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Swift River Book Club Questions and Discussion Guide (PDF)

swift river discussion guide

Discussion reading guide and book club questions for Swift River by Essie Chambers explore the themes of family, identity, and overcoming prejudice.

Diamond’s story challenges us to consider the extent to which our identities are forged in the crucible of familial history versus the fires of our own choices and experiences.

How much of who we are is determined by the blood that runs through our veins? Can we ever truly break free from the shadows of our forebears, or are we forever dancing to their rhythms, even unconsciously?

About the Author | Q&A with Essie Chambers

Book Club Questions | Additional Recommendations | Book Club Kit

About Swift River

Swift River is a heartwarming and emotional book about a teenage girl named Diamond Newberry who is navigating a tough summer in 1987. Diamond lives in a small New England town where she feels out of place as the only Black person. Her father disappeared seven years ago, and now her mother is trying to have him declared legally dead to secure life insurance money and save their home.

As Diamond learns to drive and deals with being teased about her weight, she receives a letter from a relative she’s never met. This letter reveals secrets about her father’s side of the family, introducing her to two generations of African American women in her family. These revelations help Diamond understand her family history and her place in the world.

The novel reminds us that while the past may be inescapable, it is also a source of strength and wisdom, guiding us as we carve out our paths in the ever-flowing river of life.

Swift River by Essie Chambers

Release date: June 4, 2024
Genre: Coming of Age Fiction
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

About Essie Chambers

Essie Chambers is a talented author and award-winning independent producer based in Brooklyn. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and has received prestigious fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, and Baldwin for the Arts.

essie chambers author

Essie has had a notable career as a television executive and producer. Her work includes the acclaimed documentaries “Descendant,” released by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company and Netflix, and “The New Public,” available on PBS. She also produced “Pull Out,” directed by Jyllian Gunther, for Amazon Prime.

Essie’s debut novel, “Swift River,” was published on June 4, 2024, and has been celebrated for its compelling exploration of family, identity, and community.

Q&A with Essie Chambers about Swift River

Q: Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your debut novel, “Swift River”?

A: Of course! I’m Essie Chambers, and “Swift River” is my debut novel. It’s a family Saga set in a small, crumbling New England mill town in 1987. The story revolves around Diamond Newberry, an Oddball teenage girl who grapples with being the only person of color in an all-white community. Her discovery of a hidden family history and ancestral legacy sets her on a journey of self-discovery and growth.

Q: Why did you choose to set the novel in the 1980s?

A: I find the 1980s fascinating with its unique pop culture, fashion (think hair helmets and shoulder pads!), and societal dynamics. It was a time of freedom for teenagers like Diamond, contrasting sharply with the racial and cultural tensions of the era, which plays a crucial role in the story.

Q: How did the character of Diamond Newberry develop? Was she the first character to emerge in your story?

A: Diamond’s character evolved over time. I knew I wanted to explore the experience of being the only minority in a predominantly white community, drawing from my own background. Her voice really came to life during my time in grad school, especially influenced by personal experiences and interactions from my earlier career in television.

Q: You mentioned it took nine years to complete “Swift River”. How did your experiences in television production and your MFA at Columbia influence your writing process?

A: Working in television, particularly with teen programming, sparked my interest in storytelling. My MFA at Columbia provided invaluable guidance, with mentors like Paul Beatty and Victor LaValle shaping my approach to narrative, truthfulness, and humor in storytelling.

Q: The novel addresses significant themes like race, identity, and family secrets. How did you research the historical backdrop, including the concept of Sundown towns?

A: Sundown towns were all-white communities, enforced through discriminatory laws and violence, where people of color risked harm after dark. Researching these historical realities helped me weave a compelling narrative backdrop without making the novel feel like a history lesson. It added depth to Diamond’s struggle with identity and belonging.

Q: What inspired you to create the setting of Swift River, a town with its own unique challenges and dynamics?

A: Swift River is emblematic of many New England mill towns that declined after industrial shifts. I drew from my own experiences growing up in a similar setting, where economic struggles and racial isolation were palpable. It provided a rich canvas for Diamond’s journey and the complexities of her family dynamics.

Q: The novel blends humor with serious themes. How did you balance these elements while maintaining Diamond’s authentic voice?

