The Snug Comfort of a Murder Mystery: Anne Cleeves’ Shetland Quartet


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The weather, after a warm and lovely Fall, has turned, and so on early dark nights, we light the fire in the fireplace. After dinner, I sit in the chair, feet up on the ottoman, soles toasting in the glow, and I pull a blanket over my legs, and I read. I am finishing up Anne Cleeve’s first Shetland quartet. I read about nasty murders, and I feel safe and snug in front of the fire.


I was browsing Netflix for something compelling to watch–good, hearty, televised background to my knitting habit in the darkening evenings–when I discovered a show called Shetland.  The Shetland Islands are just north of the part of Scotland that my mother’s family hailed from. I remember a Scots art professor telling me, in my undergrad days, “Ah, that’s a Godforsaken land.”

     I had seen pictures, of course, heard reports about the bitter north winds of that place, but I thought it might be fun to watch a series that was set in those climes. Shetland was filmed on location and in Norway–the beaches and the buildings and the skies would be authentic. Let’s give it a shot, I thought.

     I was hooked from the get-go. Shetland is a murder mystery series. The acting, the story lines, the the lilt of the accents…they all drew me in.

     There were three seasons available: we power-watched them within two weeks, and then we felt bereft.


      I noticed, in the credits, that Shetland was based on a series of murder mysteries by a writer named Anne Cleeves. I had a gift card to a bookstore, so I ordered the first two books on line. They arrived within days, and I set aside my other reading to plunge.


     I almost never read the book after watching the show; I do not want the faces of the actors intruding on my understanding of the characters, or my knowledge of the events to come to take my attention away from what is happening now, at this point, in the book. But I was surprised that Shetland the television show and Anne Cleeves’ Shetland murder mysteries were so very, very different. There was a firm connection, of course, but so much was changed that I could relax and fall into the books.

      In Cleeves’ books, the detective, Jimmy Perez, is a dark, rumpled, decent man, a boy from the isles himself, who decided against a crofter’s life. This bothers his parents, especially his mother, who calls him often, who encourages him to return to Fair Isle. There’s a troubled intensity in Jimmy’s dealings with his father, who is a very big man on a very small island.

     The dark looks Jimmy and his faster share and the Perez name, come, it’s said, from a  Spaniard shipwrecked in the Shetland Islands long, long ago. It’s a connection, in the books, that Jimmy often has to explain.

     In Raven Black, the first book in the Shetland series, we learn that Perez is still mourning his marriage to Sarah, and their babe, lost in a miscarriage. That grief, he thinks, was the marriage’s undoing…that, and the total concentration he throws into his work. Perez is a good detective and a student of people. He has to know what drives the people he meets in the course of police-work. He knows he should have given his wife that same kind of intense attention.

     He is decent, conflicted, and driven, Jimmy Perez; he is feeling his way with his new staff, particularly Sandy, a young cop from the Shetland island of Whalsay. Sandy is more laconic, far less driven and meticulous than his boss. But under Jimmy’s tutelage, he grows.


     The setting for each book is the same as for the episodes, but the story-lines diverge, making reading an adventure. And there are other important differences. On the show, Perez is sandy-haired and slight; he looks like a Scot, or what we commonly associate with the appearance of Scotland’s people.

     In the books, Perez meets Fran, who, with her little daughter Cassie, will become very important in his life. On the show, Fran is long dead of cancer, making Perez a widower. He is raising a teen-aged Cassie on his own.

     And the stories diverge. The murderers in the books are different from the murderers in the episodes on Netflix. It makes for much better reading, never knowing what might happen.

     But the books are so good, I wonder why the producers of the show decided on such big changes.


     I look up Anne Cleeves on line–she has her own official website,,—and I find that she is not from Scotland; she grew up in rural England. But she did work in the very setting she creates for Blue Lightning, the book I’ve just finished. It’s a bird observatory on Fair Isle, the island she makes Jimmy’s home. There she met her husband Tim.

     The website notes that she was not so compelled by Tim’s birding interests, but she was mightily drawn to the bottle of whiskey stowed in his backpack. A lifetime together grew from that interest. Anne and Tim have two daughters, now grown.

     After working a few interesting and various jobs, Anne returned to college, training as a probation officer. Her knowledge of the criminal justice field, and of the place she sets her tales, is earned.

     Anne’s work has won prestigious awards. She received the Duncan Laurie Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association for Raven Black. She’s been granted an honorary doctorate. And on October 26, 2017, she received the highest honor a British crime writer can earn: the Diamond Dagger.

     There are four books in the first Shetland quartet–one for each season. A new quartet, set in the same place, with the same crew, will have a book for each element. She’s working on the fourth and final book now, and anything could happen. She might even, Cleeves challenges on her website, kill Jimmy off.

     Her books are full of surprises, of unexpected twists, and of the kind of random events that happen in real life. So I wouldn’t put it past her to do just that.


