Multiple perspectives spanning across time are united through themes of freedom, hope, and faith in a most unusual and epic novel from Newbery Honor–winning author and National Book Award finalist Kathi Appelt.
Sixteen-year-old Cade Curtis is an angel thief. After his mother’s family rejected him for being born out of wedlock, he and his dad moved to the apartment above a local antique shop. The only payment the owner Mrs. Walker requests: marble angels, stolen from graveyards, for her to sell for thousands of dollars to collectors. But there’s one angel that would be the last they’d ever need to steal; an angel, carved by a slave, with one hand open and one hand closed. If only Cade could find it…
Zorra, a young ocelot, watches the bayou rush past her yearningly. The poacher who captured and caged her has long since lost her, and Zorra is getting hungrier and thirstier by the day. Trapped, she only has the sounds of the bayou for comfort—but it tells her help will come soon.
Before Zorra, Achsah, a slave, watched the very same bayou with her two young daughters. After the death of her master, Achsah is free, but she’ll be damned if her daughters aren’t freed with her. All they need to do is find the church with an angel with one hand open and one hand closed…
In a masterful feat, National Book Award Honoree Kathi Appelt weaves together stories across time, connected by the bayou, an angel, and the universal desire to be free.
Each person makes an impact, touching the lives around them whether they know it or not. The objects we encounter have histories and impact lives they come in contact with. Large or small, the items that we see, feel, and use throughout our days affect the experiences we have. Angel Thieves gives insight into these sentiments with a collection of histories that intertwine and influence in ways that none of the characters imagine. Soleil Broussard feels adrift without the previously displaced Byrd family in her life, overwhelmed, too, by her attraction to the boy who sits behind her in American Lit class; Cade Curtis steals marble angels from old churchyards to help support his makeshift family, but knows that he can be so much more; Achsah, a freed slave, is willing to give up everything she has in this world, including her life, to save her daughters; Zorra, an ocelot trapped in a cage by a terrible man, faces her own mortality as the waters rise; the bayou itself, swirling around all these lives, gives up secrets and drowns others for an eternity. Each one has a story, and it is the connection between these stories that will stick in your heart.
1. Kathi Appelt begins the book with an anthropomorphized depiction of the Buffalo Bayou, a technique that she continues throughout the book with various objects. Why do you think she gives human traits and thoughts to things that are not typically thought to possess them? What does this add to the story? How do the characters react to these objects?
2. Why do Paul and Cade steal the marble angels? What is it about this act that bothers Cade so much? Given his misgivings, why do you think he continues to participate in the thefts? What would you have done if you were Cade?
3. What is Soleil’s connection to Tyler Byrd? Why does the family’s move to Los Angeles affect her so strongly? What is the significance of the honey bear tattoo on her wrist?
4. Is Achsah’s freedom a gift? Did the captain intend it as a gift or a trick? What makes Achsah so determined to save her daughters from James Morgan? How might this kind of determination change someone’s motivation or behavior?
5. Why is Juba so good at being quiet? Where did she learn this skill? How is this a helpful trait both before and after her escape? Why do you think Mary Ann is not quiet?
6. Why do you think Appelt chooses to dedicate a chapter to the marble fields? Why is marble so important to the story? Does the process by which marble is formed make you think of anything or anyone else in the story? What makes the angels carved from marble more valuable to collectors?
7. What was Paul’s promise to Evie? Why does he break this promise? What repercussions do his actions have for Evie? For Cade? Does Paul make any other promises?
8. At one point, Soleil thinks of prayer as “the one thing that she knows how to do for sure.” How did prayer come to play a role in her life? How would you characterize her communications with God? Do you think prayer brings her closer to others in her life? Do you think prayer provides her with answers?
9. Achsah believes that she lost her son at birth, not because he “wasn’t good for this world,” but because “the world wasn’t good for him.” What do you think she means by this? Do you think she feels her world is good enough for Juba and Mary Ann, or even herself?
10. Do you see any similarities between white treatment of Native Americans and white treatment of slaves? What are the differences between the two groups’ situations? Why does Achsah feel such a connection to the thin boy she’s chained to?
11. Why does Celia Phillips declare her husband’s prayer at the consecration of the new church “perfect”? What meaning does it have for the people present that day? Do you think it continues to have meaning in the present?
12. Why won’t Luc give his real name to Etienne? Why doesn’t he tell Achsah his name either? How does his namelessness compare to the bayou, which we learn has had many names over the years? What does a name mean to each of these characters?
13. Is Mrs. Walker a member of Cade’s family? Why does she grow so close to the Curtis men? What role does she fill for Cade? What does she think about stealing the angels? What is her reasoning for that belief?
14. What is the Moses law, and why is it important to Cade? What are the similarities and differences between Cade’s story and that of Moses?
15. Why do you think Reverend Phillips allows his church to be segregated while he is also helping escaped slaves? How can he reconcile or justify these two very different actions? Do you think his abolitionist stance comes from his religion or his personal beliefs? What might happen to the reverend if his activities are discovered?
16. What does Zorra want? How is this different from what she needs? Are there other characters who want the same things as Zorra? How does Cade feel about finding Zorra instead of the statue?
17. When Cade sees Zorra’s cage and rescues her, he is described as, “thief of angels and teller of lies, does a very big Something Good.” Is this how you would describe Cade? How does this viewpoint compare to his other acts in the book? How many past deeds does he need to make up for?
18. Why does Achsah leave Mary Ann behind? Do you think she had other choices? How do we know what happens to Mary Ann after her mother and sister leave? How would you have reacted if you were Mary Ann? What would you have done if you were Achsah?
19. How does Major Bay communicate with the runaway slaves, or even with those slaves thinking about running? Why do you think that Major Bay stays with Reverend Phillips?
1. The bayou becomes a character in the story, given a personality and history. Choose a natural feature or landmark in your town and write a short history for it, imbuing it with human qualities and a personality. Read your history aloud and see if others agree with your characterization.
2. The Underground Railroad is an important part of our American history, and it has also been fertile ground for authors, filmmakers, and historians. There are many books on the subject; choose one fiction or nonfiction to read. Then compare and contrast it to the events and perspectives laid out in this book. How does this book’s setting affect its portrayal of the movement?
3. Create your own angel or small figurine like Achsah’s. You can use clay, felt, or other found objects. What kind of emotions does it evoke? Why did you choose those particular materials and patterns?
4. There are nonprofit organizations who work to protect rare animals like Zorra from poachers, illegal trade, and environmental crises. Choose one of these organizations and find out what they are doing to help. What is their mission? What are their short- and long-term goals? Is there a way you can contribute to the cause?
5. There are many ways to learn the history of a particular building in your community. Your local library, government offices, and historical societies can all help with this information. Choose a building that you love or use a lot, and research its history. Write a report to share with the group, or present your findings visually.
6. Slavery and human trafficking is still a huge problem in the United States and around the world. Find a local or national organization that is working to fight this issue and investigate their progress; think about their obstacles and challenges, and how you might help. Alternatively, you could form a group at your school to educate your fellow students on the dangers of human trafficking, and how they can protect themselves.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Guide written by Cory Grimminck, Director of the Portland District Library in Michigan.
Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honoree, National Book Award finalist, PEN USA Literary Award–winning, and bestselling The Underneath as well as the National Book Award finalist The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Maybe a Fox (with Alison McGhee), Keeper, and many picture books including Counting Crows and Max Attacks. She has two grown children and lives in College Station, Texas, with her husband. Visit her at KathiAppelt.com.