About the Book
Hired by a developer to dowse a lonely forested valley in upstate New York, Cassandra Brooks happens upon a girl hanged from a tree. When she returns with the authorities, the body has vanished, leaving in question Cassandra’s sanity. The next day, a dazed, mute girl emerges from the woods, alive and giving uncanny credence to Cassandra’s terrifying vision.
Increasingly bizarre divinations ensue, leading this struggling single mother of twin boys back to a past she’d long thought was behind her. Soon Cassandra is locked in a mortal chess match with a real-life killer who has returned from the past to haunt her once more. The Diviner’s Tale is at once a journey of self-discovery and a murder mystery, a bittersweet family chronicle and tale of the fantastic.
Questions for discussion
1. In The Diviner’s Tale, nature functions not only as a backdrop to the action but in many ways as a character itself. We see one example of this early on, when the birds flash warning lights at Cassandra as she enters the woods: “Noisy warblers flitted in the bushes. Redstarts and yellowthroats. . . . A redwing blackbird cried out over my left shoulder.” What are some other examples of nature as character?
2. What do you think is causing Cassandra’s forevisions? Have you ever seen things other people have not, or witnessed someone dowsing or otherwise knowing something she or he seemingly should not?
3. What are some of the meanings and metaphoric values of the word “divine” that are used in this novel?
4. “Names are doors to ideas,” Cassandra Brooks says. Who was the Cassandra of Greek mythology? Why might Morrow have named Cass after her? Why do you think the other characters’ names were chosen? Why might Morrow have named Cassandra’s home Corinth County? What doors does your own name open?
5. In The Diviner’s Tale, both Cassandra and Nep both face challenges to what they had experienced as reality: Cass from her “monster” and Nep from his Alzheimer’s disease. What do these challenges have in common? How are they different? What does each challenge say about “reality”? Do you think reality is a subjective experience?
6. What do you think of Nep’s confession that he is a fraud?
7. Cassandra identifies five “turnings,” defining moments, in her life. What turnings do you identify in your own life? Are hers anything like yours?
8. How do Cassandra and Rosalie each cope with Nep’s failing health and increasing dementia? Have you had a similar experience with a loved one? If so, how did your experience resemble or differ from Rosalie’s or Cassandra’s?
9. Cassandra and the twins constitute an unusual family unit in the context of her small town. Do you think hers is a “normal” family? How do you think Niles contributes to the strength of her family?
10. On at least two occasions, Cassandra disavows divining of the fortune-telling or reading-the-future sort, but there are a number of occasions when she reads signs or meaning in things she encounters, and acts accordingly. What are some examples? Can you think of times when you may have done something like this yourself?
11. How is fear shown and expressed in The Diviner’s Tale? What moments do you find most frightening?
12. Cassandra tells her sons, “A photograph is yesterday, a person is now. And now is better, just ask yesterday.” In a world where photography is now ubiquitous, what do you think the value of photographs is?
13. Morrow has stated in interviews that he deliberately paced The Diviner’s Tale to read less like a conventional mystery than as a novel about coming to terms with the feelings of being different, of not being understood, of learning the deeper nature of ourselves. He has also, unconventionally, brought elements of the supernatural and gothic into this literary novel. Do you think authors should “stick to the rules” when it comes to genre fiction or do you prefer writers who push the boundaries?
14. Cassandra’s tale moves back and forth in time between several periods of her life, following the path of her own thoughts rather than a strict chronology. What effect does this have on the way the narrative unfolds? What does it say about how Cassandra solves the mystery in her life? How does it affect you as a reader?
15. What is Occam’s Razor? Do you think it always holds true?
16. What is the significance of each of the book’s two settings (rural New York and a coastal island in Maine)? What do you think the author’s intentions were in creating imaginary places like Covey Island and Corinth County, and situating them adjacent to real locales, such as the Cranberry Islands and the Delaware River?
17. Are the dynamics of Cassandra’s town—among the adults, among the children—typically those of a small town, or do you think this story could have taken place in an urban setting?
18. Nep and Rosalie represent unshakeable faith in things that cannot be proven—Nep knows dowsing truly finds water and Rosalie knows there is a God—but both dowsing and religion have been discredited by certain scientific or philosophical circles as myths that are simply not provable. Where do you stand on this?
19. What do you think Cassandra learns when she sets aside her own beliefs and tries to follow Rosalie’s devout Methodist beliefs instead? What is Morrow saying about faith and belief?
