Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep Discussion Guide

Book:     The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
Author:  Joanna Cannon
Edition:  Softcover 
While the writing isn't crisp (there are more similes and personifications in each chapter than in a pile of 5th grade essays), the voice of the child protagonist is true, honest and engaging. And when I closed the book I missed Tilly and Grace, their footsteps, their perspective.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, is a quick read, a setting that is timeless in many ways and a read I consider a palette cleanser.
Read the book before reading this guide as there are spoilers.

Internet Resources

One Christian interpretation of the scripture from Mathew 25:31-46, offers plenty of thought for thinking about who are the goats and who are the sheep in this neighborhood. Perhaps it’s less bad and good and more about being much more alike than different regardless of if we are more like sheep or more like goats.
If you really want to delve into the title theme there are numerous sites online that talk about raising goats and sheep. Many blogs, like one from PetMD, purport that sheep tend to be more comfortable in a flock and goats are more independent.  Comparing the relative behavior of these two groups of animals to the behaviors of the neighborhood residents could occupy an entire evening of wine and book discussion.

Major Characters

Margaret Creasy: disappeared one Monday in June, wife of John Creasy 
Grace Elizabeth: part-time narrator and daughter of Sylvia and Derek
Tilly Albert: Grace’s best friend
Walter Bishop: Old man whom neighborhood shuns; house fire in 1967 killed his mother
Mrs. Beatrice Morton: widow who babysits Grace and Tilly regularly
John Creasy: Margaret’s husband, compulsive about counting and being organized
Sylvia Bennett : Grace’s mother
Derek Bennett: Grace’s father, business going bankrupt
Harold Forbes: Angry neighbor, Dorthy’s husband
Dorothy Forbes: Married to Harold; memory not be entirely in tact
Sheila Dakin: Drinks in secret, has her own young teenage secrets
Lisa Dakin: Shelia’s teenage daughter
Thin Brian Roper: Single 43-year old who lives with his mother
May Roper: Brian’s mother
Eric Lamb: widower who cared for his wife suffering from cancer right through her death
Aneesha Kapoor: New neighbors at #14 The Avenue who move in July 1976
Amit Kapoor: New neighbors at #14 The Avenue
Shahid Kapoor: Kapoor’s son

The Neighborhood

House Number
#2 The Avenue
Thin Brian and his Mother
#4 The Avenue
Grace asdfasf and her parents, Slvie and Derek
#6 The Avenue
Dorothy and Harold Forbes

#8 The Avenue
Margaret and John Creasy
#10 The Avenue
Eric Lamb
#11 The Avenue
Walter Bishop
#12 The Avenue
Sheila Dakin and her 2 children, Lisa and Keith
#14 The Avenue
Aneesh and Amit Kapoor
#3 Rowan Tree Croft
Mrs Morton

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for The Trouble with Goats and Sheep that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests and other books you may have discussed.  Topics such as point of view and secrets are common themes across novels and can serve as interesting points of comparison.

Point of View

Part of the narrative is in the first-person, from Grace and the remainder is in the third person, sharing both the past and the present from the adults’ perspectives. Why do you think Cannon chose this writing style? How does Grace’s view shape the novel and its themes? What does the adult view add that couldn’t be captured by Grace?


Several of the characters talk about having or not having a choice and being able to make different choices. For instance as Dorothy looks at a photo taken the night the neighbors met at the Legion and talked about Walter Bishop:
“She wished she had known then that one day she would be staring back at herself, wishing the choice they had made had been a different one.” page 35
Mrs. Morton ponders her answer to where Grace was found,
“She can feel it. The big decision, attempting to be nothing, hiding amongst all the small decisions, oping it will be unseen and unimportant. It’s making its way to the front of the queue, carrying everything in its pockets.” page 342
and when she makes her decision and tells the neighborhood she reflects,
“It’s the small decisions, the ones that slip themselves into your day unnoticed, the ones that wrap their weight in insignificance. These are the decisions that will bury you.” page 343.
What momentous choices have you made? In reflection did the choice seem big or small at the time? Has the decision grown or shrunk with time?


The certainty and the uncertainty of the past bang against one another, sometimes through a known memory loss and sometimes through the imperfections everyone experiences in recalling the past.
“She was around Dorothy’s age when she first started to lose her mind, although Dorothy always thought losing your mind was a such a strange phrase. As if your mind could be misplaced, like a set of house keys, or a Jack Russell terrier…” page 29
Eric’s reflection on memory:
“Everyone was so certain of what had happened, but maybe the present crawled into our memories and disturbed them as well, and perhaps the past wasn’t quite as certain as we would like it to be.” page 294
Where have you seen your certainty of past events conflict with someone else’s certainty? What is truth? What can you depend upon as factual with respect to memory?

