A Study Guide
for Book Clubs, Writing Groups, Literature Classes
About the Author
Valerie Nieman was born in western New York State, homesteaded a hill farm in West Virginia, and now lives and teaches in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. She had worked for three decades as a journalist while honing her skills as a poet and fiction writer. Her first two novels, Neena Gathering and Survivors, were set in West Virginia, as were most of the stories in the collection Fidelities, from West Virginia University Press. She is also the author of a poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake. She has received an NEA creative writing fellowship, two Elizabeth Simpson Smith prizes in fiction, and the Greg Grummer Prize in poetry. A graduate of West Virginia University and the M.F.A. program at Queens University of Charlotte, she teaches writing at NC A&T State University and is the poetry editor for Prime Number magazine.
Approaches to Teaching
A Plan for Reading
While You Read
Keep a reading journal with your thoughts and observations. When you finish the book, review it and see how your ideas have changed.
Get together with others who are reading Blood Clay to discuss the book. Share your questions or observations.
Read about the author – a brief biography is provided. What linkages do you see between the authors’ life and the characters in the book?
After You Read
Read some of the works that are cited in Blood Clay – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the novel Edisto, Death of the Hired Man, and Women by Louise Bogan. Can you think of other works that reflect on this novel or might be referenced?
Draw a map of Saul County, guided by the references in the text. Then “fill in the blanks” – be as fanciful as you wish! How does your map compare with those drawn by other students?
Select a section of dialog at random. Read it and then brainstorm or predict what might happen next.
What is the soundtrack – what music might be playing on Dave’s radio at various locations? During various scenes?
All novels have conflict. Diagram this. Draw circles on a page – large ones for main characters, smaller ones for the secondary characters. Which characters are linked? Draw lines between their circles. What is their relationship and what kind of conflict between them and/or their needs?
Put yourself in the action. What would you do in certain situations? How does your character and personality change the outcome?
Re-read the book – do you see other linkages and arcs of relationship on a second reading?
Reading and Understanding
How do Tracey and Dave cope with loneliness – what are their survival strategies?
In what tangible ways do we see the past invoked at Tracey’s home?
What might be the symbolism of the termites?
What are some of the rituals – recurrent events or activities – that bind the community together in Saul County?
Garland pays the price for relinquishing his wildness and becoming part of a family, a community. What are the costs associated with wildness for people, for animals? Is it entirely positive to be “tame”? Or entirely negative? Or both?
How is Tracey trying to build a different past for herself? Do you think she might have been successful in the way she was approaching this, before the attack?
Dave recalls a line from Robert Frost, that home is a place that “when you go there, they have to take you in.” Do you think that he believes this is true for him? Does Tracey have place that she can call home?
Dave has suffered physical damage in the attack – how would you characterize his emotional scars?
What is the significance of Tracey’s refusal to use a cell phone or get a television? What does that say about her character?
Do you think Tracey believes that race is a factor in how the community responds to Lakesha’s death? Do you?
Tracey has moved from the Northeast into the South, and carries with her expectations and prejudices. Do you think it is possible for someone to truly become part of a different culture – for an Easterner to become a Texan, for a country person to become an urbanite?
How do you interpret the last line of the book?
How do you think Tracey’s childlessness affects her life as a teacher, a neighbor?
Does it matter that Dave was once athletic? How does learning this change your understanding of his character?
Do you think that Tracey is cowardly or heroic? Why?
The “New South” has been written about for many years. Do you think that Lester represents the New South? What about the beekeeper, Gloria? In what ways – good or bad?
Why do you think Tracey tries to tame the cats rather than trapping and removing them?
Is the reporter/editor Mike an ethical person in his dealings with Tracey? Why or why not?
How is Orenna Sipe supported by the community in her grief?
How is Dave a mediating character?
Do the characters in the novel live up to the state motto, “To Be Rather Than to Seem”?
Compare and contrast how Tracey and Gloria each came to Saul County.
What actors might you choose to portray Tracey, Dave, Artis?
How does the title, Blood Clay, connect with the issues and themes of the novel?
What images help us to see Tracey as feral – separated from the expected roles for women? Does feral necessarily correspond with not being an “expected” woman?
How is darkness depicted in this novel? Cite some specific instances of emotional darkness and literal darkness.
Dave thinks of Oberon’s song from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as he shares the dump exploration with Tracey. How is nature depicted in the novel? Is it positive, negative, or both?
Plants and animals are domesticated to human use, or have learned to live with us (wanted or otherwise!) What are some of these living things and how are they depicted in the novel?
Dave bears the scars from his attack – what other images of scarring, either physical or emotional, are found in the text?
How is “naming” a key to understanding and claiming a home in this novel?
"There are two freedoms; The false, where man is free to do what he likes; The true, where man is free to do what he ought." Charles Kingsley, 19th century British clergyman, teacher, and writer. Discuss how this idea is embodied in the novel.
Tobacco plays an ongoing role in the novel, particularly in terms of the changing role of that crop in North Carolina. Discuss the positive and negative aspects of the crop, and the effect on the communities that rely on its cultivation.
Tracey witnesses the dog attack. The word witness comes from a root meaning "to bear in mind;" "to remember;" "to be careful." It has a specific legal meaning. In Christianity, the word indicated someone bearing testimony – the original Greek martys that later evolved into “martyr” in the sense of someone who is put to death for claiming the Gospel. Discuss how Tracey’s “witness” involves these various meanings.
The nature of Artis’s dogs, and dogs in general, is debated in Blood Clay. Do you think certain breeds are predisposed to aggression, or can any dog “turn”? What is the responsibility of the dog owner?
Can you build a past from others’ lives? Can you make a future divorced from the past?
Dave thinks of the lines from Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” The next lines of the poem are, “'I should have called it /Something you somehow haven't to deserve.” How does his life exemplify these lines?
“Women have no wilderness in them,” begins the poem by Louise Bogan. Do you think woman have a different level of “civilization” than men?
Teachers are considered to be “in loco parentis” – in the role of parents – to their students. How are Dave and Tracey exemplars of this? How do they fail?
Approaches for Writing
Write about the first home you remember. Use all your senses to make that place live for the reader.
Write about a time when you had to do something that was unpopular, and what happened as a result. How were you changed as a result of “doing the right thing”?
Write about what makes “home” for you.
You inherit your family and you choose your friends. Imagine that you can choose a specific family member as you would a friend – what would attract you to that person? What characteristics does he have or she have that make him/her a friend?
Retell a scene between Tracey and Artis from the point of view of Artis.
Write a description of a crop or plant that you have tended. What kind of care did it require? What did it look like at various stages?
Imagine Tracey and Dave in five years. What has happened in their relationship? Write a scene for the two of them.
Turn a chapter into a screenplay or graphic novel.