Reading Guides

When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep
Sylvia Sellers-Garcia
Book: Paperback
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Raised in the United States by his immigrant parents, Nítido Amán is returning to his birthplace in Guatemala—before the traces of the past vanish completely in his mother’s silence, and his father’s recent death at the hands of Alzheimer’s disease.

Upon his arrival in the small village of Río Roto, Nítido is mistaken for the new local priest and immediately finds himself thrown into the violent politics, secrets and superstitions of the town. Charged with addressing the spiritual—and physical—needs of the seemingly cursed village, Nítido is confronted with the burdens and blessings of time and memory—while piecing together his own family’s history.

When the Ground Turns in its Sleep is a haunting portrait of one man’s journey to unearth his true identity, and to sow the seeds of healing among generations and cultures.



Sylvia Sellers-GarciaSylvia Sellers-García was born in Boston and grew up in the United States and Central America. A graduate of Brown University and a Marshall scholar at Oxford, she has interned at Harper’s and worked at The New Yorker; her fiction has been published in StoryQuarterly. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at the University of California, Berkeley.



  1. Nítido’s initial reasons for his journey to Guatemala were connected to discovering his ancestral identity and to see for himself the landscape and culture so beautifully outlined in his father’s journals. But what develops as his reasons for staying in the village, especially as violence and suspicion tighten their grip on Río Roto and the neighboring villages?

  2. Why might those who were aware of or encountered the truth about Nítido’s identity—like Xinia, who was able to translate Nítido’s letters, or Tomas, who received the bishop’s apologetic letter—have chosen to remain silent and allow the events of the story to unfold?

  3. What consequences might have occurred if Nítido had revealed his true identity—as a school teacher and not a priest—to the townspeople of Río Roto upon his arrival? What do you think he found out based solely on his assumed station?

  4. Apprehensively Nítido performs his first act as a priest—giving a local woman her last rites—but almost instantly a calling inside of him is awakened by the beauty of the moment, and of the woman’s faith. Why do you think Nítido decides to carry through with the act? What were the advantages of assuming this role for the community? Any negative results?

  5. Though not physically present on Nítido’s journey, his father is integral to the story’s development and unfolding—and is addressed constantly in the second person, as though he might be “reading aloud from over [Nítido’s] shoulder” (pg. 300). What effect does this have on the reader, on our experience of the story? What does it reveal about Nítido that he is unwilling to reveal about himself?

  6. How does Nítido’s “thinking in English” prevent him from relating to the people of Río Roto? What is being lost in the translation from English to Spanish (to K’iche’)? How does this effect the relationships he tries to cultivate? For better or worse?

  7. What is the significance of Naranjo? How does its existence haunt the first half of Nítido’s journey, and the novel? And how is its significance altered by the end of the novel?

  8. What roles do divination and superstition play in the lives of the villagers? What is Nítido’s role versus Dr. Estrada’s in responding to these aspects of the villagers’ lives and behaviors? What do you think was really causing the “sickness”? Do you believe that it’s possible Vincente’s death was actually caused by ingesting the barb wire?

  9. Throughout the course of the story, a number of key figures and landmarks “vanish”—entire towns, family members, the memories of Nítido’s father, Nítido’s original family name—or are shrouded by such intense secrecy (marriages, schooling, alliances, histories) that leave them obscured to Nítido’s and our eyes. How has this effected life in the village? Nítido’s mission of unraveling his past and present?

  10. What do you think is the mysterious obstacle that divides Río Roto’s river, or creates the moving light? Are we given any clues as to what they might be? Do you have any theories?

  11. Were you surprised to learn that Tulio was la oreja—the one responsible for so much of the violence brought on by the Colonel and Josef’s execution? What clues to his identity might have been given earlier in the narrative?

  12. Though an uncomfortable echo of the controversy surrounding his college degree, why does Nítido choose to copy sermons from John Perry instead of crafting his own? Or have they become his own after all, as they intermingle with his own thoughts and breath? Why does Nítido have such trouble isolating his thoughts from the world he experiences?

  13. What do you think happened to Santos once he vanished from Xinia and Nítido’s camp? What might have caused him to head out before dawn on his own? What do you think unfolded once Tulio caught up to him?

  14. With so much significance placed on the act of naming of objects, places and the self, why do you think Nítido’s family chose to adopt the more unusual “Amán” as their last name once in America? What was shed, or gained, in the loss of “Rodriguez”?

  15. Toward the end of the novel, the author jumps into the voice of Diego, Nítido’s father, for one reflective moment, blending his voice into the rest of the narrative. What does this additional voice illuminate for the reader? (Or is this passage just a figment of Nítido’s feverish brain—a jumble of past and present visions?) And what does the author aim to impart to us here about the nature of memory and its imprint on our lives?