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The Marsh Queen

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About The Book

For fans of Where the Crawdads Sing, this “marvelous debut” (Alice McDermott, National Book Award–winning author of The Ninth Hour) follows a Washington, DC, artist as she faces her past and the secrets held in the waters of Florida’s lush swamps and wetlands.

Loni Murrow is an accomplished bird artist at the Smithsonian who loves her job. But when she receives a call from her younger brother summoning her back home to help their obstinate mother recover after an accident, Loni’s neat, contained life in Washington, DC, is thrown into chaos, and she finds herself exactly where she does not want to be.

Going through her mother’s things, Loni uncovers scraps and snippets of a time in her life she would prefer to forget—a childhood marked by her father Boyd’s death by drowning and her mother Ruth’s persistent bad mood. When Loni comes across a single, cryptic note from a stranger—“There are some things I have to tell you about Boyd’s death”— she begins a dangerous quest to discover the truth, all the while struggling to reconnect with her mother and reconcile with her brother and his wife, who seem to thwart her at every turn. To make matters worse, she meets a man in Florida whose attractive simple charm threatens everything she’s worked toward.

Pulled between worlds—her professional accomplishments in Washington, and the small town of her childhood—Loni must decide whether to delve beneath the surface into murky half-truths and either avenge the past or bury it, once and for all.

The Marsh Queen explores what it means to be a daughter and how we protect the ones we love. Suzanne Feldman, author of Sisters of the Great War, writes that “fans of Delia Owens and Lauren Groff will find this a wonderful and absorbing read.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Marsh Queen includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

For fans of Where the Crawdads Sing, this “marvelous debut” (Alice McDermott, National Book Award–winning author of The Ninth Hour) follows a Washington, DC, artist as she faces her past and the secrets held in the waters of Florida’s lush swamps and wetlands.

Loni Murrow is an accomplished bird artist at the Smithsonian who loves her job. But when she receives a call from her younger brother summoning her back home to help their obstinate mother recover after an accident, Loni’s neat, contained life in Washington, DC, is thrown into chaos, and she finds herself exactly where she does not want to be.

Going through her mother’s things, Loni uncovers scraps and snippets of a time in her life she would prefer to forget—a childhood marked by her father Boyd’s death by drowning and her mother Ruth’s persistent bad mood. When Loni comes across a single, cryptic note from a stranger—“There are some things I have to tell you about Boyd’s death”—she begins a dangerous quest to discover the truth, all the while struggling to reconnect with her mother and reconcile with her brother and his wife, who seem to thwart her at every turn. To make matters worse, she meets a man in Florida whose attractive simple charm threatens everything she’s worked toward.

Pulled between worlds—her professional accomplishments in Washington, and the small town of her childhood—Loni must decide whether to delve beneath the surface into murky half-truths and either avenge the past or bury it, once and for all.

The Marsh Queen explores what it means to be a daughter and how we protect the ones we love. Suzanne Feldman, author of Sisters of the Great War, writes that “fans of Delia Owens and Lauren Groff will find this a wonderful and absorbing read.”

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. From the first chapter, Loni is beholden to a strict timeline set by an unsympathetic boss who can’t wait to fire her if she goes a second beyond the allotted family leave time. Have you ever encountered a workplace conflict? How did you handle it compared to how Loni did?

2. Loni’s world revolves around the animals and vistas of the Florida wetlands. How did this environment contribute to your reading experience? Were there any scenes or details that stuck with you as you read?

3. When Loni has to think through something difficult, she turns to drawing or canoeing to make sense of it all. What are your coping strategies for puzzling through hard situations?

4. Phil’s wife, Tammy, enjoys making scrapbooks containing important photos and memories, and she transforms Loni’s mom’s old photo albums into one of these creations. How do you preserve memories and photographs?

5. Loni and her brother, Phil, initially have different attitudes around the mystery of her father’s death. Loni believes it’s better to not know what you don’t know, while Phil wants to dig for buried truths. Which side were you on as you were reading?

6. Loni finds her mother’s journal and starts reading, curious that it may hold the key to untangling their complicated relationship. Would you have read the journal, knowing it was never meant to be shared?

7. Loni and Estelle struggle to balance friendship with the work obligations that turn their relationship into that of boss and employee. What advice would you give them in Chapter 41 when Estelle asks Loni to draw “four incongruous birds all on one tree”?

8. In Chapter 49, Loni realizes that her mother’s herb garden has been torn up. She decides not to tell her, instead immortalizing the garden in her drawings. Why do you think this garden was so important to Ruth, and how does this moment represent a turning point in their mother-daughter relationship?

