Teacher’s Guide

The Teacher’s Guide (below) is for use by educators in grades 10-12 and post secondary institutions based on students reading the historical novel “On Bolton Flats – An Irish Insurrection In Vermont’s North Woods.”


On Bolton Flats – An Irish Insurrection in Vermont’s North Woods                        by J. Peter Konkle

Based on the true story of two hundred desperate Irish families fleeing the Great Potato Famine and recruited with unfulfilled promises to build an ill-fated section of the Vermont Central Railroad (VCRR) through Bolton Flats in north central Vermont.



Discussion Topics and Essay Questions


   Business and Economics



  • Story Characters
  • Settings / Atmosphere / Mood
  • Plot
  • Theme
  • Conflict
  • Imagery / Descriptive Language / Style
  • Reflective Questions (General)


  1.  Immigrant – a person who goes from one country to another, usually for permanent residence.
  2. Oppression – the exercise of power in a cruel or unjust manner.
  3. Escarpment – a ridge of land or rock.
  4. Disembark – to go ashore from a ship.
  5. Guile – the quality of being cunning, crafty, or clever in attaining a goal.
  6. Privy – an outhouse, when used as a noun.
  7. Sharecrop – to farm and get paid with a portion of what’s grown.
  8. Fodder – a course food for livestock; people considered of little value.
  9. Unfettered – free from constraint.
  10. Iberian – from the peninsula in SW Europe – Spain and Portugal.
  11. Voracious – having a large appetite; a great hunger.
  12. Deportment – a person’s conduct or behavior.
  13. Pensive – thoughtful, deep in thought.
  14. Cynicism – an attitude of distrust.
  15. Precarious – unstable, risky.
  16. Errant – deviating from the regular course.
  17. Larder – a place where food is kept.
  18. Askew – in a crooked position.
  19. Cataclysm – a violent upheaval; a sudden, violent action.
  20. Placating– making conciliatory gestures, satisfying wants.
  21. Monstrosity – outrageous or ugly.
  22. Contrite – filled with a sense of guilt; remorseful.
  23. Immutably – unchangeable.



  1.  What was life like for the Irish in Ireland under Britain’s colonial occupation?
  2. How did the British force the Irish to sell them their ancestral land?
  3. Why was the Catholic Church important in the life of the Irish living under British rule?
  4. How did the British try to coerce the Irish to convert to Protestantism?
  5. What forced the Irish to immigrate to North America?
  6. Why were the ships carrying the Irish to North America called “coffin ships”?
  7. Why were the railroads in New England so anxious to reach Canada?

Business and Economics

Chapter 4, Page 17 – See the dialogue between Board Vice-Chairman Rake and Board Member Michael Adams at the VCRR Board meeting.

“But it’s not beautiful when innovation fails, Mr. Rake.  I don’t have your confidence in the integrity of a structure that’s not bolted. It just doesn’t seem right to experiment…”

Rake interrupts Michael, “Right?  The only morality in business, Mr. Adams, is to play by the rules, and there are no rules about how we build a trestle. This isn’t church, Mr. Adams. Competition in industry rewards innovation, not morality.  As long as the rules of the game allow a shortcut, then a businessman, in order to stay in business, is compelled to take the short cut.” Rake smiles as he looks at each board member digest his impeccable logic.


“I have no objection to competing with the same restrictions as my rivals,” said Paine entering the fray. “It’s the government’s responsibility to write the rules of the game, and our duty is to play by those rules while insuring a profit for our shareholders.”

Rake breaks in, “The rules of trestle construction allow this method of construction, and if it gives us an advantage over our competition, Sir, then, we are compelled to do it.”

Discussion or Essay Questions

  1.  Who has the stronger argument?
  2. How would well-regulated trestle construction standards impact competition?
  3. How did the lack of business regulations affect the events of the story?
  4. What were the benefits (and costs) of doing business New England’s unregulated business environment in the 1840’s? For businesses?  Stockholders?  Workers?


Chapter 4, Page 17 – See the dialogue between Board Vice-Chairman Rake and Board Member Michael Adams at the VCRR Board meeting.

