6. The circus performers include women who vault and do tricks on horseback in knee-length tutus. How did this violate social custom of the time? Why might it have appealed to Kate even as it shocked her? How might others in the audience have perceived those women in positive or negative ways? How do you think you would have reacted to them if you had lived in the 1850s?
7. John Parker was a real African-American hero who worked on the Underground Railroad in Ripley. What would it have been like for a black man to own a foundry right across the Ohio River from a slave state and even employ white men? What everyday challenges might John face, and what personal qualities would he need?
8. How does the journey with Nelly and her baby change Kate?
9. Why is Ben tempted to take the law clerkship? Is the advice his father gives him correct, and is Will Hanby wise to give his adult son such firm direction and principles? Under those circumstances, would you advise your adult son of the right path or keep silent? Do you think you would listen if you were the adult son or daughter in Ben’s position?
10. Why does Ben think “Darling Nelly Gray” has failed when he passes through the music store and the inn in Pittsburgh on his way to Philadelphia? Why does this failure affect him so deeply? How does the end of the novel affect your perspective on this moment in Pittsburgh?
11. In the historical afterword, we learn what happened to the real Ben Hanby and Kate Winter after their marriage. Despite the unexpected events of their life together, do you think the real Kate Winter was glad she married Ben Hanby? If you were Kate, would you think it was all worth the pain and sacrifices?
12. What are some of the reasons this novel is titled Sweeter than Birdsong?