Grief Cottage

GRIEF COTTAGE

Gail Godwin

After the sudden death of his mother, eleven-year-old Marcus is sent to live with his Aunt Charlotte on a small South Carolina island. A recluse and unaccustomed to house guests, Charlotte leaves Marcus largely on his own to acclimate to his new life. Marcus is fascinated by Grief Cottage, the island’s most notorious home and the frequent subject of Charlotte’s paintings.

When a hurricane ripped through the island fifty years earlier, the boy and his parents who rented the cottage were swept away and their bodies were never recovered. Marcus becomes obsessed with uncovering their identities after he encounters the ghost of a boy slightly older than himself in the doorway of the decrepit home.

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After the sudden death of his mother, eleven-year-old Marcus is sent to live with his Aunt Charlotte on a small South Carolina island. A recluse and unaccustomed to house guests, Charlotte leaves Marcus largely on his own to acclimate to his new life. Marcus is fascinated by Grief Cottage, the island’s most notorious home and the frequent subject of Charlotte’s paintings.

When a hurricane ripped through the island fifty years earlier, the boy and his parents who rented the cottage were swept away and their bodies were never recovered. Marcus becomes obsessed with uncovering their identities after he encounters the ghost of a boy slightly older than himself in the doorway of the decrepit home. Marcus builds his new life around the routine of visiting the cottage each morning, attempting to catch another glimpse of his undead friend. Tasked with rifling through his own past as well, Marcus attempts to reroot himself with the help of a cast of local characters, a nest of turtle eggs, and a ghost that won’t let him go.

Far from a traditional ghost story, Grief Cottage is an examination of the psyche as it experiences wonder, grief, and loss.

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  • Bloomsbury
  • Paperback
  • May 2019
  • 336 Pages
  • 9781632867056

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About Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the bestselling author of more than a dozen critically acclaimed books, including Publishing, a memoir, and the novels Flora, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, and Evensong. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Woodstock, New York.

Author Website

Praise

“Deeply satisfying.”New York Times

“An exquisite narrative.”Shelf Awareness, starred review

“Full of curiosity and spectacle.”Atlanta Journal Constitution

“Godwin shows she is still at the top of her craft…. Keenly observed [and] powerful.”BookPage

Discussion Questions

1. Consider the novel’s epigraph: “Not everybody gets to grow up. First you have to survive your childhood, and then begins the hard work of growing into it.” Charlotte, Marcus, and his mother all had traumatic childhoods that influenced their behavior as adults. What tools do each of them employ to help them survive? What does it mean to “grow into” one’s childhood? Who in the book is a good example of that?

2. The turtle migration is a central fixture in Marcus’s new life; he convenes with the eggs each day, monitors their temperature closely, and is devastated when he misses their historic sprint from nest to ocean. Why are the turtles a source of comfort for Marcus? Compare and contrast their ancient ritual for survival to Marcus own journey towards growth and safety.

3. In your opinion, does Marcus actually see a ghost in Grief Cottage or is he merely hallucinating an imaginary friend of sorts? How does this ghost story in particular challenge our preconceived notions of the boundaries of reality?

4. Discuss the significance of Marcus’s friendship with Wheezer. He often remembers their boyhood closeness fondly but is still haunted by Wheezer’s accusation. When Marcus returns to visit Wheezer years later, how has their relationship changed? How has it stayed the same? When the two friends catch up, Marcus learns that Wheezer also attempted suicide in his younger years. What brings each of these two boys, who have very different backgrounds, to the brink of death?

5. Discuss Marcus’s suicide attempt: was it fueled by insanity, insecurity, selflessness, or something else entirely? Earlier in the novel, Marcus admires Johnny’s ghost: “It’s all over for you. Your life is a complete thing. I envy that.” (140) Why does Marcus envy Johnny? How does this novel challenge the idea that anyone’s life is every truly “complete”? How is this a pivotal moment for Marcus on his journey to forgiving himself?

Excerpt

1.

Once there was a boy who lost his mother. He was eleven years, five months, four days—and would never know how many hours and minutes. The state troopers came to the apartment around midnight, but the accident had happened earlier. A part of him believed that if he had known the exact moment her car slid on a patch of black ice and somersaulted down the embankment, he could have sent her the strength to hold on. Please, Mom, you’re all I’ve got. And she would have heard him and held on. She had gone out to buy them a pizza. They were going to watch one of their favorite old movies on TV, the one where Alec Guinness and his band of thieves pretend to be musicians. They rent a room in a nice old lady’s house, shut the door, put a string quartet on the gramophone, and she is never the wiser. Before the movie is over, she is helping them move their stolen goods and she is still none the wiser. The star of this movie had special meaning to the mother and son because they had read an article about how Alec Guinness never knew who his father was because his mother had refused to tell him, but he had still grown up to be famous anyway.

