By Gail Godwin
Let’s begin by mentioning that this is not a traditional ghost story. No ghosts here, except for those we choose to conjurer to reconcile issues in our life. Grief Cottage combines a coming-of-age story with that of a one about a boy coping with feelings of insecurity, self-worth, and loneliness. These may sound like adolescent growing pains, true; however, eleven-year old Marcus’ go beyond those of typical ‘tween fare.
Marcus lives with his mother in a hand-to-mouth existence in the Appalachians, having moved there after losing her furniture manufacturing job in the North Carolina Piedmont. Marcus is a precious little boy and sensitive about how he and his mom live. Their quarters are tiny, so they sleep in the same bed. When revealed, this fact drives away his best friend, his only real school friend. Also, he has no idea who was his father. His mother promises to tell him when he is older. That day never arrives, as one night she dies in a single-car accident. After living for a while in a foster home, he goes down to South Carolina to live with his great aunt on a small island.
Charlotte Lee is an artist. She specializes in island landscapes, among them scores of renderings of the old dilapidated cottage at the north end of the island. She’s also a functioning alcoholic and quite reclusive during the day, locked in her studio painting. Part of the novel revolves around how and the type of relationship these two build together. Charlotte certainly is an imperfect person, but, like Marcus, you come to like and appreciate her, and, in particular, the ever growing bond between the two.
Marcus arrives as a pudgy little fellow but over time, as he walks and bikes the island, he grows taller and turns into a leaner boy. He changes physically, which represents his mental change that evolves over the course of the novel. Upon his first visit to the falling down cottage, he believes he sees a boy. His recollection of the sighting is detailed, almost like it actually happened. A good part of the novel deals with Marcus’ quest to learn what happened to the boy and his family, all of whom perished when Hurricane Hazel (yes, a real Category 4 killer) struck the island in October 1954. No one knows the name of the family or the boy, who was fourteen at the time, except that the boy had gotten separated from his family. Perhaps the ghost boy did exist, or, perhaps he was a projection of Marcus’ own psychologically shaky self. That’s for readers to decide for themselves when they reach the end.
Gail Godwin populates the novel with an assortment of interesting characters with equally interesting preoccupations, the most memorable of whom are Lachicotte and Coral Upchurch. You have to wonder about Lachicotte, so devoted to Charlotte, you suspect something more than friendship. And the idea of young Marcus developing a friendship with ninety-year old Coral is really, well, heartwarming. It also, along with his relationship with his aunt and concern over the cottage boy, brings out Marcus’ caring nature, the core of his character and what will shape him as a man. Don’t worry, Godwin doesn’t leave you hanging in this regard. w/c