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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780792730620
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date: 10/28/2003
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 6.88(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.57(d)

About the Author

Sena Jeter Naslund is a cofounder and program director of the Spalding University (Louisville) brief-residency MFA in Writing, where she edits The Louisville Review and Fleur-de-Lis Press. A winner of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction award, she is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including Ahab's Wife, a finalist for the Orange Prize. She recently retired from her position as Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
Stella

From many places in the valley that cradled birmingham you could lift up your eyes, in 1963, to see the gigantic cast-iron statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, atop his stone pedestal. Silhouetted against the pale blue skyline, atop Red Mountain, Vulcan held up a torch in one outstretched, soaring arm. In other mountain ridges surrounding the city, the ore lay hidden, but the city had honored this outcropping of iron ore named Red Mountain, as a reminder of the source of its prosperity (such as it was -- most of the wealth of the steel industry was exported to magnates living in the great cities of the Northeast), by raising Vulcan high above the populace, south of the city.

Fanciful and well-educated children liked to pretend that Vulcan, who looked north, had a romance with the Statue of Liberty, also made of metal. But she was the largest such statue in the world, and he was second to her, and that violated the children's sense of romance, for they understood hierarchy in romance to be as natural as hierarchy among whites and blacks.

Looking down from Vulcan -- his pedestal housed stairs, and around the top of the tower ran an observation platform -- you could see the entire city of Birmingham filling the valley between the last ridges of the Appalachian mountain chain as it stretched from high in the northeast to southwest.

In early May 1963, Stella's freckle-faced boyfriend, a scant half inch taller (but therefore presentable as a boyfriend, if she wore flats), had persuaded her to drive from their college, across the city, avoiding the areas where Negroes were congregating for demonstrations, to Red Mountain. From the observation balcony just below Vulcan's feet, Stella and Darl hoped for a safe overview.

I believe if outsiders would just stay out ... Darl had told her. Let Birmingham solve ... Don't you?

But Stella hadn't answered. Instead, she'd said, I'd like to see. I'm afraid to go close.

We can go up on Vulcan, Darl had offered, for he was a man who wanted to accommodate women; a man who loved his mother. Stella had met her. He'd brought along his bird-watching binoculars. Darl could recognize birds by their songs alone; he could imitate each sound; he kept a life list of all the birds he had ever seen. His actual name was Darling, his mother's maiden name, and though Stella dared not call him Darling, she longed to do so.

"Do you know the average altitude for the flight of robins?" he asked.

A spurt of laughter flew from between Stella's lips. She imagined the giggle as though it had heft and was falling rapidly down from the pedestal, down the mountain, into the valley.

"I don't have the foggiest idea," she said.

"About thirty inches."

"What a waste!" she said. "To have the gift of flight and to fly so low."

She thought Darl might laugh at her sentence -- half serious, half comic -- but he didn't.

Stella glanced up the massive, shining body of Vulcan, past his classical and bare heinie, up his lifted arm to his unilluminated torch. At a distance, she had often observed that the nighttime neon "flame" made the torch resemble a Popsicle. Cherry red, if someone had died in an auto accident; lime green, otherwise. Even this close and looking up his skirt, Vulcan's frontal parts were completely covered by his short blacksmith's apron.

Though it was May and the police were already into short sleeves, on the open observation balcony, Darl and Stella were lifted above the heat into a layer of air with cool breezes. Stella wished she'd worn a sweater. Darl put his arm around her -- just for warmth, she told herself with determined naïveté, but she thrilled at his encircling arm diagonally crossing her back. His fingers fitted the spaces between her curving ribs. They were alone up in the air; they weren't some trashy couple smooching in public. Yes, this was what she had been wanting. Perhaps for years. Someone's arm around her, making her safe.

Stella knew her breasts were terribly small. If they had been plumper, Darl's fingertips might have found the beginnings of roundness. Sex, sex, sex, she thought. His hand slid down to her waist; her mind careened. Do I feel slender enough there? Inviting? With his other hand, Darl trained the binoculars on the city. With one finger, he adjusted the ridged wheel between the twin eyepieces. The black leather strap looped gracefully around the back of his neck.

Darl was the complete darling: a lover of nature, a lover of music, a lover of God, considerate, a gentleman -- if only he loved her. And best of all he was an organist, a master of the king of instruments. When Darl played Bach's "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," creating his own improvisations, Stella felt understood. It was she who had been wounded, and the music was what she missed and needed. The way Darl played promised wholeness, profundity. Almost it seemed that the spirit of her father was hovering around Darl and her on this high place.

She placed her hand just below Darl's waist; she shivered as though to say "I only seek closeness for warmth, against the chill." Her palm loved the unfamiliar grain of the cloth of his trousers, and underneath, the firm flesh of his buttock just beginning to flare. How tantalized her hand felt, the hand itself wishing it dare move down to know the curve of his butt. She glanced again at the side of his cheek, the binoculars trained on the city. His hair was a rich brown, and his freckles almost matched his hair.

