2 reviews

Promise Not to Tell: A Novel
by Jennifer McMahon

Published: 2007-04-10
Paperback : 250 pages
37 members reading this now
15 clubs reading this now
8 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 1 of 2 members

Forty-one-year-old school nurse Kate Cypher has returned home to rural Vermont to care for her mother who's afflicted with Alzheimer's. On the night she arrives, a young girl is murdered—a horrific crime that eerily mirrors another from Kate's childhood. Three decades earlier, her ...

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Forty-one-year-old school nurse Kate Cypher has returned home to rural Vermont to care for her mother who's afflicted with Alzheimer's. On the night she arrives, a young girl is murdered—a horrific crime that eerily mirrors another from Kate's childhood. Three decades earlier, her dirt-poor friend Del—shunned and derided by classmates as "Potato Girl"—was brutally slain. Del's killer was never found, while the victim has since achieved immortality in local legends and ghost stories. Now, as this new murder investigation draws Kate irresistibly in, her past and present collide in terrifying, unexpected ways. Because nothing is quite what it seems . . . and the grim specters of her youth are far from forgotten.

More than just a murder mystery, Jennifer McMahon's extraordinary debut novel, Promise Not to Tell, is a story of friendship and family, devotion and betrayal—tautly written, deeply insightful, beautifully evocative, and utterly unforgettable.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


November 7, 2002
9:30 pm

“When the Potato Girl was murdered, the killer cut out her heart. He buried it, but the next day, she rose again -- from that exact same spot.” Ryan poked the campfire with a stick for emphasis, sending a shower of sparks up into the night. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

1. In the opening of Promise Not To Tell, Kate Cypher says, "I killed someone tonight." How did this shape your first impressions of Kate? Does her confession make her more trustworthy, or less so?

2. Promise Not To Tell interweaves past and present from chapter to chapter. How did this affect your reading of the story? Do you think this was an effective structure?

3. Del and Kate are both outsiders, but in different ways. What are the differences? What are some of the similarities between the two girls?

4. Kate finds clues that her mother might have been out in the woods the night Tori was murdered. Should she have investigated this further or even gone to the police with her suspicions? Why or why not?

5. Kate says that once she loves someone, it's for life. How does the Nicky Kate meets as an adult compare to the Nicky she knew as a child? How have her feelings for him changed?

6. When Nicky tells Kate that he thinks Del has come back, Kate thinks about the pervasive legend of the Potato Girl. Why do you think Del has achieved such mythic status in town and what role do you think this plays in how people view Tori's murder?

7. Del's sheriff's star plays an important role in the story. Kate refers to the star as a talisman. What do you think the star symbolizes to Del? To Kate (as a kid and as an adult)? To Del's killer? Are there other talismans in the book?

8. How were you affected by Del? As you learn more and more about the secrets she kept, do you see her as a strong person or someone that needed to be protected?

9. At one point, Kate confesses that if she could go back and change any part of her life, the two moments she would redo take place on the day Del was killed. How does Kate's guilt over what happened that final day shape the woman she grows up to become?

10. Promise Not To Tell takes place in the fictional town of New Canaan, Vermont. Much of the book is set at New Hope and the Griswolds' farm down the road. How important is the setting in the story?

11. Kate is a skeptic who struggles to find rational explanations for the bizarre events that begin happening to her. Would the story be different if she weren't so skeptical? Were you, as a reader, skeptical as well?

12. This book has elements of a coming of age novel, ghost story, and mystery. How would you define it? How does it compare to other books you've read in these genres?

13. All of the main characters are keeping secrets, some dangerous, some incriminating, some shameful. What importance do these secrets play in the story? Is there power in keeping a secret? Honor?

14. The final chapter is told from Opal's point of view. Why do you think the author chose to make this shift?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Behind the Book

Promise Not to Tell

By: Jennifer McMahon

I have always loved scaring people. When I was a kid, I delighted in terrifying neighborhood children with rigged séances, ghosts that flew past windows on fishing line, and disembodied spirit voices (tape recorders or a co-conspirator hiding in a closet). At the same time, I was also convinced that we had a ghost living in our attic (a man with dark hair and beard I called Virgil and left little gifts for in the dark corners of the attic). So it only made sense that I would one day write a ghost story.

Promise Not to Tell started off with just that idea: I wanted to write a ghost story; a book not just about an actual spirit coming back, but about all the ways people can be haunted by their own pasts and the secrets they’ve laid to rest.

It was spring, and down the road from us, there was a small vegetable farm. In the center of the field, a dead crow hung from a pole, upside-down, string tied around one of its feet. I had heard that some farmers did this to keep other crows from eating seeds before they’d sprouted. I’d just never seen it in practice before. For weeks that crow hung there, quietly rotting as cars and trucks rolled by. When I sat down to write my ghost story, I started with the image of that crow and a young girl stroking it. At first, all I saw was her dirty little hand, but then, as I wrote, she came into focus and I had an immediate sense of who she was -- and I knew she was going to be my ghost.

Promise Not to Tell is really two books in one: the events that are taking place in the present day when Kate returns home, and the story of her doomed friendship with Del thirty years earlier. Once I had the basic structure in place, the book took off and I finished the first draft in about six months. I spent a few months on revision, then sent it to my first agent. She was not a fan of ghost stories and had had no luck selling two earlier novels, and we parted company after she read Promise Not to Tell. After licking my wounds for several months, I revised again, and lucked into finding a wonderful, enthusiastic agent who put a lot of time and energy into helping me make Promise Not to Tell what it is today.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Kisa V. (see profile) 05/24/17

  "Ok book"by Tami B. (see profile) 06/08/16

Our book club enjoyed the book for the most part. I personally found it a little far-fetched, but it made for interesting conversation.

  "I liked it until the last 10 pages"by Jennifer S. (see profile) 06/14/10

I really liked this book- until the end. I won't say why I didn't like it, because I don't want to give anything away. With that said, my book club read it and everyone seemed to like the book and think... (read more)

  "Keeps you thinking"by Sydney K. (see profile) 04/08/09

I enjoyed this book it was an easy read and kept me wondering what was going to happen. A good mystery.

  "Excellent Mystery and Coming of Age story"by Angel L. (see profile) 03/02/09

Great story, kept everyone interested but not very deep for discussions

  "Who done it and why mystery"by Diane M. (see profile) 04/14/08

I enjoyed this book largely because of the mystery effect. It always had me wondering. It was an easy read..read it in one day. I do think that others will enjoy it especially if they like stories that... (read more)

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