Participating in the Duluth Reads Book Talk and discussion Tuesday (March 13) night was sorta like sitting in English literature class in high school or college. Only, the 30 or so who had read “When the Finch Rises” and came to talk about the book were seated in the parlor at the historic instead of a classroom.
Peggy Smith, a former English teacher who co-chaired the Duluth Reads project, led the book talk with thought-provoking questions she had meticulously prepared on the book’s characters, setting, plot, and themes. There were 16 questions, and a few of them were a paragraph long.
The Duluth Fine Arts League selected Jack Riggs’ first book for the second annual Duluth Reads project. Dianne Loring co-chaired Duluth Reads with Smith this year. The Duluth Historical Society opened the Strickland House for the event.
Smith and guest author Riggs also read significant passages. And Riggs, who sat next to Smith in front of the fireplace, answered some of the questions posed by participants. He gracefully declined to reply to other inquiries because he is speaking Friday (March 16) at the , and he didn’t want to spoil it. Occasionally, he would ask: “What do you think? “ to encourage readers of his book to express their opinions.
“I’m kinda looking at this in two parts,” said Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris, founder and president of DFAL. “We’re saving the best for last.”
Everyone appeared to enjoy the intellectual exercise the discussion provided, and thank goodness, no essay was required at the end.
"When the Finch Rises" tells the story of two 12-year-old boys Raybert Williams and Palmer Conroy coming of age in the late 1960s against the background of the civil rights movement. Riggs' hometown of Lexington, NC, inspired the North Carolina mill town of Ellenton that serves as the setting for the book.
Riggs said he related to Raybert in the book, and a friend who passed away a few years ago was the model for Palmer. “I wish I had a chance to tell him he was Palmer,” he said.
The author also shared that “Finch” in the book’s title has a dual meaning. It refers to the return of the birds to Finch Creek that Raybert and Palmer observe in a special moment in the book and the creek’s rising and becoming turbulent after heavy rains. Riggs said he had never seen a flight of finches, but had imagined it in his mind’s eye.
“This book has universal themes [dysfunctional families, alcoholics, racism, child abuse, mental illness, young men coming of age…problems of 1940 or 1968 or 2012] and could occur at any time in history,” Smith concluded. Those in the room who had read it seemed to agree.
Riggs will speak and sign copies of his book at the Duluth Festival Center at 7 p.m. Friday. Admission to the event, which includes a meet the author reception, is free.
"When the Finch Rises" was published in 2003, and Riggs was named Georgia Author of the Year-First Book. His second book “The Fireman’s Wife” was published in 2008. He was honored as Georgia Author of the Year-Fiction in 2009. "Finch" is included on the Georgia Center for Books 2010 list of “25 Books All Georgians Should Read.”
Riggs is the writer in residence at the Writer’s Institute of Georgia Perimeter College. He and his family live in Decatur.