The Tea House
by Paul Elwork

Published: 2007-10-01
Paperback : 172 pages
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Do you want to know a secret? Emily Stewart has a secret. So does her brother, Michael. Thirteen years old, precocious and privileged, the Stewart twins are just beginning to learn the power of secrets. But what starts as a game among their small circle of friends soon grows out of control; ...
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Do you want to know a secret? Emily Stewart has a secret. So does her brother, Michael. Thirteen years old, precocious and privileged, the Stewart twins are just beginning to learn the power of secrets. But what starts as a game among their small circle of friends soon grows out of control; Emily and Michael's secret spills into the adult world, where secrets can be deadly.

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Discussion Questions

1. Donald Stewart requested a verse from Omar Khayyám on the rim of a birdbath: “The Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter—and the bird is on the wing.” What insight does this quote give you about Mr. Stewart’s outlook on life? Does your opinion of Mr. Stewart change as the story progresses?
2. Prior to their conversation about heaven, the twins have been contemplating the idea of the spirit world independently of one another. Discuss the factors that have influenced this behavior. How have the adults in their lives shaped Emily’s and Michael’s opinion of death? Do they hold the same opinion or multiple opinions? How do the children’s religious studies create uncertainty about the afterlife?
3. During Emily’s initial private moments with her ability, she felt that the strange sound was “connected to all the mystery in the world, to unknowable secrets.” She explains that she “lost the safety of the lonely knocks” after disclosing her talent to Michael and eventually Albert. What do you think Emily’s reasons were for allowing Albert in on the “spirit knocking?” Do you think she would have ever shared her ability with anyone other than Michael had he not brought Albert to see her? What are Michael’s motivations for starting a “Sprit Knocking” club? Do you sense any jealousy from Michael towards Emily regarding her ability?
4. What is the significance of the groundhog’s appearance throughout the story? How do the Stewarts react to this creature’s continuous cameo in their lives? What other animals or additional forces of nature have a direct impact on the characters’ personalities, emotional developments and outcomes? Explore the connections and the reasons why many of the family’s secrets lie literally “underground.”
5. Discuss Emily’s experience with the ghost of Regina Ward on the night of her goblin-filled forest dream. Do you feel that this apparition actually appeared to Emily in reality or was she still lost in a dream? How does this experience change the way both Emily and Michael perceive ghosts? Do they believe in ghosts after this incident? Why or why not?
6. How does Mr. Loewry’s arrival change the twins’ interest in the Stewart/Ward history? What other events make Emily and Michael more curious about their family’s past? What similarities or differences do you see in Regina and Jonathan Ward and Emily and Michael Stewart? What other comparisons (unrequited love, sacrifice, self-destructiveness, etc.) can be made between the current occupants of Ravenwood and individuals from days gone by?
7. Discuss the influence that father figures had over their sons during the late 19th and early 20th century. How did their quests for approval change the lives of these young men? How do shame and spite play a part in these relationships? Discuss the role that women play in the quest for approval and acceptance during this time period.
8. Explore the levels of trust within this story. What factors allow each character to confide in one another? How does “Spirit Knocking” help the children to unlock secrets? Which character do you feel the twins trust most, and why? What does Mr. Randall’s involvement and proposal do to the twins’ relationship? How does the level of trust between Emily and Michael evolve through the course of the story?
9. “Marry this one [Donald] for his money…but put your trust in this one [Stan] for his just and mild nature.” Do you believe Naomi made the right decision in choosing her husband? How do you think 1910s society would have responded to her had she decided to marry a man who was not the father of her children?
10. After revealing “the trick” to Mr. Dunne and Mrs. Nerova, Emily experiences two drastically different responses. Compare and contrast the reactions of these two individuals. How does faith supersede reality so easily with these adults once the truth has been revealed? What other facts in this story are overlooked by characters in favor of more desired truths? What effect does the tarot card reading have on the children? Do you feel they view this experience as a trick or a truth, and why?
11. What do you think prompted Donald Stewart to ask Naomi about her relations with Stan Loewry? Why do you think she answered the way she did? Do you think the truth would have changed his decision to go off to war? How would Donald and Naomi’s life as a couple have changed had he returned from the war?
12. Do you believe “Spirit Knocking” was a beneficial method of therapy for Mr. Dunne? Discuss the positive and negative results of these sessions on Mr. Dunne and his family. Which character do you feel was most responsible for Albert’s death? Why do you think Emily decided to keep her appointments with Mr. Dunne a secret from Michael?
13. How do you think Naomi’s relationship with Stan has developed over the years? At what point do you feel her trips to Newport and Europe will be explained to her children? What obstacles, if any, stand in Naomi’s way of openly loving Stan? While Emily has a keen interest in her family’s history, do you feel Michael ever wonders about his mother’s intentions with Stan?
14. The stories of the Stewart/Ward family are revealed through a series of flashbacks, hidden letters, and conversations. Which character do you believe holds the most secrets and why? What are the motivations for keeping these secrets? Which character has the most to lose should these truths be revealed to the world?
15. What is the lesson to be learned from Emily and Michael’s experience with “Spirit Knocking?” What modern day methods of coping with loss depend on similar acts of faith and/or deception? While we only catch a glimpse of the children’s lives as young adults, what do you think the future holds for the Stewart twins? Will either of them follow in the footsteps of their ancestors? Will Michael become like his mercurial Uncle Michael? Will Emily develop into a woman similar to her mother?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from author Paul Elwork:

I love a good ghost story and I’m fascinated with the psychological intersection of grief and belief. The urge to contact the dead, to first know of life after death and then commune with those we’ve lost, must be older than written history.

In my novel THE GIRL WHO WOULD SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, I took the inspiration of the true story of the Fox sisters to create a fictional stage in 1925 and dream of what could happen when a game of contacting the dead truly becomes a matter of life and death.

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