Discussion Guide

In The Sweet By and By, five Southern women’s lives come together in an unlikely journey of courage, hope, and humor. Even when faced with difficult choices and often fragile memories, all five women must learn to reconcile their respective pasts, find forgiveness, and relish in the joy of life.

Of course, this is no easy task: most of the novel is set in a nursing home, where the sameness of each day creeps into every page of the calendar. While Bernice and Margaret confront their increasing loss of faculties, April and Rhonda struggle to define what it means to live fully, and Lorraine finds her identity in compassionate giving. Together, their stories quilt together richly different experiences of aging, childhood, of living and dying, and in so doing, challenge readers to examine how time passes in their own lives, the people whose paths they cross via chance or circumstance, and the impact of these encounters on their own life stories.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The Sweet By and By is told through the first-person perspectives of five women. Aside from the chapter titles, how does the author keep each of these voices distinct and immediately recognizable? What does each unique woman bring to the story?
  2. From Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July to Margaret and Bernice’s escape to the Tastee Freez, holidays and food are powerful motifs in The Sweet By and By. What function do these motifs play in the story?
  3. In Chapter Twenty-Six, April claims there are only two unforgivable sins: sickness and aging. Why do you think she says this? Do you think this statement is true to the novel?
  4. Several of Lorraine's chapters take place in church. How does Lorraine understand the role of God in her life, and does that change over the course of the novel?
  5. What does the title The Sweet By and By allude to?  What do you feel it means in relationship to your own life?
  6. In Chapter Thirty-Five, April and her mother learn the difference between “apparent” and “absolute magnitudes” of stars. What does this distinction symbolize? How do the five main characters’ perspectives of themselves confirm or conflict with the other characters’ depictions of them?
  7. The Sweet By and By covers many years, often with only subtle indications that significant time has passed. What details does the author employ to implicitly convey the passage of time? Do different parts of the novel move more quickly than others, and if so, how can you tell?
  8. What role does race play in the novel? Why do you think the author waits before revealing Margaret’s race?
  9. In Chapter Twenty-Four, Lorraine, Margaret, and Rhonda read Bernice Stokes’s letters to her deceased son. Lorraine says, “Don’t think she didn’t know, honey. There’s ways of knowing that we don’t know nothing about.” What do you think Lorraine means here?
  10. Why does Margaret insist on naming Bernice’s second stuffed animal?
  11. Are Margaret and Bernice’s escape related to Bernice’s death? Why or why not?
  12. Why does Lorraine wait so long to tell April about her brother?
  13. The novel is filled with uncharacteristic representations of age. In Chapter Twenty-Two, Rhonda recounts how as a child her grandmother threw away her dolls and told her, “You’re grown up now…. Let the past be in the past!” A page later, she washes “Mister Benny’s” hair for an aging Bernice Stokes. In one of the novel’s final scenes, April takes her aging mother to the planetarium. Can you think of other passages like this? What does The Sweet By and By tell us about childhood, adulthood, and aging?
cover of The Sweet By and By, by Todd Johnson