Hayley Jo Zimmerman is gone. And the people of small-town Twisted Tree must come to terms with their loss, their place in it, and the secrets they all carry. As one girl’s story unfolds through the stories of those who knew her, Hayley Jo’s absence recasts the lives of others and connects them, her death rooting itself into the community in astonishingly violent and tender ways.
Kent Meyers, one of the best contemporary writers on the American West, offers a tribute to the powerful effect one person’s life can have on everyone she knew.
1. Twisted Tree revolves around the small community of Twisted Tree and the inhabitants’ reactions to the murder of Hayley Jo Zimmerman. Who feels responsible for her death? Why? What is our duty to our friends and our neighbors in a community? Could any of these people have helped Hayley Jo, or was her death a random occurrence?
2. The novel begins and ends with the killer’s car. Why? What does the car symbolize in American culture, and in this book?
3. Twisted Tree is near the site of the legendary Indian battle site Wounded Knee. What happened at Wounded Knee? What is the legacy of that place for the people of Twisted Tree?
4. On page 11, the killer says, “People will insist on meaning—in falling stars, rolls of dice, any kind of randomness. It makes so much possible.” What did the killer mean by this? Can you find other places in the book where people are searching for meaning? Does their search seem to “make so much possible”?
5. Why do you think Hayley Jo stopped fishing with Clay Mattingly? We later hear the story from both the perspective of Clay’s father, Richard Mattingly, and Clay himself. Do we ever hear about it from Hayley Jo? The killer seemed to think that this secret was the one thing Hayley Jo had never told anyone else, and that it was somehow the key to her character. Do you agree?
6. “For years, Sophie Lawrence has insisted on taking her invalid stepfather with her when she shops . . . It seems an odd negligence for a woman this town considers a saint” (page 34). We learn later, of course, that Sophie is not a saint with regards to her stepfather. What do you think of Sophie’s method of revenge? Is it fair? Does her stepfather deserve it?
7. On page 61, Sophie describes the sound when the men working on the roof next door drop a hammer: thudontheroof. Can you find other places in the book when the author (or his characters) play with language? What is conveyed through this wordplay?
8. Several times in the book, a character is described as writing something down with such intensity that the pen or pencil presses into the paper, leaving indentations. One character is named “Trace.” What is the author saying about the power of words, of writing, of what is left behind?
9. Most chapters are devoted to just one character; the chapter “Losing to Win” is told from two perspectives. Why? What is the relevance of the title? And do you think Eddie Little Feathers’s death was an accident?
10. Who narrates the chapter “Wakings”? In its last section, why do you think the narrator smells blood in the land and in the air? Whose blood is it?
11. Animals play a significant role in Twisted Tree: horses, buffalo, and—most chillingly—rattlesnakes. What do you think these animals represent for the different characters who encounter them? How does the presence of the natural world change human lives in the book?
12. Some of the characters in Twisted Tree are religious. Others use scientific or natural metaphors to explain existence—atoms, stars, chaos theory. Does the book seem to favor one worldview over another?
13. We hear from Hayley Jo’s killer at the end of the book, in “Postings.” Do we also hear from Hayley Jo herself? What might she be describing in this chapter? Does this chapter make you feel differently about the rest of the characters in the book?
14. The epilogue is titled “Heyoka.” What is a heyoka? How does the idea of the heyoka function in the book?
15. How would you describe this book to a friend? Is it a murder mystery? A thriller? What is the central mystery of the book?
Copyright © 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Erin Edmison