Spellbinding stories of mystic love and soulful hope . . .  

Sweetie Reader's Guide

Magendie’s epigraphs offer intriguing possibilities for interpretation. How does her quotation from Ovid speak to the issues of affliction and friendship in the novel?

Explore the novel's motifs of death and illusion as revealed by the old mountain song which is Magendie's second epigraph.

Blood is one of the most powerful symbols associated with Sweetie. Her faded yellow cotton dress is "scattered with once-bright roses that had turned the color of old blood." Think of her torn finger, her slashed palm, her bloody handprint on the white robe. Discuss blood as a revealing symbol of Sweetie.

Throughout the novel, Sweetie is also closely associated with birds. What might the bird symbol mean in Sweetie's life?

Sweetie's external scars likely mimic her internal ones. The narrator sees "the scabs marching across her knees, the puckered skin racing up her right arm, the reddened zigzag that ran from her ankle up her thigh . . ." Think about the issue of emotional scarring in children.

Sweetie tells Melissa about the necessity of replacing the baby bird in its nest, "It belongs where it belongs, right? And where something belongs is where it's got to stay, right?" How does her statement pertain just as strongly to herself and to Melissa?

The narrator speaks of the bond of friendship as ". . . water finding water always. Like finding like. Need finding need." Melissa's father says, "It’s at times irrational, but our instincts to survive and to form community and to bond with other human beings are quite strong." Explore the ideas of survival, community, and friendship. Why are these concepts so crucial in the novel and in our own lives?

The grown narrator wonders if Sweetie had drawn maps "only for young me" or for her adult self. What might maps as symbol mean in the narrator’s life as both child and adult?

Discuss belief in the supernatural as held by Sweetie’s grandfather, the granny woman, and Sweetie. Remember Sweetie's magic tea and her mountain spirit, for example.

The grown Melissa describes herself as "a scientific woman, a biological machine, made of fallible parts and calculating synaptic brain . . . A woman who believed only what science showed her and not what was felt with the heart." How has her destiny followed that of her father? What do you imagine will be her new destiny?

Discuss the significant increase in today's culture of the bullying of children. Think of the mean-spiritedness of T.J., Beatrice, and Deidre. What comment does Magendie seem to be making on this phenomenon?

What would it be like never to feel pain? According to Sweetie, is her affliction completely advantageous? What sorts of precautions must she take to maintain health? What is Magendie saying about pain of any kind?

Explore the dichotomy of Sweetie's parents—her romantic mother and her realist father. Remember the mother's hilarious food poems, strange menus, forced manners, European wine glasses, inflexible rules. She seems to deliberately mis-pronounce Sweetie's name as "Sweet-tea." Her father discusses slaughter houses at the dinner table, says there is an answer for everything, and writes novels with unintentionally funny titles. What is their marriage like? How does Melissa interact with them? Why do you think they eventually divorce?

How was Melissa's physical and emotional being shaped by the transience and discord of her home life?

Melissa writes of Sweetie, "She trusted me with the part of herself she'd hidden from the world, and in her way, presented back to me the gift to see what I had hidden inside myself." What does she mean? What parts of themselves had each girl hidden?

By the end of the novel, does Melissa achieve further self-insight? Explore the apparent ambiguity in the novel's conclusion.

Analyze Magendie's treatment of death. Discuss the dignity and beauty of the funeral rites performed on Mae by Sweetie and Melissa. How do they contrast with the traditional American way of death? Discuss any blessings to the bereaved that descend upon the girls as they minister to the body of Sweetie's mother. What is Magendie saying about the vulnerability of naive people to manipulation by religious con artists?

Explore the structure of Magendie's novel. What is gained by her use of two narrators, both the grown and the young Melissa?

"Oh, North Carolina. What mysteries and secrets you hold," Magendie writes. Her setting functions almost as a character in the novel. How has Magendie enabled the reader to experience the mountain where Sweetie and Melissa ran free? What might Magendie mean by her vivid portrayal of such an Edenic existence? Discuss Magendie's use of sensory images in her description of the Smoky Mountains.

Why is Sweetie’s "affliction" so troubling to Melissa? How do the other children and townspeople view Sweetie and her mother? How does the fake healer use her affliction for his own purposes?

Discuss the troubling image of the burning barns in Grandmother Rosetta's paintings. What do they seem to symbolize? Trace the progression of Melissa's physical and emotional development during her mountain summer with Sweetie. How does she mature? What coping mechanism has Peter used in his relationship with his family? "Not last night but the night before, twenty-four robbers came knocking at my door," Sweetie sings. Discuss the layer of richness Magendie adds to Sweetie's character by the memory of old mountain songs.

Zemry embodies the wisdom of his native people. What lessons does he teach Sweetie and Melissa?

--Sweetie Reader's Guide by Mary Ann Ledbetter, writer/teacher, Baton Rouge, Louisiana