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"Once Upon a River" Book Discussion and Easy Cinnamon Apple "Buns" Recipe

I wish to inspire readers, teachers, and book clubs to bake along with their reading and promote discussion about the books we've enjoyed.

Cinnamon apple buns are the perfect snack to enjoy while reading "Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield.

Cinnamon apple buns are the perfect snack to enjoy while reading "Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield.

Family Mysteries

At winter solstice in the Swan at Radcot, near a weathered pub beside the Thames river, where stories are told and retold around the bar and a roaring fire, a man washes up, banged-up and nearly dead, with a very young girl, as lifeless as a mannequin . . . until her eyes flutter open. Is it a miracle? No one can tell; not the town nurse, Rita, who aided her, nor the others who witnessed her carried in. But then a mystery ensues: whose child is she?

More than one family comes to claim the girl, and the evidence each family contains only adds to the mystery. Does she belong to the wealthy white family who longed for a child for many years? Does she belong to a mixed-race family, with a dead mother and a father who abandoned her, leaving her dark-skinned grandfather to claim her? What credence should be given to the slow-minded girl who lives in a derelict cottage further down the river and insists that the baby is her lost sister? And what evidence is there for each claim?

Each family’s secrets will unveil the darkest branches of their histories, at the stake of finding the right home for the little girl. Full of mysteries, town secrets, and old legends, Once Upon a River is about a place where miracles and myth follow the river to display the influences of family and having a good story to tell on a cold, wintry night.

Perfect for fans of

  • historical fiction
  • storytelling
  • magical realism
  • family secrets/drama
  • social justice
  • orphan stories
  • multiple clever, interlacing narratives

Discussion Questions

    1. What was the background on Rita, the town nurse? Was she qualified to make an accurate assessment of the child, whether she was alive or not? How did she make the same mistake the others did?
    2. Did a miracle ever happen at the Swan? Was it a miracle that the girl came back to life?
    3. If an unknown woman got into trouble, whose job is it to get her out? What “unknown woman” was helped by another man, and why?
    4. Why was Maud the pig stolen? Why was this so devastating to Armstrong?
    5. If the Quietly men were all mute, why were women still falling in love with them and marrying them, and even having children? What role/legend did they play in this story?
    6. Why was Lily so confused about the young girl? Why did she keep hidden savings in the parson’s desk?
    7. What were some of the differences in the way men were treated with the facts about childbirth in Rita’s time, as compared with now? Is it ironic, that women were considered so sensitive and gentle back then, and yet it was men who were shielded from the gruesome gore of childbirth?
    8. What was the dynamic of the relationship between Victor and Lily? What did it say about his character that “one of the best ways of avoiding his torments to be ignorant about something and let him put you straight”?
    9. What actually happened to Amelia? What were the challenges her parents faced after?
    10. How did Bess see “what people are really like”? Why was that a problem sometimes and how did she deal with it?
    11. How did a “fortune-telling” pig’s advice about going to the river at midnight on winter solstice night and looking into the water to see who would win someone’s hand cause a huge, downward spiral of events that practically ruined a girl’s life?
    12. What was the final fate of the little girl, and how did a play contribute to it?

The Recipe

At the inn, the “fragrance of nutmeg and allspice mingled with tobacco and burning logs.”

Ben tried one of Armstrong’s sour apples for the horses and was not a fan, because most people typically use them for cooking, not eating.

Armstrong bought three buns from the bakery and gave two to Ben.

At the inn, one of the “little Margots brought Daunt a dish of apple pie and poured thick cream over it” while Jonathan told him a story.

I have combined these elements to make an easy, delicious Cinnamon Apple “Buns” recipe, made with diced, store-bought pre-made cinnamon buns.

Easy Cinnamon Apple “Buns”

Easy Cinnamon Apple “Buns”


  • 1 can store-bought pre-made cinnamon buns, quartered
  • 1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg, optional
  • 1/8 tsp allspice, optional
  • 1 tbsp salted butter
Start by peeling a Granny Smith apple and cutting it into cubes.

Start by peeling a Granny Smith apple and cutting it into cubes.

Cook the apples, nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon bun mix together for 12-16 minutes.

Cook the apples, nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon bun mix together for 12-16 minutes.


  1. Dice the apples small, by cutting them into quarters, then cutting off the centers with the seeds. Then cut each quarter into 4 slices lengthwise, and cut back across up the length. Any long pieces, I cut in half as well. Preheat your oven to 400° F, according to the cinnamon buns package instructions (or whatever they direct you to do). Grease or spray the inside of 8 cupcake tins. Heat a medium-sized saute pan on medium heat on the stove, then melt the tablespoon of butter in it.
  2. To the butter, add the diced apples, the nutmeg, and the allspice. Cook until apples have softened, stirring about every minute. Should take a total of about five minutes to become a beautiful brown and softened. Allow to cool for 2-3 minutes before using. Place your quartered cinnamon buns in the sprayed tins, and stuff about a teaspoon to a tablespoon worth of diced apples into the spaces between the quarters you made, then if you’d like, sprinkle a bit more on their tops and press down gently.
  3. Bake according to package directions (mine said for 12-16 minutes, and they came out perfectly crisp on the outside at 14 minutes). Allow to cool 2-3 minutes before removing from the tins. Then place on a plate and drizzle with the included icing.
This recipe was inspired by several passages in "Once Upon a River."

This recipe was inspired by several passages in "Once Upon a River."

Similar Books

Other books by Diane Setterfield include the masterful web of mystery The Thirteenth Tale, about the life of an elderly author, finally telling her untold tale to a young woman in thrilling, riveting pieces, and Bellman and Black, a mystery about death.

Another slow-minded girl who is confused about family tragedy and a baby is Ginny Moon about a special needs girl in foster care and the tragedies she has endured.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton and Daughters of the Lake by Wendy Webb are wonderful, riveting novels with elements of magical realism, uncovered secrets, and the ties of family.

For other winter stories, you can try Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip, One Day in December by Josie Silver, Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly, Winter by Marissa Meyer, or White as Snow by Tanith Lee.

Notable Quotes

“When the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift form the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.”

“It must be a fine thing to have a child to look after.”

“There’s a great many things hard to fathom in darkness that set themselves right in the light of day.”

“There are few things that cannot be put right by love.”

“When he was ten, Henry Daunt saw a picture of an ash tree whose roots plunged into an underground river in which lived strange mermaids or naiads called the Maidens of Destiny.”

“It’s like there’s a thread that joins us together. No matter how far you go or how long you’re gone, that thread is always there. You know it is, cause sometimes there’s a tug on it.”

“There are stories that may be told aloud, and stories that must be told in whispers, and there are stories that are never told at all.”

“When lust and scorn live alongside one another in the same heart, they make devilry.”

“Too much knowledge is a burden.”

Rate the Recipe

© 2018 Amanda Lorenzo


Naude Lorenzo on December 23, 2018:

A perfect recipe for the season, no one should run out of ideas for reading and baking if you follow Amanda in HubPages, once again thank you for your contribution we love it.