Reading Group Guide
When thirteen-year-old Lucinda Collins lands at the U.S. military base in Grafenwoehr, West Germany, in 1983, she already knows the drill: setting up new family quarters; easing turbulence between her parents; meeting her fellow Army brats but trying to remain at arms length, knowing she'll likely part from friends sooner rather than later. The nomadic Army life is all she knows, yet she longs for a place to which she can tether her memories, a place to truly call home.
During his West German tour of duty, the past haunts Lucinda's father, Major Jack Collins, while Lucinda's mother, Faye, perceptibly grows tired of Army life and the difficulties with her husband. As the family fractures, rock and roll becomes Lucinda's consolation and she begins to chart her own path to adulthood and understanding amidst disappointments and struggle.
Set against the comings and goings of military friends, parents, lovers, and ghosts, Along the Watchtower is the story of a girl searching for permanent belonging in an ever-shifting world.
ABOUT CONSTANCE SQUIRES
Constance Squires is an Army brat born at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Her fiction has appeared in many notable publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The Dublin Quarterly, and The Arkansas Review, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices. Among her awards are: the 2007 Matt Clark Prize for Fiction by the New Delta Review, the 2004 Bob Shacochis Award for the Short Story, and The Briar Cliff Review 2004 Fiction Award. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Oklahoma State University and is the director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Central Oklahoma. She lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, with her husband and daughter.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSWe learn that the Collins family's first European tour of duty took place when Lucinda was a toddler, and that at that time they "had gone everywhere and seen everything and loved every minute of it." The mood at their arrival at Grafenwoehr, about a dozen years later, is markedly different. Major Collins says about his wife, "I thought she'd take care of things. She always takes care of things"; Faye Collins says to her husband, "A new low, Jack." What do you infer about the intervening years from what Jack and Faye each fail to do at the outset of the novel?Frequent moves subject Lucinda to the repeated loss of friends and, as a result, she experiences conflict at the prospect of friendship with her fellow Army brats. How are the circumstances of Syd Eliot's and, later, Liz Frye's departure from Grafenwoehr further complicated? How might Lucinda's experience of those leave-takings be different if the book was set in today's world instead of in the 1980s?Very early in Syd and Lucinda's acquaintance, Major Collins tells Syd "not to give up" on his daughter and calls him Lucinda's "one true love." Given what you know about Jack Collins, why do you think he says this?The author chooses a Jim Morrison lyric as an epigraph: "Ghosts crowd the young child's fragile eggshell mind," which could literally refer to Lucinda and the Nazi ghost in her Bible school classroom. How does it refer to her in a thematic sense? Major Collins also refers to his Vietnam "ghosts." What evidence is there that this could be literal and not merely the "turn of phrase" his wife dismisses it as?How do Faye Collins and Major Collins cope with Lucinda's condition?Lucinda shoulders adult responsibility in some critical situations—taking it upon herself to go to her father for help when the family arrives at Grafenwoehr, calling her mother back from Paris when she learns her father is sleeping with a neighbor. How do Jack and Faye Collins intentionally or unintentionally place onerous responsibilities on their daughter? How do their behaviors shape Lucinda's later relationships with each parent?Despite her father's rigid beliefs and occasionally unsympathetic behavior, Lucinda's bond with Major Collins is apparent—for example, she tries to get him to see the Nazi ghost in her Bible school classroom, and he gets Private First Class Nately to tape record albums for her. Do your perceptions of Lucinda's father change throughout the book? What incidents shift your opinion of him? What surprises you about him?Faye Collins was a foster child and a former "hippie," who married and had Lucinda at a young age. Does her past help you understand her views and actions?Unpleasant realities of war and military life are described or alluded to in the book, including Major Collins's slides of dead bodies in Vietnam and Major Frye's apparent post-traumatic stress disorder. How does Lucinda react when confronted with each of these realities?Lucinda's obsession with music underpins a portion of the book and informs its title, Along the Watchtower. How does it relate to her circumstances in the book?In many ways, Lucinda seems like a typical teenager—obsessed with music, testing boundaries, engaging in risky behavior with no serious consequences. What, if anything, makes her atypical? Though largely unspoken, what evidence is there that her parents' split is affecting her life at this time?Private Rob Dalton, Lucinda's ride to the Nuremberg punk club, nicknames himself "Toxic" and at times seems to embody his moniker. How do your sympathies toward this character change: When his tattoos are revealed? When he is beaten up at the punk club? When he drives the tank through the school wall to free the ghost? When his swastika tattoo is revealed to be a fake? What draws Lucinda to him in the first place? What does "Toxic" have in common with her?Major Collins's Army experience started in Vietnam and ended with the Gulf War. In what ways were those two experiences different for him? How do these experiences parallel varying American public opinions of war, in general? Given that Collins is a career soldier, do his opinions of war change? In what ways do you agree or disagree with him?Lucinda and Syd connect periodically, in different circumstances, throughout the course of the novel. How do the changes we see in Syd each time parallel Lucinda's personal exploration and growth? Are you surprised, as she is, to find out he enlists in the Army? How do you feel about his explanation?After Faye Collins's remarriage and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lucinda can feel in her father "the hole in him howling to be filled" and thinks, "she had the same hole… [It was] their most striking similarity." Is Major Collins himself aware of that hole? Do you think he tries to fill it himself? How?The existence of Shiloh, the Collins' ancestral home in Texas, is introduced early in the novel and becomes a symbol to Lucinda who envies "people who were from somewhere, who had one constant place that tethered their memories." Discuss the impact that Shiloh has on Lucinda when she finally visits, and juxtapose the idea of Shiloh with the historical Roanoke Colony in Virginia, which also fascinates Lucinda. How are the two different? Why do you think Major Collins goes back to the rock on which Lucinda was conceived? In what ways does this help her process her life situation?Why do you think Major Collins sets up college funds for his two younger children but doesn't help out Lucinda financially? Is there any evidence in the book that she would "rather die than take help from anybody," as he says? Why, despite her feelings, doesn't she contradict him more forcefully?