She wanted to brush the field glasses aside, to stand in front of him ...


The foregoing is excerpted from Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Transporting us to a time and place that tested the American dream in unprecedented ways, Four Spirits portrays a remarkable group of women and men living in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1960s. This was the site of some of the nation's most brutal attempts to quash the Civil Rights movement, most horrifically in the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Yet Birmingham was also where a triumphant swell of courage was born, one that award-winning novelist Sena Jeter Naslund witnessed firsthand while coming of age there.

On the pages of Four Spirits, we meet an array of compelling characters -- black and white, racist and integrationist, rich and poor, pacifist and terrorist. Through these fictional faces, this astonishing fight for freedom emerges in a storyline that pays beautiful tribute to unrecognized heroes. By turns exhilarating and poignant, Four Spirits is a novel that is meant to bring readers together, stirring emotions, recollections, and vibrant conversation.

Discussion Topics

  1. Two quotations, one from William Faulkner and one from Victoria Gray, an African-American Mississippi civil rights activitist, mark the beginning of Four Spirits. What is the contemporary relevance of these epigraphs? In what way is America's past still present? Has the promise of a "rich harvest" been fulfilled?

  2. The novel's prelude presents the only scenes in which Stella's parents are with her in the present, rather than with her through memories. In what way do the events of that day both disable and sustain her throughout her life?

  3. Discuss the conceptof destiny in terms of the book's characters. T.J., for example, survived combat overseas and returned home to become a protector in his community. Yet he lost his job when he attempted to register to vote. Lee became embroiled in her husband's violent plots and eventually needed Aunt Pratt to help her find the way home (literally and symbolically). How does a combination of choice and chance create the fates of such characters as Catherine, Gloria, Lionel, Jonathan, and Stella?

  4. Compare the three men who win Stella's affection. How does each one contribute to her growth throughout the novel?

  5. How does the book compare to your understanding or recollections of this time period? What did you discover about Birmingham and the Civil Rights Movement that you hadn't known before? How would you have responded had you been in the various characters' situations?

  6. The author gives us an unflinching glimpse of a Klansman's perspective. What motivates Ryder to torture innocent strangers, as well as his wife? In your opinion, what are the roots of this behavior in general?

  7. The novel underscores the role of unjust laws and corrupt law enforcement officials in perpetuating Birmingham's bloodshed. How did Civil Rights proponents overcome these tremendous disadvantages? Where did they find power?

  8. Sena Jeter Naslund vividly recreates the surreal aura that followed John F. Kennedy's assassination. In what way are Stella's experiences that day a reflection of the nation's reaction to tragedy as a whole?

  9. Cultural icons and religion form a significant backdrop in Four Spirits. The intellectual canon features philosophers, scientists, composers, and literary lions. The spiritual references form a tapestry including Stella's memories of her mother singing in Hebrew; existential skepticism; spiritual intuitions on the parts of Stella, Agnes, Lionel, and Charlotte; traditional Christian faith and the evangelical preaching of Lionel Parrish. How do the realms of thought and faith interact in Four Spirits?

  10. The act of mentoring is crucial to many of the novel's characters. During his youth, Edmund strove to be one of the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth's protégés; Catherine finds inspiration in her brother; Christine attempts to mentor Gloria. Who has been your mentor? What would you like to teach future generations about life?

  11. Christine, Arcola, Catherine, and Charles make a heavy sacrifice together at the White Palace. In her author's note, Sena Jeter Naslund reminds us of the numerous real-life figures who lost their lives during this chapter in history. What can society do to ensure that they didn't die in vain, and that such bloodshed will be not be repeated in the future?

  12. Discuss the literary devices Sena Naslund uses to enhance her storytelling: compact, intense chapters; widely varied points of view; the treatment of time; poetic chapter titles; carefully divided sections; a prelude and a postlude. What is the effect of these details?

  13. Four Spirits is filled with intriguing cameo characters, such as department store owner Mr. Fielding, many aunts, and the waiter who dances with Catherine. What makes even these minor roles significant in the context of this particular storyline?

  14. Though Four Spirits and Ahab's Wife span extraordinarily different time periods, do any of the characters experience similar predicaments? How do these two novels complement Sena Naslund's body of work?

  15. Two vivid scenes mark the novel's conclusion: the burning of Jonathan's car, and the ascension of Charlotte. What did these images evoke? What is the significance of giving Charlotte the last word?

About the Author

Winner of the Harper Lee Award, Sena Jeter Naslund is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories, including the critically acclaimed national bestseller Ahab's Wife. She is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville, program director of the Spalding University brief-residency MFA in writing in Louisville and 2003 Vacca Professor at the University of Montevallo, Alabama. She is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, educated in the public schools, Birmingham-Southern College, and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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