Two Takes on Loss: Between the Lighthouse and Things That Grow
If there's one truism about the experiences of grief and loss both in reality and in literature, it's that no one does them "right." Whether you look for solace in religion or the natural world, whether you retreat or reach out, whether you speak of it or you don't, you're navigating the most difficult of human experiences, one that is completely individual while at the same time universal. In times of grief, many turn to literature either for escape or for resonant solace and reflection. The practice is no less true for young readers, who may find themselves lost at sea when enduring grief but then find something of their feelings reflected in words on a page.
Within the covers of books, too, characters often go through grief in different ways, showing that no matter what age you are or how you think you should and will handle things when the time comes, there are an infinite number of ways to travel through and try to cope with feelings related to loss. Two recent books, Michelle Lee's middle grade novel Between the Lighthouse and You and Meredith Goldstein's young adult novel Things That Grow, share unique examples of how different people deal with death, both stories featuring protagonists who lose loved ones and have to come to terms not only with the loss itself but also with understanding how those around them do so.
In Between the Lighthouse and You, twelve-year-old Alice is still holding onto the belief, six years after her mother's death in a boating accident, that her mother is alive out there somewhere. Her father is in a relationship with a woman named Neesha, who has become like a mother figure to Alice and her younger sister Clara. While Alice has a strong bond with Neesha, she persists in wanting to find her real mother and is hurt by the ways in which her father seems to have moved on and Clara chooses to deny their mother's memory. Alice's mother's accident is in fact linked to death itself, as she was, at the time, researching a fascinating community on the isolated Aviles Island, where the islanders are able to send and receive "tidings" from the dead through vessels that are washed up on the shore for three days every year and collected by the lighthouse keeper's family.
When Alice convinces her family to visit the island, she befriends Leo, whose grandfather (Gumpa) was the Aviles lighthouse keeper and was plagued by letting Alice's mother come to the island where she met her death. Leo is still trying to come to terms with losing his Gumpa, from whom his family receives tidings every year. As the novel progresses, both Alice and Leo have to try to understand the ways that their siblings and parents deal with their grief while also making peace with their own. By crafting a unique cultural and ritual response to death on Aviles Island, Lee has created a heartfelt and believable world wherein death feels real yet not necessarily final. The beauty of the novel is its gentle refusal to provide final answers while still allowing its characters to have cathartic experiences.
Meredith Goldstein's Things That Grow is for a slightly older audience, with protagonist Lori about to start her senior year in high school when her grandmother, with whom she lives, suddenly dies. Lori is faced with the possibility of having to move from Massachusetts to live with her mother and new boyfriend in Maryland. It's a particular shame right before her senior year, given that she's in love with her best friend Chris, with whom she crafts supernatural stories (she writes, he draws). The premise of Things That Grow is fundamentally a sad one: Lori, her uncle Seth, and her mother Becca have to deal with the immediate shock and grief from Grandma Sheryl's death. From this beginning, however, Goldstein manages to pull both humor and beauty. Sheryl was an avid hobbyist gardener (in addition to being a big reader), and her will requests that she be cremated and then placed among "things that grow," accompanied by a list of four possible gardens. And they're off! The novel becomes a family (Chris included) road trip to distribute Sheryl's cremains (which become "craisins" when Becca misspeaks) in beautiful natural places. The oftentimes hilarious tone of the book is present right from the start when Jewish Lori and Seth venture to an Irish Catholic funeral home to inquire about cremation, which is not undertaken in the Jewish religion, and engage in a conversation that goes from the crucifix to the Avengers to the etymology of cremains. If Lori and her family are carrying something too heavy to endure for more than three hundred pages, the weight is also tempered by the delightful Garden Girls (including the charming Kevin), Grandma Sheryl's gardening compatriots whom Lori befriends.
Throughout the novel, Lori learns both how to cope with the loss (to the extent that anyone can), dream for her future, and identify plants. She also has to step a bit out of her insular world and realize that her uncle and mother had entire lives as the children of her grandmother, and it's not necessarily fair to judge their responses to her death. Becca is aloof and less involved with the cremains process than Seth, earning Lori's consistent contempt and refusal to join her in Maryland. Lori at first idealizes Seth, who is also a writer, but lashes out when she discovers he's been using her for somewhat unkind inspiration. She is critical of the selfish way that he approaches life, such as when he goes ahead and sprinkles ashes in someone's home garden. Lest Lori seem like an unlikable narrator, though, she's equally critical of herself, often in a tongue-in-cheek way—the first to point out that perhaps she's not the most exemplary lady on the block when she wanders around in her accidentally-purple-dyed hair and pajamas. Her obsession with vampires, ghosts, and other supernatural specters is, however, more than just teenage angst; she realizes that she finds comfort in believing that death isn't final. The horror of a body reanimating makes her believe that loss is not permanent.
Things That Grow constantly reminds of how nature can be a healing force, while also serving as a tribute to the power of words, as Lori reads passages from her grandmother's favorite writer, Dorothy Parker, at each garden. In an interview with Boston.com, Goldstein shared that the inspiration for a family member asking to have ashes distributed near "things that grow" was based on her experience of losing her mother to cancer. Sheryl's passion for books stems from Goldstein's life as well, as she says, "[my grandmother] had these incredible books. When I started reading and realized I also liked books like 'Twilight,' she made it clear to me that I should never feel bad about what I want to read." Just like how whatever you choose to read can't be wrong, however you find yourself grieving can't either.