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On the way home from dinner, Malcolm Vaughn is shot and killed in front of his family - the victim of a random act of violence. Undone by shock and grief, his wife Sarah retreats from the world, postponing her return to work and their son Harry's return to school. Harry appears to have come through the loss unscathed, until a troubling incident reveals his profound pain and confusion. It will take time—and the support of Malcolm's best friend, Deckard, a Vietnam vet with troubles of his own—to help them ...
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On the way home from dinner, Malcolm Vaughn is shot and killed in front of his family - the victim of a random act of violence. Undone by shock and grief, his wife Sarah retreats from the world, postponing her return to work and their son Harry's return to school. Harry appears to have come through the loss unscathed, until a troubling incident reveals his profound pain and confusion. It will take time—and the support of Malcolm's best friend, Deckard, a Vietnam vet with troubles of his own—to help them understand the intracies of their sorrow.
She'd been wrong to leave him so motherless in her grieving; she'd been right to make a change and bring him here; she'd been wrong to think she could cure him all by herself. She'd carried him only so far and now, apparently, they'd reached a plateau. It was as if there was medicine Harry still needed to take, so that he could get well, and she was still trying to figure out the proper dosage or the proper administration of it, what he would tolerate. Too much of the unspoken, too much of the unspeakable still lay beneath the surface of their daily life.
There is for me an important connection between Singing Boy and my first novel, The Music Room. In the earlier book, I told the story of a man whose brother jumped out a hotel room window and killed himself; through the shock of it, the surviving brother comes to terms with his own troubled past and eventually makes a new, better beginning. A short time after it was published, I received a letter from a woman whose son had actually jumped out a window and killed himself. She was angry at my playing into the notion that tragic loss somehow improves us; she said she was tired of friends and colleagues constantly looking at her for signs of progress. The letter shook me, and I never forgot it.
A few years later, a boy in my daughter's class at school was swept away by a riptide and drowned. It was an unthinkable tragedy, and when I talked with the mother, she said that one of the hardest parts of her grieving was the pressure of friends and family who wanted her to move past the loss, to get better, to get on with life. Meanwhile, what she wanted was for people to listen to her, to allow her as many tears as she needed to cry, and give her as much time as she needed.
I had these two women in mind as I developed the main character, Sarah, in Singing Boy. In the first chapter of the book, Sarah's husband is killed -- the victim of what is apparently random violence -- and in the aftermath, I wanted to honor Sarah's right to be inconsolable; I wanted to try to show that she was in fact "getting on" with life, but that her life would never be the same. I wanted to show that it's impossible to shape and pace grief through an effort of will. And I wanted to show how the beauty of the natural world can sometimes help people in their sorrow and sometimes help them to help each other.
My own son, who's just a bit older than the little boy in the novel, gave me the title for the new book. We'd recently moved into an apartment in a grand old building from the early 1900s. One night when he and I were home alone, he ran singing down the hallway, and as I caught up to him, I saw that he'd suddenly stopped in his tracks, just past the master bedroom. "Is there somebody in there?" he asked. I told him no, but he made me inspect the room to be sure. When I asked him why he'd thought somebody was there, he said he'd seen a man and that the man had called out to him. "What did he say?" I asked, and his answer, which he demonstrated in a convincing, hailing fashion, was, "Singing Boy."
I hope you like the new novel, and I know I speak for writers everywhere when I say thank you for reading and buying books.
Discussion Questions: 1. Singing Boy begins with a senseless, deplorable act of violence that sets the story in motion. A crime has been committed, but author Dennis McFarland's narrative is only remotely concerned with solving it. Why? Apart from the initial crime, identify the key questions or mysteries confronted by the book's main characters. How, if at all, are they answered or resolved?
2. Although the narration of the novel is in the third person, nearly all the events that transpire are rendered from one of three different perspectives. Whose perspectives are these? Also, how do these shifting perspectives-and the book's frequent switching of verb tense-reflect the mental, emotional, and psychological states of the characters themselves?
3. Why does Sarah refuse to visit a therapist? Her mother thinks it might be a good idea, but Sarah cannot be persuaded. Is Sarah being stubborn here, or does she have other reasons (and if so, what are they)?
4. Consider the character of Harry, the "singing boy" of this tale. Given the trauma he is experiencing, how do his thoughts, speech, and behavior reflect his young age?
5. If Sarah's foremost personal burden is grief (the long, dark maze of sorrow that comprises the main plot of the novel), and Deckard's is memory (either the unwanted kind or the vanishing kind), then what might be Harry's? Identify important imagery and dialogue from the text in support of your response.
6. Discuss the relationship between Sarah and Detective Sanders. How does it change over the course of the book? How does Sarah's overall view of the police change? And how, if at all, did reading this book alter your own view of police work -- the nature of it, the routine of it, the reality of it, and so forth?
7. Although Sarah has acted selfishly and stubbornly -- as she herself realizes and admits -- during so much of her grieving, she becomes convinced, about two-thirds of the way through the narrative, that she and Harry must retreat to her family's summer home. Neither Deckard nor Harry's principal consider this a wise move, but Sarah does it anyway. Why is she so adamant about making this trip? Be as specific as you can. And was it the right thing to do? Explain.
8. Toward the end of the novel, Deckard tells Harry about the "single question that saved [Deckard's] life." What exactly is this question? Who asked it, and why did it prove so potent, so fateful? And why is it significant that Deckard is now telling Harry of this secret question?
