Reading Group Guide
Last October, after the soybeans had peaked at four feet, the corn spiraled to almost double that, and the wisteria had shed its purple, a breeze picked up, pushed out the summer heat, and woke Maggie. She rolled over, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Let's go swimming." We held hands down to the river where Maggie took a swan dive into the South Carolina moonlight.
And so the story begins for Dylan and Maggie Styles, a young couple in love, who wait expectantly for the birth of their first son. But events take a tragic turn in the delivery room, and their child is delivered stillborn. When Maggie hemorrhages and slips into a coma, Dylan too slips into what can only be described as a walking coma, holding vigil at Maggie's bedside. Usually tough and self-reliant, an outdoorsman and a farmer, Dylan finds that everything he has known and relied upon, even his deepest sense of who he is as a person, is suddenly thrown into doubt. In a desolate place, naked and alone, he asks "Why live?" Through friends and grace-filled moments of insight, the defenses around Dylan slowly break away, but it will take a second tragedy-and an anxious period of wrestling with God-to truly awaken him from his stupor and open him up to a new life.
1. The river is a powerful image in this novel. Both literally and figuratively, Dylan must choose to fight against the river or allow it to carry him where it wishes. What does the river symbolize in this story? How does Dylan finally come to terms with it?
2. Blood also plays a symbolic role in this story. What does it represent? How is it different from or similar to the role of water?
3. One review refers to The Dead Don't Dance as "a classic example of God-haunted Southern literature." Very similarly, Flannery O'Connor's writing is often referenced as a "Christ-haunted landscape." How is the South portrayed in this novel? Why does Southern literature lend itself so easily to being "God-haunted"?
4. What is the meaning of the title? Discuss the theme of dancing and identify how "dancing" plays an integral part in the meaning of the story.
5. Discuss Dylan's attitudes toward education and teaching in the novel. How and why do they change? What affect does this have on Dylan's identity and his own self-image?
6. Much like Jacob in the Bible, Dylan wrestles with God as he searches for answers to the questions that fill his soul. How did wrestling with God change Jacob? How does it change Dylan?
7. Every time Dylan returns from the cornfield, his arm is raw. It is soon covered in scabs and he continues to cover it up with long sleeves. What is he doing to his arm in the cornfield? Why is he doing it? Why the mystery surrounding it?
8. After eating breakfast with Amos at Ira's Cafe, Dylan realizes that he has not thought about Maggie for forty-five minutes. Overwhelming guilt descends upon him. What does this story imply about nature of guilt and its relationship to tragedy?
9. What role does Bryce Kai MacGregor-the naked, bag-pipe playing, movie-loving millionaire-play in this story?
10. What roles do Dylan's students play in his life? Why is it significant that Koy is such a poor communicator in person but such an articulate poet and letter-writer? How does the students' plagiarism mirror Dylan's inner conflict?
11. When Dylan tells Amos, "I see colors, not structure," how does this statement summarize the differences between the two men? How do their personalities complement each other?
12. Describe Dylan's faith. How do his interactions with Pastor John and the AME church affect him? How does Amanda impact Dylan's beliefs?
13. Dylan says, "I drive an old pickup because I understand it." How does this statement characterize Dylan? When he purchases a used truck from Jake's Jalopy Auto Center in Walterboro, why does he offer Jake more money than the truck is worth?
14. Dylan explains, "The Salkehatchie is mythical. Everybody knows the stories. . . . If you can think it, it's probably already been mythified." Why is it significant that the violent coon hunt takes place in "the Salk"? What impact does the hunt have on Dylan?
15. Though Maggie stays in a coma for most of the novel, how does her character generate a "presence of absence"? By the end of the novel, do you think the relationship between Dylan and Maggie has changed? If so, how?
"An absorbing read for fans of faith-based fiction . . . delightfully quirky characters . . . [who] are ingeniously imaginative creations."
"The Dead Don't Dance combines writing that is full of emotion with a storyline that charts a haunting story of love and loss-and finding one's way back. Charles Martin quickly plunges readers into the story and takes them to a dark place. Then he draws them, like his protagonist Dylan, back to the surface, infusing them with renewed strength. Martin's writing is strong, honest, and memorable. He's an author to discover now-and then keep your eye on."
-Carol Fitzgerald, co-founder/president, Bookreporter.com
"A strong and insightful first novel, written by a great new Christian voice in fiction. Brilliant."
-Davis Bunn, author of The Great Divide and Elixir
"Charles Martin writes with the passion and delicacy of a Louisiana sunrise-shades of shepherd's warning and a promise of thunderbolts before noon. Evoking a vivid picture of a young man's dance with dark and desperate moments of ordinary life, his story swirls like the river with drama, humour, and sense of hope. To many of us in England, the reality of America's deep south is as unknowable as the celestial kingdom of the orient in the days of sail, yet Charles has made it splendid and unforgettable. This is a lovely book that brims with heart and sensitivity, and most of all with a profound insight into what matters in our lives. I enjoyed it hugely."
-John Dyson, writer, Reader's Digest
"The Dead Don't Dance affirms that even when the world drags us into its gloomy den, we can emerge battered but ever the victor holding life ecstatically by the tail. Charles Martin's wise and tender audacity lifts us out of our ordinary lives to help us see that the extraordinary is all around us, grander than our earliest visions, and filling our cups with the sweet nectar of life. You will fall in love with Martin's writing and believe in the goodness of humanity again. The Dead Don't Dance is the best book you will read this year! Bravo, Mr. Martin!"
-Patricia Hickman, award-winning author of Fallen Angels and Nazareth's Song
"The Dead Don't Dance is a poignant page-turner filled with loss, hope and redemption. With passages that shine as bright as the South Carolina moon, Charles Martin captures the heart of the land and its people. This novel is bound to linger with many readers and leave them wanting more."
-Michael Morris, author of A Place Called Wiregrass and Slow Way Home
"This is the story of real person's real struggle with the uncertainties of faith, unadorned with miracles of the deus ex machina sort but full of the sort of miracles that attend everyday life if you bother to notice. Charles Martin notices, and for that I commend him. He's unafraid of tackling the crucial questions-life, death, love, sacrifice."
-Duncan Murrell, editor and writer
"The Dead Don't Dance is a gentle novel that reminds me of Robert Frost's famous poem, "For Once, Then, Something," in which "Water came to rebuke the too clear water": for Dylan Styles water means life, loss, and recovery. After a horrifying tragedy, he is adrift and his wife, Maggie, lies hopelessly submerged in a coma. But on a December night, at an accident scene in freezing water, Dylan makes his way to clarity, an understanding of order that Frost's speaker never found. Charles Martin's debut novel is a moving, believable study of redemption pulled from the pieces of an all-too-disordered world."
-Brian Railsback, author of The Darkest Clearing: A Novel and Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck