“It’s a wretched thing to feel like an imposter.”
A young woman arrives at the grand ancestral home of her husband’s family, hoping to fortify her cracking marriage. But what she finds is not what she expected: tragedy haunts the hallways, whispering of heartache and a past she never knew existed.
Incorporating vivid details from the rich history of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Bethlehem is a multi-generational saga about the lives and fortunes of two intertwined families and the secrets that they buried during the gilded, glory days of Bethlehem. It is at once a mystery, a love story, a tragedy, and a nod to the epochal juggernaut of industry that was Bethlehem Steel in its heyday. It is a story of temptation and regret, but most of all, it is a story of forgiveness.
The events of Bethlehem unfold alternately in 1962 and the 1920s. Inspired by the lives of the true titans of Bethlehem Steel, the story is told from the perspectives of the women who married them: the dynamic and complicated Susannah Parrish Collier, and her daughter-in-law, the lost and searching Joanna Rafferty Collier. Thrown together in the baronial family home, the women come to know and understand not only each other, but themselves—uncovering layers of secret history in the process.
BETHLEHEM Reader’s Guide
The single most significant theme in the book is illustrated with one sentence: “It’s a wretched thing to feel like an imposter.” Is there a universal truth to that? Most people carry secrets—do those secrets “in some fundamental way” change people, as with Susannah?
If so, is that necessarily a bad thing? Is it better to leave history in the past; are some things better left unsaid? Or is there a sort of slow poison in keeping a secret, something that can eat away at a person until the balance is shifted and the harm that it does to the person keeping it outweighs the good of protecting someone else?
How do you feel about Susannah’s secret, and the fact that she kept it for so long? Should she have told Wyatt, i.e. does honesty always trump any impetus to withhold the truth, even if the withholding is done with the best intentions?
Helen’s insistence on keeping her daughter’s pregnancy a secret impacted the rest of Susannah’s life. Do you believe that Susannah owed her mother her silence on the matter? Or do you see Helen as meddling and mistaken? Do you think it is typical for a mother to exert such influence over her daughter? Natural? Acceptable? Did Helen ruin her daughter’s life or did she save it?
People have been known to give up everything for love. Falling in love with the wrong person can devastate families, friendships, and lives. A second overarching theme of the book is the terrible helplessness of those situations. We see this illustrated most powerfully in the character of Chap, who must risk losing his relationship with a brother whom he loves profoundly. Did you recognize Chap’s untenable situation and the depth of the pain it caused him? Do you think he should have let Susannah go, denied their love, and put his brother first? What might the repercussions of that decision have been?
We also see it illustrated in the character of Joanna, who briefly considers leaving everything—her children, her husband, her entire life—for Daniel. How would you compare the relationship of Joanna and Daniel to that of Susannah and Chap? How about that of Joanna and Frank compared to Susannah and Wyatt?
Joanna struggles with feelings of loneliness, powerlessness, and identity that fuel her resentment for her husband. In a home occupied by two other strong women, she feels marginalized. Can you relate to Joanna’s frustration, to her gravitation to Daniel in her need to be seen, to be important to someone? Do you think she was justified in her feelings, or do see her as confused, misguided, or even self-centered?
How did you feel about Joanna’s friendship with Daniel? Is this a commonly recognizable phenomenon—the convenient cloak of friendship used to sanction a relationship which may, in reality, have a chemistry that isn’t necessarily appropriate?
How did you feel about Frank as the book went on? Did you see him as neglectful and deserving of Joanna’s resentment, or did you feel empathy and/or pity for him?
Susannah makes a discovery that is described by these excerpts:
She floated in Chap’s arms like a feather in a stream, with a strange, transcendental feeling of utter fulfillment, made more bewildering by the fact that she hadn’t realized it had been missing before.
Her feelings for Chap were so novel, so powerful, that she couldn’t help but wonder: If not for him, would she ever have known?
Do you believe that a person may never meet the love of his or her life and not even know it? Can we be just as happy not knowing that we are missing something?
Wyatt’s love for both Susannah and his brother Chap is deep and abiding—enough that he can forgive them for loving each other, and go forward without ever revealing that he knew about the relationship. Should Wyatt have told his wife what he knew, relieving her of the guilt? Or can you relate to his fear that the relationship would survive neither the enormousness nor the enormity of the truth; that revealing his knowledge might “eat us alive”?
The story begins quietly, constructing a careful history to establish a relationship between the reader and the characters in order to recognize those characters familiarly and to understand the deep relationships that the two families have. Did you find that the measured pace—the deliberate foundation that the author layered into the first chapters—had the effect of providing extra emotional impact for the denouement and the last chapters? How did the foreshadowing impact your response to the story? Did you find it compelling or did you feel it gave too much away?
The author originally intended to end the book at Chapter Fifteen, without the epilogue. Did you find the epilogue a necessary explanation for the way the final chapter ended, or could you infer the meaning?
Questions and Answers from Karen Kelly on
The Nisky Hill Cemetery, in Bethlehem, PA, inspired the story. Tell us about that.
Over the course of nine consecutive years—while my three daughters attended Lehigh University—I spent a lot of time in Bethlehem, PA. On my excursions around the town, I grew very fond of the beautiful Nisky Hill Cemetery. I discovered a small grave—very near the large custodial home—inscribed only “Baby Brown.” The headstone intrigued me, as did the house, and I decided to incorporate them into a love story and a mystery that would feature the history of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation and the town of Bethlehem itself as a backdrop.
BETHLEHEM is set alternately in the 1920s and 1960s. Why did you choose the timelines you did?
Doing the research on Bethlehem Steel was fascinating. I learned that around the turn of the century (1900) there was more wealth in Bethlehem, PA, than in any other U.S. city. But I didn’t want to take the story all the way to present day—what happened to the steel industry, and to the town of Bethlehem, is too depressing. That was one reason I set the time periods in 1962 and the 1920s.
At the heart of the story are two prominent Bethlehem Steel families, the Parrishes and the Colliers. Did you base the families or family members on Bethlehem Steel’s founding families?
In my novel, the characters of Hollins Parrish and Charles Collier are not specifically based on any single one of Bethlehem Steel’s founders (namely Asa Packer, Eugene Grace, Robert Sayre, Charles Schwab, and Robert Linderman), but on combined qualities taken from each of them. I call the palatial family home Brynmor, which is Welsh for “great hill.” The name took its inspiration from Uwchlan, Welsh for “land over the valley,” which was the name of Eugene Grace’s castle-like house on Fountain Hill.
Can you share with us any interesting tidbits you uncovered in your research?
I was intrigued by the origins of Bethlehem Steel, and its connection to Lehigh University (which was founded as an engineering school for the sons of Bethlehem to follow their fathers’ footsteps straight to the Bethlehem Steel works), and by the men who founded it and brought it to such prominence.
Some of the other details about Bethlehem Steel that really struck me were the astounding contributions the company made to the war efforts in both WWI—when the stock went from $30 to $700 in three years—and WWII, when Bethlehem Steel was one of the largest defense contractors in the country, building the majority of all aircraft parts and over 1,000 ships for the United States and Great Britain.
After the end of WWII, Bethlehem Steel became one of the most prominent fabricators of skyscrapers in the world, with a catalogue that included the Chrysler Building, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Rockefeller Center, the Colosseum, Madison Square Garden, and many, many more. The company was also responsible for the Golden Gate bridge, the George Washington Bridge, and a host of other long-span bridges. The significance of that extraordinary production boggled my mind.
My imagination was also captured by the luxuries of the executive offices, which had dining rooms that served five-course, silver-service meals to its executives for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Everything was prepared on-site by chefs, sous-chefs, and even a baker. I learned that the company’s landscapers, electricians, and carpenters were at the executives’ beck and call to work at their homes; that there was a fleet of limos to take the men to and from work; and that the company’s own police force was bigger than that of the town of Bethlehem. I wanted to write about that life, to experience it vicariously.