Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageNot Yet Drown'd: A Novel

    Peg Kingman

    "Mysterious, intriguing, and just downright absorbing ... smart and full of atmosphere."—Boston Globe

From the author: Why this book?

When I was learning to play bagpipe, my teacher lent me a book of traditional Scottish music collected in the highlands and islands by Joseph MacDonald in the 1750s. The introduction to this book gives Joseph’s sad story: an accomplished piper, he had gone out to India in the service of the East India Company, and died there of fever without sending back the manuscript of the traditional Great Music for the pipes which he had been setting down. I was captivated by the idea that such a manuscript might have survived, somewhere in India.

A short while later, my imagination was further fired by visiting a museum exhibition in Scotland and seeing a little volume of handwritten botanical notes (casually made in 1780 at the Edinburgh botanical garden by one Francis Buchanan)—taken out to India—lost there—and not recovered until the fall of Seringapatam in 1799—by which time someone had had it handsomely bound in the Mughal style, as though it were a precious manuscript volume.

About this time I had also founded a mail-order and online tea company. I loved researching and writing the catalog copy, loved scouting sources for some of the best tea in the world, and was especially pleased to obtain a few genuine tea plants grown from wild Chinese seed stock. I arranged for a local grower to propagate the plants, and soon found myself shipping young tea plants to tea enthusiasts throughout the United States. I planted a small garden of them myself—fifty plants or so—and learned by experiment how to grow, pluck, and manufacture tea by hand. As I studied tea history, I was amazed to learn how the British finally ascertained that tea did indeed grow wild in the hills of Assam.

I thought about all this for some time, profoundly fascinated, but feeling utterly unqualified to do justice to this unwieldy and disparate material—which somehow seemed to want to coalesce into a single story. More than a year passed while I wished that some accomplished writer—one of the writers I admire—would make something of it, so that I could have the ease and pleasure of simply reading a finished novel. Finally I realized that no one else was going to write this novel—they all had their own novels to write. Besides, who else had collected this odd, obscure knowledge? this intersection of tea—bagpipe music—dangerous equines—engineering—and all the rest? It became apparent that if I did not undertake to write this book, it would not get written at all. And it seemed to me that it was my job to do the best I could with this knotty tangle of material that somehow had fallen—over a period of many years—into my lap.

From the author: About bagpipe music

One night some years ago around the campfire at music camp, there was a piper who played a snatch of piobaireachd—perhaps four or five minutes’ worth. A man listening nearby turned to me, his eyes glistening, and exclaimed, “But that’s the kind of music that’s been going through my head my whole life!” I knew exactly what he meant, because that’s how I’d responded, too, upon first hearing piobaireachd as an adult: Ah! here it is at last, the music my soul has been longing for, all these years.

I believe that I must have heard piobaireachd in my childhood. A piper used to walk the dirt roads lacing the wooded hills surrounding our then-rural northern California valley, and that distant music he played often rang over the valley on summer evenings. I heard that piper for years—but I only saw him once, playing in the echoing concrete-floored hallway of the junior high school; I stood as near as I dared, thrilled by that powerful sound reverberating around and through me. The mere sound of the pipes was enough for me then, but I know now that the music he played as he paced those hills was almost certainly piobaireachd, and not the Light Music most of us have heard from bagpipers. Years later I was told that this piper had hanged himself from a eucalyptus tree near the town crossroads—a further confirmation that he must have been a player of piobaireachd.

That is probably why, when I found piobaireachd as an adult, it was like finding a Lost Music, a distantly remembered and always longed-for music.