     I enjoy the books, and the television series, and I wonder why. Why is a story about a horrible, violent murder so comforting and compelling on nights that bring us roaring winds and spattering rain, uneasy weather when gruesome tales should, by rights, build our unease?

     Crime writer Walter Mosley, in an interview on, concludes that we all need forgiveness, and we all need someone to blame; murder mysteries fill these needs. Crime stories, Mosley contends in a Newsweek article, “cleanse the modern world from our souls.”

     I think, too, the the resolution offered in murder mysteries is a comfort: our good detective will not rest until he or she is sure the exact right person has been apprehended. And maybe the danger in the books gives us a heightened sense of safety in our own lives. (There must be very good reasons, mustn’t there, for someone as devoted to nonviolence as I am to plunge so heartily, so deeply, into these deadly tales that draw me in?)

     The best mystery series, too, have characters that grow and circumstances that change, and Cleeves’ books do not disappoint. Jimmy works to understand himself; he opens himself up to a whole new life with Fran and Cassie. Fran develops as an artist and a mother. Sandy, under Jimmy’s tutelage, builds self-confidence–he travels by himself on a plane to London, for instance, something he never thought he’d do. He handles tough challenges with intelligence and integrity. Jimmy’s respect for him grows.

     Each book brings growth and change and development. Separate from the murder to be solved, the characters who are regulars allow us to watch and celebrate their lives.


     I am sitting right now, warm and snug in the early dawning, as a thunderstorm crashes outside, and my aging, nervous dog pants, resting her fore-paws on my leg. She is terrified and twitchy; the rumbles and the flashes wear her down. But I am sipping coffee, feeling protected as the storm unfolds, looking forward to starting, as soon as I clear some reading decks, on Anne Cleeves’ Elements quartet. Murder will happen in those books; change will happen, too.



     And under Cleeves’ deft narration, in the fictional world, we’ll learn the reasons why.


Old Wives Tales #1: The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention, by Meredith Maran

(Wikipedia, in its discussion of the term ‘old wives’ tales,” notes that, in this case, a wife is not necessarily a married woman. Like ‘midwife’ or ‘fishwife,’ this usage just designates a woman at a certain age and stage of life..)

New Old

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I was a twelve-year-old who brought a stack of books home from the library that told me how to be a teenager. The books had titles like How to Find a Teenaged Boy–and What to Do With Him When You Find Him.  I read and weighed and incorporated advice. Sometimes, I thought, the advice even worked.

As a young wife, I sought out other guidebooks–Cosmo magazine and novels like The Women’s Room, books by Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and books, too, about pleasing your man. I wanted (oh, naive and foolish young one) to walk that tightrope between alluring and liberated, home-bound and free, between fascinating and untethered. The books gave me examples and helped me weigh my options, look at different models and ways of being.

I read my way into step-momming; pregnant, I read a book a week, devouring works by Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach; memorizing, practically,  What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

When my son was diagnosed with autism, my first stop was the library.

Oh, I have learned by living, too, and by the rich exchanges that take place between those who have traveled uncertain trails and those of us just embarking. But books have bolstered and challenged each facet of my life, giving me confidence, teaching me the jargon, making each new phase seems like navigable territory.

Why should retirement be different?


A friend I meet in the blogosphere, Kimberly, also recently retired, sends me a message about a book she recently read. It’s called A New Kind of Country, and it’s by mystery writer Dorothy Gillman, circa 1978. Gillman gives up her city life and moves to Nova Scotia when, at 60-ish, her nest empties. A New Kind of Country is a memoir detailing how Gillman acclimated to a whole new kind of life.

I think that sounds like something I should read, but I cannot find the title in any of our favorite libraries. I finally track it down on, and I order it, slow-mail delivery.

While I wait, I think, I will see what other books  are out there on the topic. I take young James to the library the next day, and I come home with a stack of books to explore.


The first book I open is Meredith Maran’s The New Old Me: My Late Life Reinvention.

I am dismayed after I read the first few pages: I don’t think I’ll find any common ground. Maran is writing from a very different place than I inhabit. Her marriage recently fell apart; she is leaving free-lancing to take a 9-5 job. She is moving to a city far from where she has been living.

My marriage seems pretty enduring. I have retired from a stable career to begin a free-lance one, and I just had my little house painted: a visual symbol that I am, for a change, staying put.

Maran’s nest is empty, and my 27-year-old autistic son will not be moving out any time soon.

Will I find any commonality here? I am dubious, but I my mother’s voice is loud in my head: Once you commit to a book, she said, you must read until the end. I have relaxed that rule in cases of distaste or disinterest, but I do think Maran’s experience, different as it is, might teach me something. I keep reading.

At the beginning of the book, Maran is a mess: in fact, she’s on her way to the emergency room, having, in her solitary borrowed home, cut herself severely. At the ER, the doctor tells her the wedding ring must come off to save the slashed finger. Maran has to painfully confront the end of her marriage, the removal of a symbol that has, in part, defined her for many years. (Maran’s marriage was to another woman, but her discussion of pain and withdrawal, self-discovery and resiliency, seem to me completely un-gender-bound.)

