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BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE

Title: The Ox-Bow Incident
Author: Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Summary: This is a powerful narrative and realistic portrait of frontier life and mob violence in the American West of 1885. First published in 1940, it is the story of the chaos that ensues when law and order are abandoned.

When a respected rancher is killed and the sheriff is out-of-town, townspeople form a posse. They find three strangers herding cattle with the brand belonging to the murdered rancher. Although they say they bought the cattle, they cannot produce a bill-of-sale and one of them has the rancher's gun. Again there is a claim of purchase but no proof. The posse's actions provide us with an emotionally powerful and vivid tale dealing with the universal themes of good and evil, individual and community, and justice and human nature.

Questions:
1. From the novel's opening, narrator Art Croft seems unsure about the rightness of joining the lynch mob, yet he does. What does this say about Croft's character? Is his reaction typical of human nature?

2. Do any characters or situations presented in the novel alter your ideas of how life was lived in America's "Old West"?

3. The female characters Frena, Rose and Ma Grier each represent different examples of women's roles in the lynching. What motivates each of these women in her actions towards the men in the mob?|

4. Are the Mexican characters, Juan and Amigo, and the African-American character, Sparks, genuine, three-dimensional characters or are they simply manifestations of cultural stereotypes?

5. The African-American character, Sparks, is almost saintly in his unselfish attitude and actions, yet he is regularly and offensively described by other characters as "the nigger" of the town as would have been common in the 19th century West. Would it weaken the novel to exclude use of the word "nigger"?

6. What motivates Davies to remain the voice of reason even when he sees that his arguments are being ignored?

7. Tension is almost a tangible character throughout the novel and is one of the catalysts that leads to the tragedy. How does tension between characters build?

8. Major Tetley's anger and disappointment towards his son motivates him to bully his son into participating in the lynching. What does the Major's reaction to his son's subsequent suicide say about his true feelings for him?

9. The victims of the lynching demonstrate a variety of emotions as they wait for dawn when they will be hanged. Do the reactions of each character seem authentic?

10. Several times before the actual lynching occurs it seems that the mob might disperse, yet each time they come back together. Is fear of being called a coward the only reason?

11. Are there situations in contemporary America that might force average people to have to make the type of ethical choice that faced the Ox-Bow lynch mob?

12. Two suicides occur in the aftermath of the lynching but we are given little input as to the reactions of the other mob participants. How do you believe the other characters will react to their horrific and tragic mistake?

Related Information:

Movie Review of The Ox-Bow Incident

Movie Review from 1943

List of characters

Questions and list of characters provided by Chicago Public Library.

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