9. In one interview, discussing the manner in which he wrote this book, McFarland remarked: "I had to balance the grieving with some amount of wit. It's true to life that even in the depths of despair something will happen that will make us laugh." Cite places in the text where this is true.
10. Finally, how would you evaluate this novel as a portrayal of grief? If possible, refer to your own experiences of mourning, or those of someone close to you, to address the delicate subject matter of Singing Boy -- and how this subject is handled by the author. Did the novel thus strike you as accurate and/or convincing? Explain why or why not.
About the Author:
Dennis McFarland is the bestselling author of The Music Room, School for the Blind, and A Face at the Window. His fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories and The New Yorker. He lives with his family in Massachusetts.
Posted May 4, 2009
What a great book! It's been a bit of time since I've been able to pick up a book, and literally, not put it down, just giving myself in to a good story and losing myself in some wonderful characters. Right off the bat, with the murder of Sarah's husband, one is flung into the middle of a family full of grief, and then their way out. This one made me smile, cry, and also made me NOT want to close the book once I read it straight through. Keep it up, Dennis!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 9, 2002
Dennis McFarland's book 'Singing Boy,' is an emotional joyride that quickly pulls the reader in to the story and into the Vaughn household. Each charactor finds their voice and sense of humor through sarcaism and well-written dialogue.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 19, 2001
This is one good book i havent seen such in a long time, i have a child, and i want to sell it, i am ready to give it up for a low price, i will buy as wellWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 17, 2001
As his debut novel, The Music Room (1990), garnered both critical and popular acclaim, Dennis McFarland soon found himself named among America's premier wordsmiths. His next two novels, most notably School For The Blind (1994), ensured his standing. Readers anticipate this author's supple, compelling prose. Such expectations are fulfilled with Singing Boy, a poignant exposition of grief in which Mr. McFarland again touches upon his recurring themes of death, forgiveness, and the mercy of time. Following a dinner at which he has been honored, Malcolm Vaughn, with his wife, Sarah, and Harry, their eight-year-old son, is driving home through a quiet Massachusetts night. Malcolm's attention is caught by an old Corvair blocking their passage through an intersection. When he goes to investigate, he is shot and killed by the Corvair's driver, a stranger. Harry watches as his father is slain, and Sarah cradles her husband as he bleeds to death on the street. Upon arriving at the hospital, Sarah calls Deckard Jones, a black Vietnam war veteran, who is Malcolm's best friend. Deck, as he is called, is approaching fifty. He has spent time in a detox unit, is haunted by the horrors of wartime carnage, and has recently lost his girlfriend. His life, it seems, is going fast but headed nowhere. 'Spontaneous murder,' according to the police, is the classification for Malcolm's death. However, this is not the story of a crime but a powerful tale of how three bereaved souls respond to tragedy. Each retreats in a different way, unable to contemplate let alone cope with their shock and grief. Sarah, a chemical engineer, is immobilized, incapable of decision making, unable to offer Harry parental affirmation, even a modicum of guidance. Of Sarah Mr. McFarland writes, 'No one will understand that her grief is what she has left of him, and if she were to lose that, she would have nothing at all.' Young Harry conceals his trauma behind a mask of normalcy - he doesn't cry, he speaks politely when spoken to, reiterating that he is fine. In analyzing Harry's behavior, Deckard concludes, 'There was something too smooth about it, too business-as-usual, too no-problem.' Confronted with a grieving Sarah whom he is trying to nudge in a 'back-to-normal direction' and a child who seems so extremely normal that it's worrisome, Deckard assumes the role of protector, repressing his mourning for a friend's death until personal crises threaten to pull him under. Related with truthfulness and compassion the struggles of three people become a reflection of our own periods of loss. Many can relate to the words Harry utters as an adult: he remembers the summer of his father's death as a time when 'he'd learned the word `inconsolable,' and what a deep deep well of a word it was.' Mr. McFarland has said that in this story he wanted to honor Sarah's 'right to be inconsolable, her right for claiming as much time for grieving as she needed......I wanted to show that it's impossible to shape and pace grief through an effort of will.' He has accomplished this with with grace and beauty. For this we are grateful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
In the Boston area, Malcolm and Sarah Vaughn accompanied by their second grade son Harry were driving home from dinner when the Corvair in front of them sat at the green light, not once but twice. Malcolm went to see if the driver was okay, but was shot and killed for his Good Samaritan efforts. Harry and Sarah watch their beloved father and husband die in front of their shocked eyes. <P>The aftermath of the random act of violence stuns Sarah and Harry. At the hospital Sarah calls Malcolm¿s best friend Deckard Jones, who cannot cope any better than the two survivors. Sarah finds herself increasingly alone, as she cannot hide her grief in her work as a chemical engineering professor. Harry suffers nightmares that haunt him during the day hiding it with apathy and withdrawal while crying and wetting his bed at night. Deck returns to Nam where he seen death and suicide as the norm. The near future for this trio is at best bleak, helpless, and unrelenting, as they must cope with tragedy by themselves. <P> As he did with THE MUSIC ROOM, Dennis McFarland provides his audience with an angst-filled tale of what emotionally and psychologically happens to the survivors. The tragedy occurs in the first chapter with the main story line centering on how each individual copes (or in many cases, not deal with) the sudden death of a loved one. Although a bit too melodramatic at times as secondary players also suffer and react in various ways to Malcolm¿s murder, Mr. McFarland has written a superb psychological thriller that emphasizes the feelings not the action. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.