In fact, as I read on, I see concepts that very much speak to me right now. Maran writes about work and what it means in her life. She is adjusting to a whole new schedule. She leaves free-lance writing to work for a new-age-y corporation; she suddenly has bosses and office mates and a new culture to adapt to. She works to fit into this new environment, and with new coworkers, all of whom are considerably younger. There’s a redefinition going on: I empathize, even as I take an opposite pathway.

I read and I recognize broad, universal themes that are very immediate, very meaningful, for a woman of my age. Don’t all women, having crossed the threshold to sixty, deal with these themes in some shape and form?

Relationship. Maran defines herself as a 60-something divorcee. Although her relationship had long been rocky, she didn’t welcome the divorce. It pushes her to go somewhere she prefers not to visit. And  this, I think  may be a reckoning all women of this certain age must struggle with.

If we are married, how does the marriage grow and change with our aging?

If single, how do we now define ourselves? What does single mean as we consider next steps, and time’s telescoping, and health issues? Do we want to date–are we anticipating a chance to find a mate, or do we embrace the freedom of our ‘one-dom’?

And what, for heaven’s sake, about Sex and the Sixties?

Home. Maran couch surfs while she settles in to a brand new city, meeting interesting people in the neighborhoods she inhabits before first renting an apartment and then, finally, buying a house. Her vision of ‘home’ is hammered in a new kind of fire.

And I think that has to be true for all of us during these years. I see friends down-sizing and buying condos. I know a couple who sold their house and bought an RV, whose concept of home has become mobile. I know city dwellers who’ve built homes in small towns, and farmers who’ve embraced city life to be closer to kids and grandkids.

And some of us stay, morphing our homes to new purposes, new challenges, to new uses and new joys. Whatever path we choose, we consider ‘home’–what it means, and what we need.

The Physical Me. There’s a strenuous emphasis on fitness and wellness at Maran’s new job; she gets a gym membership and a personal coach and the opportunity to jog alongside coworkers twenty years her junior. She confronts her aging, less-than-toned self.

And don’t we all have to slam, unwilling and appalled, into that mirror? How will we take on the physical changes this time of life brings? Will we dye? Nip and tick? Start a new exercise plan? What are the health realities we need to deal with?

Oh, the wrinkles.

Oh, the hammer toes.

Loss. Kids leave home and parents die, and this age and stage brings inevitable losses with it. Maran’s sons are far afield, and her father is failing fast.

Dealing with aging parents is something we all go through: mine died when I was much younger, but Mark’s mom is now an eighty-something widow in a town far away, and that consideration defines one part of our life together. Our older son is closer now, geographically, to that Grandma than to us. Holidays and birthdays and proximity are things we must consider. Planning for care and the inevitable day when Mark’s mom must leave the family homestead are present in our awareness.

We struggle with our friends and their health issues. We lose essential people.

“Loss is coming,” this time of life whispers insistently. It doesn’t matter if we’ve never married, become unmarried, or have stayed married through thick and thin. We all struggle with parents and beloved kids–ours or someone else’s–growing, changing, moving away. We all mourn the friends who leave us.

Self Knowledge. Maran learns a great deal about herself, about her relentlessness and insistence on perfection, about her high and sometimes unreasonable standards for herself. But she is open to that learning, and by the end of the book, she has grown, she has changed. Friends comment on this.

Her friend Dana, for instance, tells her: “Last time I saw you, your whole life was falling apart. And now look at what you’ve created. I’m so impressed.”

And Maran writes, “I’m getting used to people coming here and saying that. But it never fails to make me very grateful.”

What a luxury and a gift–the opportunity to deeply confront and know ourselves, not as defined by others or by job or role, but as experienced in our hearts and souls and bodies. This time of life brings that opportunity home–our last real chance, perhaps, to grasp it.

New Vision. Whatever our circumstances, this time of life demands a clear-eyed look at the future. Maran struggles to create a new picture of what happiness means, of what success is. Does she want and need to be half of a couple? Should she listen to friends who warn that another mate may never come along, that good-enough is better than alone? She sees herself as a single home-owner. She embarks on a workshop, accepted into a prestigious program she’d applied to as a lark. She lets go, and she receives new knowledge and new gifts.

As retirement settles around me like falling cloth, I see the need to recreate the vision, too. Who am I now? What is it I want to accomplishment in the next years? Where do I want to travel, and how do I want to go?



Maran is feisty and persistent, and the three-year struggle she documents in her book is sometimes surprising, sometimes funny, and sometimes achingly sad. But she is triumphant, even if that triumph looks different than she ever could have planned. She embraces, finally, new challenges, new opportunities, new friendships. Toward the end of her story, she writes, “Drifting toward sleep, I wonder what I’ll come up with next year. Because it’s never too late to try something new.”