A: Diamond’s humor and authenticity were central to the narrative. I aimed to tell her story with honesty and a touch of levity, reflecting the rollercoaster of emotions teenagers experience. It was crucial to capture her emotional intelligence while portraying her as a relatable, imperfect protagonist.

Q: Who are some of your literary influences that shaped your writing style and storytelling approach?

A: Tony Morrison has been a significant influence for me, especially in her ability to blend the personal with the political. Writers like Paul Beatty and Victor LaValle, my mentors at Columbia, also played pivotal roles in honing my narrative voice and thematic exploration.

Q: When did you realize you needed to leave short stories on the side and that the novel was your form? Was it a moment or a lot of work that made you realize?

A: I think I always wanted to be a novelist. I just hadn’t found the world and the story to sustain it. From my TV and film background, I know there are movies and TV series, and the same idea does not go for both. You need to sustain a world. The early days of this started as a short story, and wise people told me this was a book, a whole world.

Q: How does it feel to have “Swift River” coming out? Time Magazine named it one of the 24 books you need to read this summer. You’ve lived with these characters for nine years, and now you have to share them with a big audience. How does it feel?

A: It is thrilling and terrifying. I feel like I’m turning myself inside out in the best way. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s the first thing I ever wanted, and I thought it was a luxury I couldn’t pursue. I feel incredibly lucky it’s being embraced, and I got the support I did. I don’t have any sad story about not being supported. I have an incredible publisher and team. I want to talk to people about it and be out in the world. The waiting is torturous, but I’m just so happy.

Q: I think people will be excited when they meet Diamond and have feelings about Diamond’s mom and dad. They haven’t met characters like them yet. You’re working with a classical story structure, and I think people will be surprised by the twists and turns. You zig when they think you’ll zag. It’s cool.

A: Thank you. I understood that it wouldn’t work if the white characters in this book were cartoonish or one-dimensional. Discovering “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine was timely. She talks about microaggressions from people she loves, and that was a big moment for me. Being the only one in a certain environment means being hurt by people you depend on every day in small ways. They still love you and show it. With Ma, she’s failing as a parent but couldn’t love her kid more. We know that person. I worked hard to make her not what you’d expect.

Q: Did writing “Swift River” change you? Beyond realizing you could write a novel and had a team behind you, did it change you as a person?

A: Completely. It’s fiction, but I had to pull from a real place, making discoveries about myself that fueled the story. Diamond’s journey is short, over three months, but my relationship to my home and understanding of my experiences evolved. I developed a confidence that spilled over into all areas of my life. Every writer knows you have to keep showing up and writing garbage until the good stuff comes. At a certain point, I realized the good would come, which spilled into all areas of my life.

Q: Finally, what do you hope readers take away from Swift River?

A: I hope readers connect with Diamond’s journey of self-acceptance and resilience amidst adversity. Beyond the specific setting and historical backdrop, I want readers to see the universal themes of identity, family, and finding one’s place in the world. Ultimately, “Swift River” is about the power of heritage and the courage to embrace one’s true self.

Selected Book Reviews for Swift River

“Chambers’ funny debut is set in a 1980s New England mill town in decline. Seven years after her father’s disappearance, Diamond Newberry and her mother are struggling, but Diamond’s observations provide comic leavening. During the summer of 1987, her mom files to have Pop declared dead, which is when things get complicated. Diamond receives a letter from an unknown relative, which starts her on a path to learn her family — and the nation’s — history.”—The Los Angeles Times

“Insightful, moving, and wryly funny, Chambers’ debut is sure to be a book club favorite.”—Booklist, starred review

“A powerful novel about how our family history shapes us; it is only when Diamond learns about the women that came before her—their strengths and losses mirroring her own—that she can finally imagine a better future for herself. Swift River broke my heart, and then offered me hope.”—ANN NAPOLITANO, New York Times bestselling author of Hello Beautiful

