Lea Wait

Teacher Guide: Uncertain Glory
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Historical Events in Uncertain Glory:

  • Conversations about events leading up to Civil War (Lincoln’s election; first southern states seceding; states’ right)
  • Threats in week preceding attack of Fort Sumter
  • Attack on Fort Sumter, and surrender
  • Reactions of everyday people to war
  • First calls for US troops
  • Economic implications for those in a small town (including some whose business was in the south)
  • Popularity of spiritualism
  • Effect of telegraph’s ability to transmit war news quickly

Joe Wood, Charlie Farrar, and most of the named residents of Wiscasset (except for Owen and Nell) are real historical figures, and there were people like Owen, a free African-American, and Nell, a traveling child spiritualist, in New England in 1861. Except for events directly related to Owen and Nell, all of the events in Uncertain Glory took place – including John Wilkes Booth’s benefit in Portland for soldiers at Fort Sumter, the customs inspector who disagreed with Lincoln’s position on states’ rights, the lumber baron who funded the Maine regiments, Richard Tucker, whose business was in the south, and so forth. The story reflects such common core standards as the way the north and south inter-acted economically; the difference economic groups within the small town and the roles they played in town government; the interdependence of these groups, etc. One example: different taverns for mariners and for men who owned homes in town.   
The economy of the town is one underlying theme:  Will Joe earn enough money to save his business?  Will his parents’ store sell more or less if there is a war? Who will pay the troops?  Who will take care of families left at home without fathers, sons, etc.?

The town is seen (point-of-view) through Joe’s eyes, and, as a small business owner, he tries to pick up jobs outside his core mission: to publish a newspaper. He is also conscious of the competition for news delivery that the telegraph introduces, and of what to print in the newspaper to encourage sales. (Names of people in town; information about the visiting spiritualist.) He defines his problem (he needs to make more money) and be creative about solving it (issues more editions of the paper; prints business cards and identification cards for soldiers, etc.)

Other issues raised in Uncertain Glory include;

  • how to relate to a depressed parent
  • whether to believe in something unseen
  • the relationships of free blacks to whites in the north
  • why (or why not) men volunteered to become soldiers
  • conflicts between family demands and vocational aspirations
  • the dangers of over-prescribed drugs

New vocabulary words in Uncertain Glory:

  • secede
  • spiritualism (spiritualist)
  • typesetting
  • tallow
  • parlor
  • skiff
  • waistcoat
  • telegraph
  • abolitionists
  • forebears


Joe had always dreamed of being a newspaperman. What obstacles are in the way of his goal?

What is more important: for Joe to help his mother at the family store, or for him to publish his newspaper? Why?

Why is Joe angry with his father at the beginning of the book?  And at the end of the book?
Is he right to be angry?

Do you think Nell could talk with the dead?  Why? Or why not?  Use examples from the book to support your opinion.

Thinking about the characters in Uncertain Glory, what were the reasons men volunteered to be soldiers, or chose not to?  Think about Joe’s father. Charlie. Edwin Smith. Paul Cunningham. Charlie’s father.  Would you have volunteered?  Why, or why not? How would you have felt if your father had volunteered, leaving you in charge?

Why is a newspaper important? Do you have a newspaper in your town or city?  Do you or your parents read it? Was a newspaper more or less important in 1861 than it is today? Explain your answer.

Nell had traveled with her aunt and uncle for some time. Do you think she had a choice about staying with them or not? Joe wonders, “Could a twelve-year-old girl know what was right for her?”  What do you think? What if they’re telling her to do something dangerous, or wrong? What could she do?  Was there a different answer for a girl in 1861 and a girl today?  If so, why? What choices would exist in each time period?

Nell snuck out of the inn twice during Uncertain Glory; Owen ran away.  Were they right to do that?  Why or why not? Why did they run away? Did either of them have any other choices?  For example, what else could Owen have done? 

Are there spiritualists today?  Do you think they can talk with the dead? If you could ask someone who has died (anyone you’ve known, or a figure in history) one question, what would that be?

What does the title, Uncertain Glory, mean?

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