I resonate to that openness to newness and change. And I wonder if the themes I see here, in Maran’s honest and uplifting book, are the same themes I, and all my sisters of this certain age, encounter.

I suspect they are, but I know what I have to do. I need to find a whole lot of other ‘old wives tales,’ and I need to read them all.


Sometimes the Twain DO Meet


Penciled on a yellowing piece of paper, safe beneath the glass enclosure of its cabinet, here is the original title page: Adventures of Huck Finn, it says. Then:


Tom Sawyer’s Comrade.



By Mark Twain. New York.



Charles L. Webster & Co.




I feel…I don’t know how I feel. A little woozy, maybe; a little like a ghost has his hand on my shoulder, just as I have my hands on the glass, peering in. This is the original title page, hand-lettered by Twain himself, writing as if he were Huck.

Irony: I have traveled 300 miles to see this when, for the first forty-odd years of my life, I lived about fifty miles away. It’s been here–well, half of it has–all that time.


I am in the Twain Room of the Buffalo, New York, Central Library with my friend Wendy. She is, fortunately, just as much a book geek as I am; we are both enthralled.

Twain lived in Buffalo for a while; he was the editor of a newspaper, and the owner of a proud mansion on swanky Delaware Avenue. The mansion was a gift from his beloved Livy’s father.

Later, Twain and his family moved to Fredonia, New York, where I grew up, and where my family, years before I was born, had also moved from Buffalo. We were people of words, too, readers and writers, although not, of course, on anywhere near the same scale as Samuel Clemens. But the Buffalo to Fredonia exodus, the love of words, and the sometimes twisted paths of lives, all made me feel a kind of kinship to the bitterly funny, tragedy-laden, irascible, Mark Twain.


My mother gave me a copy of Tom Sawyer when I was in third grade, I think; it was a cheap children’s version with a glossy cover embossed with a picture of a gawky, redheaded boy painting a fence and slyly eying a companion. I devoured the book, cringing when the boys walked into their own funeral, claustrophobic and terrified when Tom and Becky got lost in the cave. Tom seemed to come out all right, every time, but the book left me with a feeling of sadness and loss.

I watched film versions which portrayed Tom as mischievous and happy-go-lucky, and I did not like them at all. They rang false. It seemed to me the central truth of Tom’s life was loneliness; he had a sadness hole that no one could fill.


My brother Sean became a Twain scholar in college; he uncovered an unpublished story and he wrote insightful articles.

Somewhere between my high school and college years, I discovered a local writer named Jean Webster whose epistolary novel, Daddy-Long-Legs, had been a smash hit when it was published in 1912. Daddy-Long-Legs was one of the first books to be filmed–it was made into three different movies, I think, over time. And it was one of the first to evoke spin-off toys.

And Jean Webster was Mark Twain’s niece, daughter of none other than Charles Webster. Twain had once relied on Webster, and then, his fortune dissolved in bad business deals, the author reviled the younger man.

Webster seemed to spin off into mental or emotional issues. After a trip to Europe, where he had an audience with the Pope, Webster appeared on the streets of Fredonia every day in a papal knight’s outfit. He kept a natural history museum in his big house on Central Avenue. It was there, it’s said, that he hung himself, too, when Jean was 15.

She went on to attend the Fredonia Normal School–forerunner of SUNY Fredonia, where I earned my degrees–and earned a degree in china painting. Later, Jean Webster attended Smith College and got an academic degree and began a life as a writer.

I was fascinated by Jean Webster and her family and by her famous uncle. I felt a little proprietary toward them both, as if, somehow, they needed, if not my protection, then maybe my ability to explain a little part of them. I read as many of Jean Webster’s books as I could find. When I took a Twain course in graduate school, one of our texts was an article by my brother Sean. That cemented, somehow, that feeling of connection.


And then I lost the thread, life swirling into marriage and parenting, teaching, and planning, finally, for the move to Ohio and Mark’s entry, as a 40-something, into law school. We were busy, busy, busy, running in front of time as if it were Indiana’s Jones implacable boulder. Then a year or two ago, Mark and I saw an amazing show, Hal Holbrook, who was 92, I think, at the time. Holbrook spent the evening being Mark Twain, white-suited, white-haired, puffing on a long cigar, and letting the author’s words trip smoothly, authentically, from his tongue. When he read from Huckleberry Finn, he WAS that lost lad.

On the way home, I said to Mark, “When I retire, I’m driving back to Buffalo to see that manuscript.”


And so here I am, standing feet–inches–away, reading the explanations. Twain left the original manuscript of Huckleberry Finn to the Buffalo Library, but on his death, only half of the huge, handwritten mass surfaced. And that was that until 1990, when Part Two was discovered, intact, in a steamer trunk in California. There were legal twists and turns, but the whole manuscript has been united. Portions are rotated out to be put on display in the Twain Room where I stand enthralled.


There’s a telescoping kind of effect–the wrinkling of time, the nearness of genius. A daring vision plainly laid out in pencil on yellowing paper. The first step, the beginning, of what would become legend.

I look at all the rest of the exhibit–the stories of the movies made, the plays based on his work, Twain articles from newspapers all over the world, stories about the author at all stages of his life, but I am impatient with them. It’s like I have to be polite to them, so I can do what I really want to do: go back and stare at the homely pages from a handwritten manuscript, a work of passionate genius, the proof that brilliance can spring up anywhere.

Even here. Even right next to me.


Time now, to clear the reading decks, and tackle a monumental task: reading Twain’s entire autobiography.

Mark Twain Bio

On the court and between the pages

Alexandra Stoddard

There was a time when I, a racket-swinging free bird, knew all the names of the players in the major tennis tournaments. I experimented with Chris Evert’s two-handed backhand swing (it did not work for me), and groaned over John McEnroe’s angry antics.

Tennis, after all, was a gentleman’s game–even while I decried the sexism of that phrase.

And where did the concept gentleman’s game enter into the frantic fray between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, events meant more for show than for exhibiting skill? My friends and I debated, hotly, whether that whole extravaganza of showmanship helped or hurt the public perception of tennis.

I watched Wimbledon and the US Open avidly. I knew who was favored, and who might stage an exciting coup.

Then life swooped in, and the racket got hung in the shed, and obsession slipped into duty. So it was a wake-up moment to see, yesterday, the Lit Hub daily posting about the beginning of the US Open and ten tennis-related titles.

I got online to see who was playing. Eubanks? Sousa? Sela? I was shocked that none of the contenders’ name rang any familiarity bells, and I vowed to learn about the tennis world, 2017.

I opened the Lit Hub article and read about ten pieces of literature that revolve around tennis, noting two possible reads that sounded good–David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (something I surely should have read, somewhere along the line), and Andre Agassi’s memoir.

And I thought about two women writers I read when I was younger who drew me in because of their tennis roots.


Crooked Little from goodreads

The first, of course, was Anne Lamott, whose Crooked Little Heart is a novel about Rosie Ferguson, a lovable, capable tennis player who cheats, sometimes, to win. Like Rosie, Lamott was ranked among the top ten 8-16 year old players in the country ( Like Rosie, she sometimes cheated–calling, say, a shot that was clearly IN, out–to win.

And then she found a coach-teacher, according to, who emphasized the fun of the game over the competition. “It was about having a whole new mindfulness–a new value of play,” the website quotes Lamott. “It was about having more fun with the people you were playing with instead of trying to beat them.”

Lamott quit the tennis circuit at age 16 and turned increasingly to drugs and alcohol–even though, while using, she built herself a productive writing career. tells us she hit rock bottom on July 7, 1986; that was the day she picked up the phone and called the mentor who helped her brother get sober. She started on the recovery path, helped immeasurably by finding a church family that nourished and supported her healthiness.


Crooked Little Heart, which I ordered from a paperback book club when it came out back in 1998 or so, opened the door to Lamott’s other work. I used Bird by Bird in my writing classes. I was engaged and challenged by Traveling Mercies and her other spiritual non-fiction.


I can’t remember how I first came upon Alexandra Stoddard’s work–whether I stumbled over one of her books in the library, happened on it at a book sale, ordered it from that long-ago paperback club. Stoddard is an interior designer with a blue-blooded, east coast history. Her table linens probably cost more than my living room couch. When I was raising young kids and working and cooking quickie casseroles with hamburger and cream of mushroom soup, I would read her elegant essays about dignified living and groan in mock despair.

And yet. Something about her writing connected deeply. And Stoddard, too, was a tennis player as a girl, although a quick internet search doesn’t yield me much detail. A New York Times article from 2002 tells me that she had been a tennis player; she married her doubles partner, and they had two children, Alexandra and Brooke. And when she stopped playing tennis, the article says, the couple stopped being married. Later she married Peter Brown.

And I still love her books–Stoddard has written 30 or so–about living graciously, decorating with flair and panache, creating a home that reflects the people and the spirit nurtured there.


Tennis, in my experience, is a very creative, individual game. You can be brash and bold; you can be quiet and clever. You can crowd the net or swing strong from behind the furthest back nether regions of the court… You can craft your own authentic style and win the game.  It’s not a stretch to think that many writers are tennis players, or that tennis is a wonderful literary metaphor.

So I’ll find Foster Wallace; I’ll read Agassi’s memoir. And today, I will flip to the sports page or get online, and I’ll start learning about the tennis greats of 2017. Maybe I’ll find a match to watch on TV. Although pickle ball may be more my forte as I boldly embark on retired life in my 60’s, it feels like a time to come full circle, to embrace the gifts that tennis bestows–on the court, on the screen, and between the pages.



