1. Is Polly a good mother? Why or why not? Do you think some of the judgments about Polly are generational? Should Polly be judged by the modern standards of parenting? Why or why not?
2. Dalton is Willow’s childhood best friend who becomes her boyfriend when they grow older. What do you think is special about these kinds of evolving relationships?
3. Throughout the novel, Willow attempts to rescue Polly from the clutches of the Bear, Phoenix and Shel come to Polly and Willow’s rescue on the rafting trip, and against all odds Polly rescues Elmer from a storm. In what other ways does the theme of rescue manifest itself in the book? And do you consider these rescues successful?
4. There seems to be a lot of drama around Polly’s cooking—for example, Thanksgiving dinner or the time she invited the neighbors over to discuss the fence. Have you ever had a dinner party go horribly wrong? What is it about food that adds humor to a dark situation?
5. Was Polly right to shield Willow from her personal history? When is the appropriate time to share certain details about your life and your health with your family? Is there always a right time?
6. In some ways, Phoenix seems to be an almost saintlike, protective presence around Willow and Polly. What do you think of his thematic role? How does his involvement affect the dynamics of the family?
7. Polly and her neighbor have a contentious relationship, but after the night he dies she admits in a weak moment that she “kind of liked the old bastard.” How is it possible to have feelings of warmth toward a dreaded enemy? Or was it possible that his death made Polly’s heart soften toward him?
8. What do you think is the significance of Polly using “the Bear” to refer to her cancer? In what ways does superstition play a role in the novel? Can superstition be a good thing as well as a bad thing?
9. Polly hates varmints, and yet she nurtures Elmer, the baby squirrel, in secret. Why does she do it in secret? And what does this say about who she really is?