20. What do you think the book’s epigraphs mean?
21. How do Cassandra and Laura respond to the traumas they each experienced? Do you empathize with them as they recover? If you (or someone you know) has experienced trauma or abuse, and if you feel comfortable discussing it, how did your (or their) response and recovery compare to the ways in which these two characters reacted to their experiences?
22. Morrow is a male author writing in the voice of a woman. In your experience as a reader, can male and female authors write with equal authority in the voice of the opposite sex? What are the fundamental differences, if any, between male and female narrators?
23. What kind of relationship does Cassandra have with each of her parents? What kind of relationship does she have with her sons? Sometimes the twins act almost as parents to their mother. Other times, Nep serves as a surrogate father to his grandsons. Discuss the overall dynamic of parenting in the book.
24. Childhood is defined in part by its secrets from adults—think of Christopher’s cave, the gang’s rough game of “turding,” the privacy of Laura’s brother’s treehouse. Why do you think Morgan and Jonah, who are quite mature for their years, don’t keep more secrets from their mother? What were some of the defining secrets of your own childhood—and are you still keeping them?
25. There is a lot of wordplay throughout The Diviner’s Tale. One early one is the word “halcyon,” which Cassandra thinks of as meaning “hell, see yon.” Where else do you see wordplay at work?
26. Metaphors and similes do much to set the tone of a story. Early on, for example, Morrow describes the forsythias near where Laura is found as nodding “up and down and side to side . . . as if offering a host of conflicting opinions.” What are some of the metaphors or similes you find most memorable?
27. At times, Cassandra sees her life as “an endless improvised film” of only one take, in which we all play roles in each others’ productions. Do you find this a familiar sensation? How does the rise of reality television jibe with Cassandra’s observation?
28. How is Morrow influenced by Greek mythology in The Diviner’s Tale?
29. How do you interpret the picture on the anonymous St. Francis postcard that Rosalie delivers to Cassandra on Covey Island?
30. Do you see the characters in The Diviner’s Tale as simple or complex? What makes them so—both in terms of the personality Morrow has given each one and in the way he has written each as an element of the novel?
31. What are the meanings of the titles of each part of the book?
32. What are some of the ways Morrow weaves his research about the history and techniques of dowsing and divining into the novel? What did you think about Martine de Berthereau, one of the “earliest known female diviners in recorded history”? Do you see her as someone who was, as Cass suggests, a very modern woman in her way and day?
33. The doppelganger, a character’s mirroring double, is a traditional figure in literature. In what ways does Laura become a doppelganger for Cass?
34. Cassandra tells the reader, “My problem had always been that I could forevision what others ought to do but was too often blinded when it came to my own life.” Do you relate to this statement? What does it say about the way the novel is written, about Morrow’s approach to the mystery genre?
35. More than once, Cassandra is not wholly truthful with Niles about what is happening. She similarly fudges the truth with her parents and with the twins at times. Yet, she also tells Morgan that secrets can “eat away at the heart of a family.” How do you reconcile honesty, secrecy, and white lies? How does she?
36. How and why do you think Mrs. Milgate died? Do you think that Cass and her mother made a mistake observing their neighbor’s time-honored desire to be left alone when they made their walk around the island?
37. What do you think about the idea that art inspires us to look at the world with different eyes? Do you agree with Jonah that being sick works the same way? How do looking, seeing, vision, and blindness function in this novel?
38. Do you consider Cassandra to be what’s known as an “unreliable narrator,” someone who tells readers things they ought not trust as factually accurate? Or is she, to you, a woman who has experiences that truly go beyond the explicable, the everyday, the known?
39. If you have experienced something that might be seen by others as paranormal or just plain strange, how have you dealt with it in your own life? Have you hidden it from others because you think they might not believe you, or might castigate or laugh at you? One of Cassandra’s greatest challenges in The Diviner’s Tale is to learn to accept herself, her gift. Have you faced a similar challenge in your life?
40. Have you ever encountered someone like James Boyd? Do you think that Cassandra made the right ethical, or even legally correct, decision in not telling him that he is the father of two children after his very brief and reckless sexual encounter with her?