Crooked Little Heart image taken from

Gail Godwin and a Perfect Reading Summer

Grief Cottage (womanaround
(Image from

Once, when I was in college and working at a bookstore, I had a perfect reading summer. It must have been around 1978; we were encouraged, by our boss, to take books home and read them gently. Then we could knowledgeably and authentically recommend or discourage. That was the year I read, among other things, Marilyn French’s Women’s Room and Mary Gordon’s Final Payments. And that was the year I discovered the work of Gail Godwin. (If you were a young woman reading voraciously in those years, you may recognize the doors those books opened and the foreign vistas that became inhabitable through that reading.)

I think the first Godwin work that I read was Glass People, which was a sad story about a very compelling character named Francesca Holt; I found another compelling main character, although a very different one, in The Odd Woman. I read Violet Clay, and then I started watching for Godwin releases, so I was excited to get A Mother and Two Daughters  in 1982. I loved that book.

Then, life getting busy, with papers to grade, and a baby whose needs were immediate and unique, and a return to grad school, I lost the Godwin thread. There wasn’t much leisure reading, and what there was tended to be by Barry Brazelton or Penelope Leach. But I would gather the thread up again at the library, in later years, when I saw a Godwin–Father Melancholy’s Daughter, for instance,–on the New Books Shelf.

Last week, I was surprised to find a new Godwin novel, Grief Cottage.

The reviews say the question Grief Cottage addresses is this: can the needs of the living and the needs of the dead converge? I’m not sure if he actually saw the ghost he believed in at Grief Cottage, but Marcus surely was a heart-wrenching young character.  Orphaned when his single mom dies in a car crash, the 11-year old goes to live with his eccentric, sometimes cranky, great aunt on a South Carolina Island. Terrified of being sent away, he becomes almost a housekeeper–cleaning floors, changing sheets, and uncorking wine bottles (until his aunt’s drinking becomes so pronounced he asks a trusted friend for help). All summer, Marcus looks forward to the hatching of the sea turtles…and he misses it: a guest has fouled the bathroom; the boy feels compelled to clean it up.

The novel confused me in spots–the rage that Marcus displayed toward Wheezer seemed totally out of character, and I thought, in the book’s beginning, there were clear hints that the boy was gay. But Marcus grows up and becomes a psychiatrist, happily marries a woman, reconciles with the childhood friend he’d beaten so badly. It made me wonder if Marcus, as a narrator, was completely reliable. Perhaps Wheezer’s injuries weren’t nearly as bad as he imagined. Perhaps the ‘rapture’ he felt after seeing the boy-ghost was not directly related to the ghost teen’s tough and comely appearance. And surely, as a bereft and guilt-ridden 11-year old, Marcus’s viewpoint was clouded.

I enjoyed Grief Cottage; I drank it in, a great summer read, much as I drank in Godwin’s first books, and the reading is sending me to the library shelves today to look for Godwin books…for the fiction I missed, and for the non-fiction that somehow never crossed my radar screen. I know my reading is tinted by the wonder of that long-ago summer when discovering new authors and new vistas was an amazing gift, but Gail Godwin’s voice and her characters remain, for me, true and compelling. I look forward to more.

Gods and Places

Shack, Gods, Braiding

Do people get to choose the way God looks?  Is the face of God different for each of us, dependent on our need, our understanding, our certain sensibilities?

How much does the ethos of the God of our upbringing inform our approach to the world?

I’m pacing on this pondering path because of three books–books that I was nudged toward this summer: American Gods, The Shack, and Braiding Sweetgrass.

Sometimes books are entertaining, sometimes informing, sometimes inspiring. There are the occasional books that disappoint. And sometimes the themes and images run from one book into the reading of another, very different one. Then I think it’s time to explore that phenomenon. Why these books? Why now? What could I learn from this confluence?


American Gods was a little bit of a departure from the beaten path for me. I’d enjoyed the Graveyard Book. On a whim, I borrowed Gaiman’s Norse Myths from the library–Something different, I thought–and I enjoyed that, too. I compared the images I’d absorbed of Norse gods–mostly from reading my brother’s copies of Thor comic books, back in the 1960’s and ’70’s–to Gaiman’s depiction. There were some overlaps, and there were many differences.

Gaiman’s depictions of the gods made them almost human (although, of course, they were gods), and their motives understandable, if not always admirable. It was fun to read, and my son Jim, excited that I liked one of ‘his’ authors, kept urging me to read American Gods. A TV show was coming up, he said, based on Gods. “You know you hate to watch a show before you’ve read the book,” he urged. So when a Barnes and Nobles gift card came my way, I used it to order the book.

American Gods is Shadow’s story. He is a prisoner, convicted of a pretty serious, although perpetually hazy, crime,–a crime which is never fully explained. But we get the feeling that he’s innocent on some level–that he did what he did as a reaction to something worse that was done to him. That maybe, he did it to protect someone dear. At any rate, he does his time and then, he is released one day early. That is because his wife has died in a car accident.  Shadow goes home to bury her, crushed and grieving.

And on his journey, he meets a man. (How many reviews could start with those words?)  But the man Shadow meets is also a god, and he offers Shadow a job. One thing leads to another, and Shadow, despite misgivings, accept the offered role.