Most of us have never heard piobaireachd. It is not the marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs, and hornpipes played by pipe bands. It is not the slow airs played by solo pipers at funerals. All those are ceol beag; that is, “Light Music,” or—to be literal but slightly derogatory—“Little Music.” All those tunes can be—and often are—played just as well on other instruments: fiddles, harps, whistles. Piobaireachd, on the other hand (which means “piping”; pronounced peeb-rock, roughly; and sometimes written as “pibroch”) is the music that bagpipes were made for, their reason to exist. It is music that can be played properly only upon a bagpipe. The other name for it is ceol mhor, the “Great Music,” and—to those of us who can tolerate it—it is very great indeed. In structure, aesthetic impact, and use of drones, it somewhat resembles Indian raga, except that raga is improvised to some degree, whereas piobaireachds are fixed compositions—fixed since that era (of which we treat, in Not Yet Drown’d) when pipers began writing down their music, formerly passed along by ear.

If you want to hear piobaireachd, you must go where you can hear it played by live pipers. There are some recordings, but bagpipe music is hard to record, and even harder to play back; it is the rare audio system that is capable of reproducing that hideous/gorgeous sound of an actual bagpipe. Try googling “piobaireachd competition” and see what comes up within striking distance of where you are. Bring all your patience, and all your ability to really listen. Piobaireachd might bore you silly. You might loathe it. Or you might find the music you’ve been longing to hear all your life.

Discussion Questions

  1. I come from a family of engineers, and worked for years with engineers and scientists as a technical writer. Although I am not an scientist, I have had frequent glimpses of how the world seems to scientists. My father (a mechanical engineer) thinks this novel is a paean in praise of engineers. Is it? Are the sciences and engineering quite opposite to art, music, and literature? Or are they various points along the single spectrum of human endeavor and ability? Were their relative positions different in 1822 than now? How do the goals of science and engineering differ from—or resemble—the reasons for making art, music, and literature?
  2. Mrs Todd wonders aloud how discoveries are to be made, and new territories explored, if not by trial and error: “How are adventurers to discover these uncharted rocks and submerged reefs, if not by running onto them?” she asks—arousing her husband’s contempt. Is this a foolish question? What is the role of error? In science? In the arts?
  3. The chapter titles are taken from Joseph MacDonald’s A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, circa 1760. To our twenty-first-century eyes, their eighteenth-century spelling, capitalization, and punctuation are incorrect and archaic. Is this disturbing? What aspects of our culture change most quickly over time? What changes slowly? Why?
  4. How can we determine whether or not a cultural artifact—the poetry of Ossian, for example—is actually of its purported period? And what about this novel identifies it as a modern production—though it is set in 1822?
  5. Is originality important? Is authenticity important? Proposition: To the extent that a cultural artifact is authentic, it is not original; and to the extent that it is original, it is not authentic. True or false? Discuss. Discuss authenticity as distinct from fraudulence. Discuss authenticity as distinct from originality.
  6. The passage of Mason Weems’s Life of Washington read aloud by Catherine to Grace refers to the famous—and famously fictional—account of the chopping down of a cherry tree. What is that particular fiction for? What is fiction for, in general? What purpose does it serve for Mrs Todd, when she is recounting to Catherine a highly romanticized version of Mr Todd’s courtship, after his death? Or for James Macpherson, the “translator” of Ossian? For us, the readers of fiction? How does this differ from the purposes behind Sandy’s hoax, his own “drowning”?
  7. Whose story is this, anyway? It is told almost entirely from Catherine’s point of view—but isn’t Sharada’s story far bigger and better? How would it have been different if told from Sharada’s point of view?
  8. How do you feel about encountering actual historical figures in a novel? Does it make a difference if you do not learn until afterward which characters are fictional, and which are historical?

About Peg Kingman

Peg Kingman is the author of Not Yet Drown’d and Original Sins. Formerly a tea merchant and a technical writer, she lives in northern California.

Books by Peg Kingman

  1. Book CoverThe Great Unknown: A Novel

    “Brilliantly evocative. Kingman blends an Austen- esque wit and psychological insight with a grasp of early evolutionary theories worthy of A.S. Byatt and Patrick O’Brian.” — Andrea Barrett

    More

  2. Book CoverNot Yet Drown'd: A Novel

    "Mysterious, intriguing, and just downright absorbing ... smart and full of atmosphere."—Boston GlobeMore