Goats and Sheep

If you want to delve into either the Christian perspective of goats and sheep from Mathew 25 or the secular/shepherd’s perspective, check out the internet resources above for 2 examples of contemplating the differences between goats and sheep. Let your book group explore this primary theme in whatever direction works for you.
Perhaps you may take Grace’s view:
“‘I think that’s the trouble,’ I said, ‘it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.’” page 89
or Tilly’s view:
“‘Perhaps that’s why they don’t mix,’ said Tilly, ‘because everyone else is on the other side of the street?’” page 114
Perhaps you might explore the general theme of where individuals see the sameness or the differences among groups creating walls or building bridges. 
Mrs. Morton reflects:
“The estate had always been this way. A parade of people, joined together by tedium and curiosity, passing other people’s misery around between themselves like a parcel.” page 326
Grace wants to belong at school,
“‘If Lisa Dakin likes me, then the rest of the school might like me as well,’ I said.” page 245
Or you might focus on your neighborhoods. Who has been singled out as being different, being an individual? Where have people flocked together for the comfort of belonging? Where have people flocked together to soak in someone else’s misery?
“‘There’s only one problem with a witch hunt,’” he says.‘And what might that be?’He starts to walk back towards his house as he answers her, ‘It doesn’t always catch the witch.’” page 157 
Perhaps your group might explore this theme on a national or global scale, discussing current events which mirror the divisiveness of splitting the neighborhood into goats and sheep and consider groups or events that aim to point out the similarities rather than focus on differences. When have you seen the problem with witch hunts?
“The point is, these people don’t think like the rest of us. They’re misfits, oddballs. They’re the ones the police should be talking to, not people like us. Normal people.” page 113
Or what is normal?


John Creasy reflects:
“Before she disappeared, he never said I love you.I Instead of saying I love you, he said, Take care of yourself, and When will you be back. Instead of saying I love you,  he placed her umbrella at the bottom of the stairs, so it wouldn’t be forgotten, and in the winter he put her gloves on the chair by the door, so she would remember to pull them onto her hands before she left.” page 99
How do you express love? Are you more comfortable with actions or words? Reflect on how you show and share love with a partner, a child, a parent, a friend. When do you favor words? When action? As a recipient of someone’s love which do you prefer?


Everyone recognizes that Margaret is a true listener and that she is good at connecting with people.
“Finding something in everyone.” page 101
Contrast this way of being with Mrs. Morton carrying on conversations as she continues walking on her errands.
And as Grace says,
“I had discovered that, sometimes, if you held on to the silence, people couldn’t stop themselves from filling it up.” page 111
and later,
“And I realized she was giving me the words. So I took them and held on for a moment, and then I hated them back. ‘No,’ I said, ‘you just never know.’” page 239
Eric reflects:
“She just listened. No one had ever listened to him before, they had only waited until he stopped speaking, so they could burden him with their own stories. … but no one really listens to the murmured words. They’re like punctuation in someone else’s speech, small springboards for another person to bounce their opinion from. Margaret Creasy was different. Margaret Creasy asked questions. The kind of questions you can only ask if you were hearing something in the first place.” page 169
And when Grace and Tilly visit Walter Bishop:
“We sat in silence. I knew straightaway that Walter Bishop was the kind of person you could sit in silence with.” page 193
Are you a silence holder or a silence filler? Where are you most comfortable?
Who do you know in your life who is a true listener? What skills or behaviors make that person a listener? How does it feel to be listened to? How can you become a better listener?


Everyone in the neighborhood has shared a secret with Margaret and is worried their secrets will now come back to haunt them. Margaret knows about Shelia’s drinking. She knows about Brian’s illiteracy. She knows about Dorothy and the fire. She knows about Derek’s financial woes.  She knows about Eric and Elsie’s end of life. She knows what all the neighbors thought of Walter and may even know about Mrs. Morton and the day she took Grace.
“‘She’s coming back with all our secrets. She’s got a bagful of them. She knows everything.” page 324
Secrets are a common theme throughout the novel. Grace thinks,
“Because I had already decided it was a secret that needed to be unwrapped.” page 175
When Eric tells Margaret about Elsie he feels,
“…immediately afterwards, he had felt a relief, as though saying the words out loud had leaded away some of their power.” The secret had been trapped in his head, shifting the perimeter, pushing at the sides and carpeting all the other thoughts until they became silent… he had experienced an absolution so strong, it felt like a chemical reaction.” page 171
How does the feeling of relief at the moment of sharing a secret contrast with the secret revealer’s feelings knowing that Margaret may in turn reveal his or her secret?
When does a secret need to be unwrapped? Have you ever revealed a secret? How did it feel afterwards? What compelled you to share the secret? 
Have you ever been the recipient of a secret that needs to be released? What brought the secret to the surface? What did it feel like to receive the secret? What do secrets hold power? When is that power positive and when is it destructive?

Childhood Observations

As a narrator, Grace offers observations from a child’s point of view,
“I watched Mrs. Morton’s mouth trying to choose words.” page 43
“I thought I would like a job where inquiring about everyone else’s private business was considered perfectly routine.” page 45
“Sometimes, with grown-ups, the gap between your question and their answer is too big, and that always seems like the best place to put all your worrying into.” page 28.

What observations or quotes stuck with you?

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if anyone has found out what house Tilly lives in? Also, why is there a house on all even numbered lots up to 14, and none on odd numbers except 3 and 11?


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