1. The opening incident, when William kills a rook with his catapult, is recalled later in the narrative. What impression does the event leave with William’s companions (Charles, Luke, and Fred)? How do their memories of the event compare with William’s?
2. Look back to the intervening chapters about rooks that are scattered throughout the book. How does their placement relate to and have significance with the rest of the story? Discuss any legends and stories you may know about rooks, crows, and ravens. Perhaps you have personal experiences to share. Did the author draw on any literary references? If so, which ones?
3. How do Victorian mourning traditions compare to our modern-day experience? Were the Victorians wrong to mourn for so long and with so much expense? Is the way we do things better? What is the right place for commerce in death rituals?
4. William almost immediately succeeds at whatever he tries, and is both a dedicated worker and father. Why do you think the author makes William such a perfect ‘golden boy’? How does this affect your impression of him? Did you find William unsympathetic because of his easy success? Why or why not? Why weren’t the townspeople at all jealous of his model family and thriving business?
5. While Paul held William in high esteem, his father was not at all fond of William. What in particular appealed to Paul about his nephew? Also, discuss the reason why “the old Mr. Bellman” (p. 34) did not want William to manage his mill.
6. In a way, William plays the role of Paul’s son, as the successive family member at the mill. Imagine and discuss what Paul’s early relationship with his own son, Charles, was like. Why does Charles so willingly hand over the mill and house to William?
7. Despite the successful business in their family, William and his mother were not wealthy and struggled to make ends meet. Why did Dora not turn to her in-laws for assistance in raising William and providing for him?
8. Only Dora, William’s eldest daughter, survives the fever that devastates both their family and the town. Why do you think Dora seems to have a special understanding of her father? How does she know to avoid any discussion of birds or rooks with William?
9. William proves himself an extremely diligent and thorough man, whether he is managing the mill, nursing his family to health, or creating and maintaining a business with a stranger he has barely met. When do his work habits and diligence begin to get out of hand? Why and how does he work for so long without need for rest or company?
10. Much has changed since Victorian times but is William Bellman’s relationship with his work relevant to twenty-first-century readers?
11. Despite his appearance of friendliness to his employees and clients, William builds a thicker and thicker wall between himself and the world. Why does he fail to maintain his relationships with friends and family? For example, William hastily returns to London instead of staying in town for his friend Fred’s funeral.
12. Look back to the graveyard scene where William enters into the bargain with Black. Did you have any thoughts about who Mr. Black may be at this point in the story?
13. When William finally finds and speaks with Mr. Black at the end of the book, he learns that Bellman & Black was his own creation alone. Mr. Black tells him: “I offered you an opportunity, I’m not talking about Bellman & Black. That was your idea. What I was offering you in your bereavement was an opportunity of another kind. I offer it to you again now. Before it is too late” (p. 313). What was the opportunity that Mr. Black really offered that night in the graveyard, and that he offers again at this moment in the story?
14. How far is it possible to describe Bellman & Black as a ghost story? Which elements recall other ghost stories you have read and which ones seem unlike the classic ghost story? The author doesn’t believe in ghosts as such but she does believe that human beings are or can be haunted. Is this a helpful distinction?
15. Openings to books can carry special weight and readers and critics are inclined to pay special attention to first lines. What is important about the first word of Bellman & Black?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)
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