A Guide to Discussing
I grew up in
the shadow and silence of Jim Crow—unaware of
the march from Selma scarcely 100 miles from my
hometown Meridian, MS where three civil rights
workers disappeared during Freedom Summer. As an
adult, I set out to examine and reimagine the
FOG MACHINE explores prejudice
through the eyes of a 12-year-old white Catholic
girl growing up in Mississippi; a young black
Baptist woman who leaves Mississippi, as part of
the Great Migration, for work as a live-in
domestic in Chicago; and a Jewish Freedom Summer
volunteer from New York City.
I advocate for
using the power of story to engage students in
studying history and us all in dismantling the
stereotypes that divide us. It was Howard Fast’s
Reconstruction-era novel Freedom Road
that made me a student, lover, and writer of
history. It’s a passion I work to share,
especially with young people. Because
history of Jim Crow-era Mississippi can help us
understand and solve challenges from Ferguson to
Charleston and across the U.S. today.
What began as
a very personal, somewhat private mission to
answer two questions for myself—Why didn’t I
know the history of my childhood? And what might
be different if I had?—has evolved into a
passion for engaging hearts and minds for
awareness and change. I’ve become a student of
challenges facing our public education system,
the school-to-prison pipeline, injustices in
mass incarceration, and voting rights. All
intertwine within the tangle of systemic racism
(for which the fog machine is a metaphor), and
all relate to my appreciation of the 1964
Freedom Schools and principles of Freedom
Just as shadow
and silence were key to sustaining Jim Crow,
they are key to sustaining the conditions that
have given rise to Ferguson and Charleston and
countless present-day divides with racism at
their core. Just as Freedom Summer gave light
and voice to injustices in Mississippi through
education and canvassing, we today have much to
learn and much to talk about. I wrote
FOG MACHINE to spark curiosity and conversation.
I hope the following questions will assist your
group in discussion, and I would love to hear
from you with suggestions for additional
questions and reactions on how your group
engaged around the questions I’ve offered.
About the Book
These questions are intended to stimulate
conversation about particulars of
as a work of literary fiction, including
characterization, setting, and story.
There is an overarching theme to
The FOG MACHINE. But,
each main character also has an individual
theme or motivation. How would you
characterize these for Joan, C.J., and Zach?
What are some of the possible roots of C.J.’s
reluctance/apprehension about becoming
involved with civil rights efforts? Compare
C.J.’s and Flo’s experience and views on
What did you note about dialect in
The FOG MACHINE?
How is C.J.’s speech different in Mississippi
than in Chicago? What distinguishes her speech
from Buddy’s? What might explain this?
is set from 1954 to 1964, with a concluding
chapter in 1970. Could the general story play
out as well if it were set earlier or later?
How might this affect the overarching theme?
What is the significance of having the story
move between Mississippi and Chicago? Which
characters particularly serve to compare and
contrast life in either place?
C.J. believes Mrs. Gray wants to get to know
her because she’s a Negro. Flo suggests the
possibility that Mrs. Gray simply wants to get
to know C.J. What do you believe motivates
In what ways does Joan fit the stereotype of a
southern white person? In what ways does she
What makes Joan vulnerable to Big Daddy? How
does he influence her?
When C.J., Flo, and Zach first talk in Harry’s
deli, Flo responds to Zach’s questions about
the Montgomery boycott by saying “There’s lots
of Alabamas in Alabama, you understand.” What
do you think she means, and why do you think
she feels the need to say this?
Why do you think the author chose three POV
characters? How might the story have been
different if limited to one point of view?
What comparable novels have you read? In what
ways are they comparable? In what ways are
they significantly different?
Of the three POV characters, who do you think
changes the most? The least? Why?
If you could learn more about a particular
character, which would it be and why?
Would your group recommend this novel to other
What did you take away from reading
The FOG MACHINE?
These questions are intended to spark
conversation about themes of
as they pertain to our American history and
How would you characterize the overarching
FOG MACHINE? How
does the epigram by Anatole France (“He
prided himself on being a man without
prejudice, and this itself is a very great
prejudice.”) set the stage for the book?