Shadow meets many people, all of them gods in other cultures, all of them brought to the United States by some sort of immigration. All of them forgotten, reduced to human form and human occupations, and all of them readying for a confrontation with the gods Americans have adopted in their steads–gods like Media, Internet, and Retail Therapy.

The forgotten gods are not all good, or all-knowing, or even, usually, compassionate. Gaiman writes in Norse gods, Celtic gods, gods from Africa and South America. The Egyptian gods of death, Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis, work as mild-mannered undertakers. Native American gods ride a merry-go-round with Eastern European counterparts. They long for the old days, all the gods do, and some of them plan to get their power back.

Why Shadow?  Why does Mr. Wednesday choose a grieving, recent ex-con without very many beliefs at all to be his bodyguard and wing man? The story unfolds.

Everyone, Gaiman seems to suggest, has themselves a god or two. Or at least, we did when we were young, and those early gods went a long way to shaping our being.


My friend and colleague Shay loaned me The Shack, by William Paul Young. She was excited about the book; she was excited about the film–available via streaming, she told me. The Shack, I thought, was just the kind of book I do not usually read: a religious fable, a heavy push toward one kind of belief. But I value Shay and the book seemed short enough to whip through, so I said my thanks, and took the dog-eared paperback home.

And I read.

Mackenzie Allen Phillips—Mack–is the main character, and the premise is interesting. Mack was a childhood victim of his father’s horrific violence. In confiding in a trusted mentor, Mack opened himself to a particularly vicious bout of paternal vengeance, He was 13, and he left home afterwards. But first he put rat poison in all of his alcoholic Father’s stashed bottles. The narrative never out and out tells us so, but we believe that Mack killed his father.

And then Mack kicks around, traveling, learning, working hard, getting to the point where he even enrolls in a seminary course. He meets Nan; they marry and have four children.

And then, on a camping trip, the youngest–Missy–is abducted and murdered. Her bloody dress is found in a shack but the murderer is never apprehended, nor is Missy’s body found. Mack enters what he calls The Great Sadness.

Several years later, he gets a message: Meet me in the shack this weekend, it tells him. It is signed ‘Papa.’

Papa is his wife’s name for God.

Again the misgivings. Again, our protagonist takes the unlikely path. Again, he meets his gods.

Mack’s gods are the Holy Trinity. God the Father appears to him as a jolly Black woman who loves to cook. Jesus is a homely, compassionate woodworker. Sarayu is the Holy Spirit, not quite corporal, elusive, maddening, and very, very funny.

I was surprised to find a different kind of message here–not a push toward one belief or religious sect. Mack had to challenge the beliefs he grew up with. The reader is challenged at the end of the book: did the weekend at the shack really happen?  And if it was all a dream or a hallucination, does that matter?


I had a pantheon of gods jumbled and competing in my overworked brain.  I finished The Shack and thought I’d reach for something different, so I opened the book my friend Terri recently sent me: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

The book opens with Kimmerer’s retelling of the story of Skywoman falling through a hole in the heavens and landing in the vast sea that was then earth. She is saved through the compassion of the animals who help her: the Turtle, who allows her to climb on his back, the muskrat, who sacrifices his life to bring Skywoman a handful of mud from the depths.

Muskrat’s mud allows Skywoman to begin a new world. She places the mud on Turtle’s back; she walks around it, chanting, and the mud grows, deepens, dries, and Skywoman is able to plant the seeds she had with her when she fell. Skywoman, the animals who helped her–they create the earth as we know it. It is a place to be shared.

Kimmerer is an environmental scientist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The native American gods–she calls their stories the First Instructions–are very real and present to her, and their stories define her belief that earth is a gift to be shared, not just with other peoples, but with all creation.

The Adam and Eve story that informs Christianity and Judaism, Kimmerer notes, has a different emphasis. It teaches that man has dominion over the earth, and that the earth was made for his enjoyment alone. How differently Eve related to the earth than Skywoman did!

“Look at the legacy of poor Eve’s exile from Eden,” Kimmerer writes; “the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It’s not just the land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to the land.”


Three very different views of gods; three very different reasons for writing: to entertain, to inspire, to inform. And to challenge. Each view is unexpected–Gaiman’s gods with their rough edges and human foibles; Young’s Papa as a robust Black woman; Kimmerer’s Skywoman, trailing long black hair as she tumbles through the heaven-hole. And the teachings are unexpected, too. Gods can die. Religion can be a barrier and a burden. Humankind is not necessarily the superior race, left by God to be in charge of His creation.

What else, my English teacher’s mind demands, connects these three disparate books?

And I realize it is the connection of place and worship and finding god.

The gods in Gaiman’s novel are unloved because they have been taken from their place of origin. In a new culture, the immigrants who brought them forgot them. They are dying off in an uncaring land.

In Young’s book, Mack must return to the place of his greatest pain in order to find God, who transforms the place of suffering into somewhere understanding, healing, and faith can grow.