41. Just as Morrow has alluded to Greek myth throughout The Diviner’s Tale, he has woven Shakespeare’s The Tempest into his story, especially given that Covey Island would seem not to appear on any map of Maine’s Mt. Desert Island. Cassandra refers to Nep as a “poor man’s Prospero” near the beginning of the book. What does she mean by this? How else does The Tempest influence the novel?
42. When we meet Cassandra she is thirty-five, and her two sons are going through puberty. But in what sense might The Diviner’s Tale be thought of as Cassandra’s coming of age story?
43. In a typical thriller that portrays a serial killer, the focus is more equally balanced between the victims and the perpetrator. Morrow’s main focus is not on Roy, nor has he actively tried to hide Roy’s guilt. Why do you think the author chose to keep the focus primarily on Cassandra and Laura?
44. Cassandra says, “All we had ever been were stories, and saying ourselves, unveiling our stories, was the best, the only, chance at divining ourselves.” What does she mean by this? Are we all storytellers who are also essentially diviners?
45. An obvious answer to the question of why Morrow would introduce a new character, Grace Sutton, in the last pages of The Diviner’s Tale is that he will write a sequel, but he has said in interviews that he currently has no such plan. If that is the case, why do you think he elected to create a new character with a problem she brings to Cass at the very end of the book?
A Conversation with Bradford Morrow about The Diviner’s Tale
How did you discover the mysterious art of divining?
Through one of those ridiculous to the sublime circumstances. I had the very mundane problem of a frequently flooded basement in my old farmhouse in upstate New York, and an excavator I knew recommended I contact a local water-witch to dowse the land around the house so he didn’t make a mess guessing with his backhoe. I’d never seen a real dowser at work before. It was amazing. His rod half leapt out of his hands as he walked along. He told me there was a strong underground stream running at such and such a depth and distance from the house and, to cut a long story short, he was absolutely right about everything he said. As it turned out, my plumber is also an old-school dowser, and when I marveled at what I’d witnessed, he gave me the friendly pitying look of someone who’s so used to everyday divining that it was he who marveled that I should marvel.
How far have you delved into the world of divining yourself?
I went so far as to attend Basic Dowsing School at the American Society of Dowsers convention in Vermont a few summers ago, where I had the good fortune to study with a wonderful, magical woman named Marty Cain, among others. I have my diploma to prove it, and a small collection of the diviner’s tools—bobbers, rods, and pendulums—but I wouldn’t recommend you hire me if your well runs dry.
Do you consider yourself a diviner?
I consider myself at best an amateur dowser. But I can say with certainty I no longer consider myself a doubter. Everyone is in his or her own way a diviner. And that’s what the novel is in part about. Certainly being a writer demands that one engage in a form of divination, but that’s true of so many creative activities in people’s lives.
The Diviner’s Tale seamlessly brings together themes such as religion, philosophy, Greek mythology, baseball, and bird-watching, and also creates a mash-up of literary fiction, mystery, and fantasy. How were you able to bring all those ideas and elements together so flawlessly?
That’s such a nice question I hate to ruin it with an answer. In fact, I’ve never really viewed the so-called genres of fantasy and mystery as being, by definition, distinct from the “literary.” I’ve read any number of fantasy and mystery works I think of as highly literary. I’m keenly aware that one of the old cardinal rules of mystery is that it doesn’t mix with the supernatural. P. D. James mentions this in her recent Talking About Detective Fiction: “All supernatural agencies are ruled out.” But the world into which I was drawn with this book—Cassandra Brooks’s world—defied such conventions, and so did I.
The Diviner’s Tale seems distinctly different from your other novels in that there’s no overt political or historical dimension at its center.
I think earlier novels like Giovanni’s Gift and Trinity Fields examined the deeply political nature of family relationships. The Diviner’s Tale is, in many ways, about what it’s like to be a true outsider, gifted in ways the culture finds unacceptable or even bogus, trying to negotiate a path through the “real” world, the supposedly sane world. So the politics in this book are more familial and local. More about how some people considered freakish by society are often our most incandescent, brilliant members.
Dowsing, or divining, is rich with metaphor. You play with ideas of the seen and the unseen, and with literary writing within the mystery. Are there hidden literary references in the book?
You’re right, divining is one of the richest metaphors I’ve ever worked with, even though much of the divination in the novel isn’t metaphoric at all, but the real deal. I always love weaving hidden allusions in my novels. Beyond the obvious reference to the Cassandra myth, though, I think it’s best to leave it to readers to do their own divining.