Do you believe prejudice is instinctive or
learned? What examples of either can you
The FOG MACHINE?
What breeds and sustains prejudice? Does your
answer vary by region, whether within the U.S.
or the world? Does your answer vary by time,
comparing 50 years ago to today?
Prejudice is often depicted in literature and
the media as a “southern problem,” even a
“Mississippi thing.” How does
contradict this stereotype?
encompasses Jim Crow, the Great Migration, and
the civil rights movement. How familiar were
you with the history before you read? How did
you gain this awareness? What new awareness
did you take away from
about what is going on in our country and
What do you think factored into the author’s
decision as to whether to have C.J. and Zach
end up together? In the various regions of our
country today, what ending would you see as
realistic? How about in our world?
A meritocracy may be defined as a social
system in which people’s success depends
primarily on their abilities and effort. Was
Jim Crow Mississippi a meritocracy? Is America
today a meritocracy? If not, what kinds of
things might open doors for some through no
virtues of their own?
How homogeneous is your world compared to that
of Joan, C.J., and Zach in 1964? Are you more
or less similar to your family, friends, and
co-workers? To what extent might this
influence your thinking on prejudice?
What insights did you gain from reading
The FOG MACHINE
about people whose skin is a different color
than yours, who practice a different religion
or live in a different part of the country or
economic setting? What else would you like to
know? How might you go about finding out?
In another epigram, Ella Baker says “Until the
killing of black men, black mothers’ sons,
becomes as important to the rest of the
country as the killing of a white mother’s
son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest
until this happens.” How do you think the
investigation into the disappearance of civil
rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner
might have been influenced by two of the men
What do you think enables or disables change
in human beings? What role do family, culture,
society, politics, personality, religion, what
we value, what we fear, and who we meet play
in determining what prejudice we feel and our
ability to change?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said “We must learn to
live together as brothers or perish together
as fools.” What would you consider giving up
in order to ensure greater equality and
justice for everyone?
Then and Now
These questions are intended to initiate
conversation about events, societal systems that
support discrimination and inequality, and
methods of opposition, both in the time in which
The FOG MACHINE is set and
today—in order to use history as foundation for
understanding and tackling today’s challenges.
How would you compare what you learned in
school about slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil
Rights Movement to what your parents learned?
To what your children or grandchildren are
How would you compare sources of information
in the 1960s to today?
Has anything in current times replaced the
system of discrimination known as Jim Crow
which Freedom Summer sought to dismantle?
How would you compare segregation in US
schools in 1964 to today? Does your answer
vary by region of the country, or by urban vs.
suburban/rural? How do you think a voucher
system or privatization might affect access to
In 1964, African Americans were legally
prohibited from voting throughout the South.
What methods kept them from voting? Do you see
any similar obstacles today to access to the
ballot? What impact have the 1965 Voting
Rights Act and the 2013 US Supreme Court
ruling in Shelby v. Holder had on access to
Is the Civil Rights Movement over? Were
necessary rights won? Are those rights secure
What similarities and differences do you see
between the Student Non-Violent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) and Black Lives Matter or any
of today’s movements?
What parallels are there between lynchings
before and during the Civil Rights Movement
and killing of citizens of color today?
Consider Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955
and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2014.
How do you see opportunities to achieve the
American dream of home ownership across racial
lines? Do you own your own home? Was buying a
home made possible/easier for you or your
parents because of the GI Bill or a gift/loan
from family? Have you been denied the right to
buy a home in any neighborhood, or been
disqualified for a loan depending on
If you went to college, what factors made that
possible for you? What particular obstacles
might there be for people of color?
Do you have access to clean water? What do you
know about the crisis in Flint, Michigan? How
was it caused? Who has been most affected?
What do you know about the following:
Charleston, SC; Falcon Heights, MN; Dakota
Access Pipeline; January 21, 2017 Women’s
March; current deportations? Is there any
connection among these? How closely have they
touched your life?