9. As Loni and Adlai get to know each other, their relationship deepens and their principles align. How do you think Adlai’s value of truth affects Loni’s understanding of her father’s passing?

10. In Chapter 54, we encounter a tragedy of addiction and heartache. What do you think motivated Rita Chappelle to share these details with Loni?

11. The book contains a twist ending—when did you first begin to suspect the true story behind Boyd Murrow’s death?

12. The story ends with Loni spending additional time in Florida, but the door is left open around what happens next. Do you think she will permanently relocate to Tenetkee or return to her Smithsonian family in DC?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Loni Murrow connects with the world through her drawings, allowing her to connect with the “pond chickens” and other wildlife in an intimate way. Look out your window and create a drawing of your own. Discuss what that process felt like and why you chose that particular plant or animal.

2. The setting of The Marsh Queen is incredibly vivid—you can see the Spanish moss, feel the sticky heat. Step outside and create a sensory map of your setting. What can you see, feel, hear, and smell? How does this set the backdrop for your story the way Florida swamps set the background for Loni’s?

3. Loni and her mother use easy-to-recall rhymes about herbs to connect across the time and memories that have forced them apart: “Lemon balm sooth / all troublesome care / reviveth the heart / and ward off despair.” Research plants native to your area and try your hand at a rhyme of your own that describes their properties or appearance. Share them aloud.

About The Author

Photo by Danielle Price.

Virginia Hartman has an MFA in creative writing from American University and is on the faculty at George Washington University. Her stories have been shortlisted for the New Letters Awards and the Dana Awards. The Marsh Queen is her first novel. Find out more at VirginiaHartman.com. 

Why We Love It

“An immersive, absorbing look at how closely guarded secrets and long-held sorrows can derail families, this debut novel introduces a gifted storyteller whose richly drawn characters and vivid evocation of the endangered natural world will remind readers of Where the Crawdads Sing.”

—Jackie C., Senior Editor, on The Marsh Queen

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (September 6, 2022)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982171605

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Raves and Reviews

“Hartman debuts with a well-crafted and fast-paced family drama set in the Florida panhandle . . . [Her] depiction of the natural setting show her to be a talented writer, as do the well-executed takes on museum work, botany, and ornithology. Readers will hope to see Loni back for more.”
Publishers Weekly

“Hartman’s first novel is interwoven with strong natural history themes, evoking the works of Barbara Kingsolver.”
Library Journal

“Steeped in the lush rhythms and murky shadows of the Florida Wetlands, Virginia Hartman’s The Marsh Queen is at once a gripping mystery, a devastating family drama, a romance, and a tribute to the natural world. Loni Murrow is a character who will stay with me for a long time. An astonishing debut.”
—Lara Prescott, author of The Secrets We Kept

“Part romance, part mystery, The Marsh Queen unwinds its entangled story lines with measured grace. Virginia Hartman shares with her bird artist narrator a keen eye and a precise touch, as well as a wry understanding of the way the natural world comforts and sustains. This is a marvelous debut, witty and wise.”
—Alice McDermott, National Book Award-winning author of The Ninth Hour

<![endif]-->“A unique blend of literature and mystery, with deft evocations of Florida’s flora and sometimes malignant fauna, The Marsh Queen finds a compelling Southern-noir niche all its own and marks Virginia Hartman as a writer to watch.”
—Louis Bayard, author of Courting Mr. Lincoln, Lucky Strikes, and The Pale Blue Eye 

“The setting is distinctive, Loni is like a girl-detective grown up, and it crackles with trouble and action.”
—Ellen Prentiss Campbell, author of Frieda’s Song

“Subtle and complex, The Marsh Queen navigates the currents and backwaters of family relationships, the Florida swamplands, and a mysterious death that occurred twenty-five years before. Like Barbara Kingsolver, Hartman delves deep into the natural world to explore her characters, and in this case, the connections between one haunted woman and the waters that took her father's life. Fans of Delia Owens and Lauren Groff will find this a wonderful and absorbing read.”
—Suzanne Feldman, author of Sisters of the Great War

“Loni Murrow, the protagonist in Virginia Hartman's  harrowing urban-rural novel, knows that it's not that you can’t go home again, but what wretched truths might await you there. In The Marsh Queen there are stories within stories, there are stunning family secrets, there's an almost gothic séance atmosphere—all of that is beautifully orchestrated. But at heart this novel  is a kind of mythic journey; let's call it The Daughter's Search for Truth, Love and Redemption.”
—Howard Norman, author of Next Life Might Be Kinder

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