Book Club Questions for Swift River

  1. SWIFT RIVER begins with, “The summer after I turn sixteen, I am so fat I can’t ride my bike anymore.” How does this opening line set the tone for the rest of the story? What were your initial thoughts when you read it?
  2. How does Diamond’s weight and self-perception shape her interactions with others throughout the novel? How did your perception of Diamond change as you read?
  3. Before reading “Swift River,” what did you know about sundown towns? Did anything you learned from the book surprise you or challenge your previous knowledge?
  4. Mother-Daughter Relationship: Explore the dynamic between Diamond and her mother, Annabelle. How does their relationship evolve over the course of the novel? How do you feel about Annabelle’s decisions and their impact on Diamond?
  5. What role do the letters from Lena and Clara play in the narrative? How do they help Diamond connect with her heritage and understand her family’s past?
  6. Did “Swift River” make you reconsider the history of your own hometown? Are there aspects of your town’s past that you think might be overlooked or untold? Where would you start if you wanted to learn more about your hometown’s hidden history?
  7. Characters like Diamond, Ma, Shelley, Pop, and Clara each have unique ways of dealing with hardships. Discuss these coping strategies. Which ones did you find most relatable or effective?
  8. Discuss the concept of sundown towns and their impact on the story. How does learning about Pop’s experience in such a town deepen your understanding of the characters’ struggles?
  9. Swift River, the town, is described as a character in itself. How does the setting influence the events of the story? What role does the river play in the symbolism of the novel?
  10. In what ways does Diamond’s inheritance—stories and letters—shape her identity and future? How do these non-material inheritances compare to traditional notions of inheritance?
  11. Diamond feels isolated as the only Black person in Swift River. How does this isolation affect her sense of self and her relationships with others in the town?
  12. What are your theories about what happened to Diamond’s father? How do you think this mystery impacts the story and Diamond’s life?
  13. How does the novel address issues of race and class? How do these issues intersect and impact the characters, particularly Diamond and her family?
  14. As the only Black person in Swift River, Diamond often feels like an outsider. How does her sense of “otherness” make her both highly visible and invisible in different situations?
  15. How does the mystery surrounding Pop’s disappearance drive the plot? What were your theories about what happened to him as you read, and how did you feel when the truth was revealed?
  16. Examine Diamond’s relationships with her peers, especially Shelly. How do these relationships influence her journey of self-discovery and empowerment?
  17. How does the novel challenge societal perceptions of weight and body image? How does Diamond’s journey reflect broader themes of acceptance and self-worth?
  18. How does the 1980s setting influence the story? What aspects of the time period are most evident, and how do they affect the characters’ experiences?
  19. How important is your family or community history to your sense of identity? Have you ever discovered something about your family that changed how you see yourself and your heritage?
  20. What is the significance of Diamond learning to drive in secret? How does this act of rebellion symbolize her desire for independence and change?
  21. How do the secrets revealed through Lena’s letters affect Diamond’s understanding of her family and herself? How does uncovering these secrets help her grow?
  22. Out of the three main voices in “Swift River” – Diamond’s, Lena’s, and Clara’s – which did you connect with the most? What aspects of their stories or personalities resonated with you?
  23. Compare and contrast the experiences of Diamond, Lena, and Clara. How do their stories reflect different aspects of the African American experience across generations?
  24. Lena shares Clara’s letters to Sweetie with Diamond, but Sweetie’s responses are missing. Did you imagine what Sweetie might have written back? How did Clara’s letters shape your understanding of Sweetie?
  25. Discuss the various meanings of the river in the novel. How does it symbolize transition, danger, power, and rebirth?
  26. Essie Chambers’ background in film and television is evident in her writing. How do her visual storytelling techniques enhance your reading experience?
  27. How did having the perspectives of Diamond, Lena, and Clara enhance your understanding of their family and the history of Swift River? Did you notice any similarities or differences in their voices, personalities, or perspectives?
  28. Despite the challenges she faces, Diamond shows remarkable resilience. What moments in the book highlight her strength and determination? How did these moments resonate with you?
  29. The novel hints at the evolving relationship between Diamond and Ma in the years following the story. How do you imagine their relationship develops into Diamond’s adulthood? What might bring them closer together or drive them apart?
  30. The novel concludes with an open ending, leaving some storylines unresolved. How did you feel about this ending? What do you imagine happens next for Diamond and her family?

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The provocative and hilarious summer read that will have book lovers cheering and everyone talking! Kirsten Miller, author of The Change, brings us a bracing, wildly entertaining satire about a small Southern town, a pitched battle over banned books, and a little lending library that changes everything.

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Discussion Guide for Swift River (PDF)

Happy reading! ❤️