The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Book Club Discussion Guide


Questions are best considered in the company of good friends and a glass of wine.


1.        A central theme of The Lion Trees concerns the power of individual identity and the extent to which each of us will work every day to reinforce what we subconsciously believe about ourselves, even if that identity leaves us trapped and unhappy.  In what respects do the members of the Johns family illustrate this principle?


2.       Thinking back on her life, Matilda Johns once refers to her younger brother Ben this way: “Ben was Zen.” What does she mean?

        a.       What is the thematic importance of Ben in the story and what is his importance to the theme of identity?

        b.       Of what is importance is Ben in the lives of the other members of his family and the struggles each of them have in wrestling with their own sense of identity?


3.       When David Johns has dinner with Mae Chang the evening after his first interrogation by Officer North, he opens a fortune cookie with the following message: “Identity is but the mask of the soul, worn in the prison of the self.”

        a.       In what way is identity a mask for the characters of The Lion Trees? Are there examples of the characters living in a prison of the self?

        b.       Is it meaningful that David spends so much of the book preoccupied with the fear of going to prison?

        c.       What is the importance of the poster of Nelson Mandela on the wall in David’s living room?

        d.       Consider Hollis Johns, pruning his bonsai. Is there merit to an observation that a bonsai is a miniaturized tree imprisoned in a pot?

        e.       In what way is Lieutenant Miller’s abandonment on Rhuton-Baker a confinement in a prison of the self? What is the importance of Lieutenant Miller’s abandonment to Colonel Ivanova? In what way is she just as imprisoned as he is?

        f.       Hollis tells David and CeeCee the story of Dillon Notty (known to Hollis as Naughty Dillon), in which Dillon’s father locks him up in jail in order to teach him a lesson. As between Dillon and his father, which of them is locked in a prison of the self?


4.       After the Prologue, the first Chapter of The Lion Trees begins with Hollis Johns in the basement of his home, pruning a bonsai. In what way does Hollis Johns compare to the bonsai tree?

        a.       Is there a relationship between Hollis’ new hobby of bonsai pruning and the way in which Hollis lives his life?

        b.       Is it meaningful that Hollis pursues this hobby in the basement of his home?


5.       Hollis Johns takes an interest in young Bethany Koan. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, a koan is a paradoxical question, statement, story or idea used in meditation to discourage dependence on reason and favoring an intuitive enlightenment. Perhaps the most well known example of a koan is “Hear the sound of one hand clapping.” In what ways is Bethany Koan a paradox or a riddle that seduces Hollis Johns out of a rigid mindset and towards a more intuitive enlightenment?


6.       What is the importance of Christopher Columbus to David’s character arc?


7.       CeeCee Lewis tells David during one of his darker moments, that we were all meant to float.   What is it that keeps David submerged for much of this book? Why is it important that David is a teacher of history in the same school in which he was once a student?


8.       Susan Johns gives an address at an Ohio rally against the Iraq War in which she assigns accountability for the war to President Bush and also to herself. Are there parallels in how Susan sees the country’s path to war and her own path away from her former idealism and civic involvement? Is there a parallel between George Bush and Hollis Johns?


9.       Reminiscing about her conversation with Milton Chenowith, Matilda Johns notes the following:

“He liked to call Hollywood a town. Mostly, this was just Milton polishing his anachronistically avuncular charm. But he was not entirely wrong. A place is a town for reasons wholly independent of its lack of area sprawl, its population density, its relative affluence, its commercial sophistication, or the fragmentation of governmental services and structures. Those are the measurements of cities, where social cohesion is a function of ever more complex economic and legislated relationships.

“A town, by contrast, is bound together by a common and enduring understanding of itself, even if that understanding is largely mythic. A town has a self-concept—an identity – usually simple enough to fit within a single thought and yet complicated enough to incorporate elements of both self-glorification and self-loathing.

“As Milton well knew, the identity of a town is affirmed and enforced through the stories it tells to itself, about itself, sustaining and nourishing on its own lore; a rich, perpetually-steeping stew of hard fact, magical coincidence, apocryphal serendipity, aggrandizement, romanticized tragedy, and wishful redemption. On the spectrum of human associations, a town more closely resembles the family than it does the city. Los Angeles is a city. Miami is a city. New Orleans is a town. The Columbus of my youth was a town. America is a town.”

        a.       Do you live in a city or a town?

        b.       Is it possible for groups of people – schools, families, countries – to be driven by protected cultural or political identities in the same way that individuals are driven by personal identities?

        c.       In what ways does The Lion Trees depict American democracy in the throes of an identity crisis similar to the human characters in the novel?


10.         The parable at the center of Angus Mann’s story, “The Lion Tree,” suggests that people will arrange their lives again and again to reinforce what they believe about themselves, even if that belief is that they are undeserving of happiness or forgiveness. Do you think nations make decisions – such as when and how to go to war – less on the merits of those decisions than out of a need to reinforce a cultural identity?


11.       What importance does the parable at the center of Angus Mann’s story “The Lion Tree” have to the rest of the novel?

        a.         How does that parable inform the story of Miller and Ivanova?

        b.         How does it inform the struggles of Hollis, Susan, David and Tilly?


12.       In Angus Mann’s story, Colonel Ivanova tells Lieutenant Miller the parable of the Underserving Man, a tragic character who walks out into the middle of the savanna in middle of the African night, following the sound of lions to meet his fate. What do you think the lions represent in the parable?

        a.         Does the Undeserving Man actually find the lions he seeks? If not, where did they go? Were they ever really there?

        b.       The Lion Trees is riddled with lions. How many did you find?


13.         To what extent do you think forgiveness, or the withholding of forgiveness, is a key to understanding why the characters of The Lion Trees find themselves in their various predicaments? Who does each character most need to forgive in order to heal?


14.       What is the importance of Hollywood and the movie-making industry in Tilly’s story?


15.       In what ways is Angus Mann a proxy for Hollis Johns?