Rake interrupts Michael “…The only morality in business, Mr. Adams, is to play by the rules, and there are no rules about how we build a trestle. This isn’t church, Mr. Adams. Competition in industry rewards innovation, not morality.  As long as the rules of the game allow a shortcut, then a businessman, in order to stay in business, is compelled to take the short cut.”

Page 19 – Paine concludes the discussion about the trestle this way, “Until there’s a law that says we can’t build it using our new method, we’re going to do it.  We’re in a race to the border, and having competition means we have to take advantage of every short cut as we are able.”

Discussion Topics or Essay Questions

  1.  Who has the stronger argument?  Why?
  2. Why would a good person compromise his or her moral or ethical standards?
  3. Give examples of actions or decisions in the story that were legal but not necessarily moral or ethical.



  1. Who are the protagonists and antagonists in the story? Explain your answer using examples of their behavior and actions from the story.
  2. Do any of the characters evolve, mature or change as the story progresses? Explain your answer.
  3. Do you share any character traits in common with the main character or minor characters in the story? Describe and explain the traits you identify with.


  1. Where does the main story take place? Describe the setting.
  2. Have you ever been to a setting like the one in the story? If you have, how was it like the setting in the story?
  3. When does the story take place? How do you know?
  4. How does the setting affect what happened in the story?
  5. How would the story be different if it had been set in a different time?
  6. Imagine you are the main character, and then describe a day in the life of the main character.
  7. Find a current news story related to the issues or events in this story. What does the story about a current event have in common with the Bolton story?


  1. Describe the main events that have happened so far.
  2. What do you think will happen next? What do you think will happen at the end?
  3. How do you feel at this point in the story? Why?
  4. List the main events that take place from the beginning to the end of the story.
  5. Have you noticed anything you think the author might bring up again later in the story? If so, what did you notice?
  6. Write a brief synopsis of the plot.
  7. What are the past influences that determine the actions of the characters?
  8. Is there an emotional journey central to the story? Explain your answer.


  1. What do you think the author’s message is, or what points is he trying to make? Why do you think that?
  2. How does the author reveal the major theme: character, conflict, irony, setting, etc.?
  3. What current events are similar to this story? How are they similar?


  1. What are the conflicts or problems in the story? How do you think they will be or are resolved?
  2. What is the central conflict in this novel?
  3. Which characters have internal-personal conflicts, and what are they?
  4. How does the main character try to resolve his or her problems?

Imagery/Descriptive Language/Style

  1. What images has the author left in your mind.
  2. What special words has the author used to help you see, hear or feel things in the story?
  3. What is the author’s style of writing? How is it different from the style of other stories you have read? (e.g. narrative, expository, persuasive, etc.)
  4. As you read each chapter, select new or unfamiliar words, research their meanings in a dictionary, and select the meaning that best describes the author’s use of the words.
  5. Find words or expressions that are unique to the characters’ culture, location and dialect.
  6. What details does the author include to create an exciting interest in the story?
  7. What emotions does the author use to create interest and influence your own emotions?

Reflective Questions (general)

  1. What do you remember most about the story?
  2. What was your favorite word, line or paragraph in the story? Why was it your favorite?
  3. If you wanted to suggest this story to a friend, what would you say it was mostly about?
  4. What did the author have to know in order to write this story?
  5. Predict what will happen next in the story.
  6. Do you share in any of the feelings or emotions of the story?
  7. What questions would you like answered?
  8. Are there any modern-day situations that are representative of the story’s theme or plot? What would you like to see happen?
  9. Rewrite the conclusion of the story, representing a different outcome.
  10. Is there a lesson you have learned from the story? How did the author influence your views?
  11. Select a character. If you were in the situation, would you behave the same? What would you do differently?
  12. Perform a dramatic section from the novel. (Performers do not move around the stage or room, but rely on their voices, facial expressions, and simple gestures to communicate the drama of the text.)
  13. Create a song, rap, or poem to summarize the content, imagery, theme or message, and mood of the story. Try connecting your song, rap, or poem to your own life experience and/or a piece of literature you have read.
  14. You are a newspaper reporter. Write an article about what happened in the story. Be sure to answer Who, What, When, Where and How.