glory over Everything, need and love create a family unrelated by DNA. I might add, with this mention of DNA, that I always found it unusual that family is most often defined as those who share the same blood. Doesn’t every family begin with partners who don’t share the same DNA?
Do you know if you will return to these characters in a future novel? What kinds of considerations factor into your decision-making about your future writing projects?
As soon as Glory over Everything is published I am heading out to Montana to once again begin my research on Crow Mary. Her call to me becomes stronger every day.
I do have a niggling feeling that others from Glory over Everything might want their stories told, but this time I have already done some bargaining. First Crow Mary, and then . . . we shall see.