Kimmerer writes about the forced migrations of the native peoples in the United States, and of the relation of people as a whole to this earth they inhabit. She writes that relationship to the earth must change–people must relinquish their ownership and share the planet with all who depend upon it.


So I think about place and faith, and I wonder if there’s an effect when people move. What if your parents, and their parents before them, were wanderers? What if you yourself have shifted and moved not once, but several times?

I think of this in the context of a recent visit to home roots–to the sad, abandoned house where my parents first met. There was a pull there, an energy, a little sense of sacred. Was that sacred or was that memory? What happens to faith when it’s uprooted?


I don’t have any answers–I’m not entirely sure of the questions, in fact. But the exploration and conjunction of three very different works with faith and the gods at their cores ignites the questing places in my mind. I’ll have many things to think about as summer begins to wane.

Two Ways to Look at Home


“‘The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and no one can really do anything about it, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were'” (Franklin, 389).


I first read “The Lottery” in Mr. Durkin’s junior English class, many years ago. I remember the real electric jangle that shot down my spine when I realized what was going on. That story, which started out in such a relaxed and friendly  humdrum way, so matter-of-fact and recognizable, devolved into the most grotesque kind of horror–the kind that has friends and neighbors, almost bored, demolishing a human life.

What must it be like, I wondered with a shiver, to live inside THAT writer’s head? It was a purely rhetorical question: I didn’t want to know.

Years later, out of college, I was indulging in one of my favorite pastimes: looking for unsung treasures on the shelves of the public library. I found a book called Life Among the Savages, about a family that moves from The City to the wilds of New England. It was a funny book, self-deprecating and wry. I thought I’d look for more by the writer.

“Isn’t it funny,” I remarked to the librarian, when I returned Life Among the Savages,   “that THIS writer has the same name as the woman who wrote ‘The Lottery’?”

“It’s not funny at all,” said the librarian, a little pityingly, peering at me over her half glasses. “She’s the same person.”

WHAT? I was stunned. How could the same person write so winningly about her children’s antics—and about neighbors nonchalantly stoning one of their own to death? Cozy things on the one hand, and horror things on the other. I could not reconcile it.

I just read Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. In that biography, Ruth Franklin answers the question for me. All of Jackson’s writing, Franklin says, centers around the theme of ‘home.’

Her preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there was entirely of a piece with her cultural moment, the decade of the 1950’s, when the simmering brew of women’s dissatisfaction came close to boiling over, triggering the second wave of the feminist movement (Franklin, 409).

Jackson was an awkward girl who could never please her attractive mother. She was always too fat or too florid, too odd or too frumpily dressed. And, in her high school years, her parents moved the family from their comfortable California home all the way across the continent; they settled in Rochester, New York, where the snow was as unexpectedly cold as some of Shirley’s new classmates. Jackson felt like a misfit, the odd one out, the one one who was forcibly separated from her home.

Jackson, who, it seems, was clear-eyed about wanting to write from a very young age, attended Syracuse University, where she met Stanley Hyman. Hyman was a critic and a writer, and her intellectual equal–a man who supported her writing. Ironically, Jackson’s writing also supported him: throughout their married lives, her writing would always be the higher paid. He would supplement his wife’s earnings by teaching at Bennington. He would undermine his wife’s confidence with his serial adultery.

So Jackson was a woman, a mother, and a betrayed wife.  Her hilarious, rollicking stories of bringing up wayward kids in the country were gloss poured over true pain. Her eerie, terrifying novels were all the stories of young women, flawed or trapped, searching for a place to call home.

Jackson herself acknowledged that, in the novels, the houses themselves were characters. One of her ghost stories is even called “Home,” and the place where the protagonist settles does not seem like a very safe place for her to be.


Franklin’s biography is really well-written; it is paced and fluid and reads like a novel, and my sympathy for Jackson was completely and thoroughly engaged.

And I have been thinking about the concept of home, lately, even before I stumbled on the biography at my favorite library and knew I had to take it home and read it. Home should be refuge and safety; every child, I feel strongly, deserves to grow up in a real, nurturing home. And, emerging from childhood, we need ‘home’ more than ever–the place where we are loved and safe, where we can lick our wounds and cower till they heal.

I believe that we, as society, have lost sight of the importance of home, although I do not believe that the model of wife-at-home and hubby-at-work is always the ideal. I believe that we each need to decide what ‘home’ means to us, and, as we mature, we need to provide that for ourselves…as well as for those we solemnly pledge to nurture.

Shirley Jackson tried to do this, I think–tried to make the big old house she rented for her husband and kids a warm, inviting place–a place where friends gathered and spirits flowed, where she always made sure the butter on her children’s toast was spread carefully right to the edges. In her fiction, she pushed the envelope, exploring the cost of being lost and away from home, or of being deluded into embracing the wrong home.  And that includes, writes Franklin, the home we create within our minds, as well as the physical one.