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Aunt Charlotte was my mother’s aunt, which made her my great-aunt. I had only heard tales about her before I went to live with her. Even the tales weren’t much. She had run away from home early, married several times, and then gone to live by herself on an island. At some point she had taken up painting and had become a successful local artist. She wasn’t a letter writer but whenever Mom wrote to her she sent back a postcard with one of her paintings. I was always mentioned by name. Mom stuck the postcards up on the refrigerator, paintings of storm clouds over waves, orangey light on wet surf, a gloomy ruin of an old beach cottage. The paintings had names: Storm Approaching, Sunset Calm, Abandoned Cottage. My late grandmother had referred to her as “Crazy Charlotte,” or “my Bohemian baby sister.” She painted under the name of Charlotte Lee. “It could have been the name of one of her husbands,” Mom said. “Or maybe she chose it for herself.”

I did not get to Aunt Charlotte’s island until late spring. The wheels of the law had to turn first. A person from Social Services stayed with me the rest of that night and helped me pack my things. She asked about my next of kin and I showed her Mom’s life insurance policy. “We’ve got to get you a guardian ad litem quickly,” she said. “That’s someone who will be your voice in legal matters.” When I asked what legal matters, she said, “Determining who will be your permanent guardian and how your estate will be managed.” When I asked what estate, she said, “The estate from this insurance policy.” Our belongings from the apartment were put into storage and I was sent to live with a foster family and finished seventh grade from their address. I was a year ahead of my age because I had skipped  sixth grade. The boy I shared a room with in the foster home had had the left side of his face crushed by his stepfather while his mother was out at work. From his right profile he looked like a normal boy, but from the front and left it looked like his cheek had melted. There was much plastic surgery ahead. At night I could hear him whacking off under the covers.

I liked my guardian ad litem, William. He was the one who got me into the hospital morgue to see my mom and helped me decide on burial arrangements. William was so tall he had to stoop to get through ordinary doorways, and he wore a flowing dark beard. He could have been a stand-in for Abe Lincoln, though he had a shiny bald dome. He had grown up in the high mountains of western North Carolina and had a mountain twang so thick it sounded like it was making fun of itself.

The foster parents had Bible study for us every night. It was called “Parable Party,” and they made it a competitive game. Even the little kids could quote chapter and verse from the gospel parables and I soon became a whiz at it myself. I was a fast learner and a good memorizer and I enjoyed a mental challenge. Mom and I had read the King James Bible aloud to each other because she wanted me to be grounded in its stories and language. Sometimes we used it as our augur, opening it at random to see what we should do about something. But it didn’t take precedence over everything the way it did in the foster home.

Then one day I was told to pack my things. It was all set up legally and I was going on my first plane ride to live with my great-aunt at her beach cottage in South Carolina. “You are one lucky boy, Marcus,” the foster mom said. William stayed with me at the gate until I had a nametag hung around my neck and was escorted onboard by a flight attendant. William’s last words  to me were, “Live long and prosper,” and we gave each other the Spock hand-blessing from Star Trek.

Aunt Charlotte was waiting just on the other side of the security gate, a very thin lady in white slacks, loose white shirt, and scuffed brown sandals. She had stern, beaky features and a frosty mannish haircut. At that time she was fifty-seven, but she appeared elderly to me. Though she was my late grandmother’s younger sister by six years, she looked at least a generation older than that stylish, coiffed lady who had visited Mom and me several times. The flight attendant who had escorted me checked her papers. Then he handed me over and wished us good luck. I had steeled myself for a theatrical hug like the foster mother’s or some display of aunt-ish emotion, but she simply gave me a firm handshake and said, “Well, Marcus, here we are.”

While we waited for my suitcases down in baggage claim, she told me “my boxes” had arrived and were stored in her garage, to unpack when I was ready. It took me a minute to realize she meant Mom’s and my stuff from our apartment.

We went out into the suffocating heat and she had me heave the suitcases into the trunk of her old Mercedes sedan. The leather seats were boiling, but she said they would cool down in a minute. She wasn’t much of a talker. “Are you hungry? Do you like shrimp? We’ll go to a place where they serve all the shrimp you can eat.”

The shrimp were very small and fried in batter and I ate three helpings. There were also these sweet fried bread balls called hush puppies. Aunt Charlotte picked at her salad and had two glasses of red wine. The waitress kept urging me to go back and refill my plate. Her name was Donna, which was stitched on her uniform, and she smiled a lot. Her teasing-affectionate tone with me reminded me a little of Mom and I went back for  the third mostly to make her smile some more. Aunt Charlotte had not smiled once. Looking back on that first day, I realize she must have been as apprehensive as I was. I doubt if I smiled that day, either.

When I threw up in my aunt’s car, she pulled over. “No problem, the seats are leather and most of it’s on the rubber mat.” She set me up with an eight-ounce bottle of spritzer water, a roll of paper towels, and gallon of windshield wiper fluid from her trunk. It rained a lot during this season, she said, so she always carried reserves of wiper fluid. “I’d use the spritzer water for the front of your shirt and the wiper fluid for the rest.” Then she withdrew to the grassy embankment and appeared to be studying the traffic. Heat waves rose from the asphalt and made wavery squiggles around her thin white form. The good thing about the heat was that my shirt was dry before I even finished cleaning the car. When we were on the road again I apologized for the smell. “All I smell is wiper fluid,” she said.

After we crossed the causeway to the island, she stopped by a store with gas pumps in front and we bought some things for supper. The man at the counter told her the day’s shrimp catch had just come in, but she said, “My nephew has already had his fill of shrimp for the day.”