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The Gravedigger's Cottage

The Gravedigger's Cottage

by Chris Lynch

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The move to a lovely seaside cottage unravels the McLuckie family’s tight spool of emotions The McLuckie family has not been so lucky. After losing two wives, Mr. McLuckie has been left with one child from each love: ten-year-old Walter and fourteen-year-old Sylvia. He decides to move the family to a new home, a ramshackle seaside cottage called the


The move to a lovely seaside cottage unravels the McLuckie family’s tight spool of emotions The McLuckie family has not been so lucky. After losing two wives, Mr. McLuckie has been left with one child from each love: ten-year-old Walter and fourteen-year-old Sylvia. He decides to move the family to a new home, a ramshackle seaside cottage called the Gravedigger’s Cottage, where they can start anew. But soon Mr. McLuckie starts acting strangely, taking a leave of absence from work and becoming obsessed with fixing leaks, stockpiling canned foods, and chasing a mysterious rat. Then, Sylvia and Walter hear the rumor of the Gravedigger’s Cottage: the house “chooses” its occupants. How will the McLuckies get the fresh start they so desperately need?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"We won't dwell on that now," says narrator Vi McLuckie's dad whenever she tries to talk to him about any of their family's numerous bereavements, which include two Mrs. McLuckies as well as an extensive parade of pets. His refrain serves as the guiding metaphor of this idiosyncratic novel: Mr. McLuckie, having watched Vi bury so many pets in their yard, decides literally not to dwell on that property anymore, and moves the family to a cottage in a coastal village. The novel opens as 14-year-old Vi and her 10-year-old brother, Walter, discover that their new home is locally known as the Gravedigger's Cottage, aka The Diggers, for reasons that no one can fully explain to them. "The house just attracts people who have, sort of, histories of death stuff attached to them," says a girl, who adds, "You don't move into The Diggers, it moves into you." Writing in the sharp, evocative prose and overcast mood of his Freewill, Lynch alternates the story line about the move into The Diggers with Vi's recollections of the deaths in the McLuckie family, starting with those of Vi's mother and of Walter's mother, then growing more graphic in descriptions of run-over pet dogs, starved and dehydrated finches, mysteriously shriveling turtles, suffocated gray dwarf Russian hamsters, etc. The link between these passages and the message, about the impossibility of escaping from an unexamined past, never becomes explicit, and readers may have trouble seeing beyond the many disconcerting (if not downright unpleasant) death scenes to discover the point. Ages 12-up. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Lynch's latest novel concerns a family trying to cope with delayed feelings of grief over the losses in their lives. The McLuckies move into a small seaside house, dubbed "The Gravedigger's Cottage" by locals, because it seems to attract buyers who have, like the McLuckies, been touched by death. Mr. McLuckie has lost two wives, each a mother to one of his two children, Sylvia and Walter. The children also have a heartbreaking history of not being able to keep any household pet alive for very long, and in moving, they leave a burgeoning pet cemetery behind them. Sylvia, the precocious fourteen-year-old narrator, is the self-proclaimed "woman of the house" and tries desperately to maintain the ordinary routines that she believes keeps the family together. But when the old fears follow the McLuckies to their new home, Sylvia must remind her father gently that she cannot keep the family together all on her own. This novel is vintage Lynch: strongly written, character driven, and oddly compelling despite its circuitous narrative path. As such, it will probably not find a wide teen audience, although a good booktalk about the peculiar premise will help it off the shelf. The best, and in some ways worst, parts of this novel are the short, painfully descriptive chapters that recount the sad demise of each animal. This story will probably be appreciated most by fans of E. L. Konigsburg's equally unclassifiable The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place (Simon & Schuster, 2004/VOYA June 2004). VOYA Codes 4Q 2P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2004,HarperCollins, 208p., and PLB Ages 12 to 18.
—Jennifer Hubert
Children's Literature
Sylvia and her brother Walter have unfortunate luck with pets. Almost every pet they have owned has died, resulting in a massive pet cemetery around their house. Their mother died as well, leaving their father to care for them. Wanting to change the scenery and possibly break the bad luck, the family moves to an old cottage in a small seaside town. The house seems to attract bad luck people, however, and is known as the Gravedigger's Cottage. While Sylvia and Walter deal with the local children, who are convinced that the cottage attracts death, their father becomes obsessed with fixing the place and sealing up all the cracks in the walls. The story of Sylvia and Walter is told in chapters that alternate with flashbacks of each pet they've had and how it died. While the topic is tragic, Lynch injects a thread of humor throughout the book that keeps the reader rooting for Sylvia to find a pet that won't die. This book offers an honest look at how families deal with death of pets and relatives. 2004, HarperCollins, Ages 10 up.
—Amie Rose Rotruck
The McLuckie family isn't. In fact, they have been plagued by tragedy, but as a family have decided not to dwell on it. Fourteen-year-old Sylvia's mother, the first Mrs. McLuckie, died years ago. Ten-year-old Walter's mother, the second Mrs. McLuckie, died as well. And over the years, the children and their father have buried pet after pet in the backyard. In the hopes of leaving their past behind to start anew, the McLuckies move to a quaint New England cottage in a small coastal village. However, in their first days in town, they learn that they have taken up residence in the Gravedigger's Cottage with its shadowy past. Known as Diggerkids, Sylvia and Walter realize the townsfolk are closely watching them, including the strange boy Carmine, who keeps arriving unannounced. Little by little, the house begins to take on a life of its own, and their father becomes obsessed with sealing it from the elements and the "leakage" and dampness that pervade the property. As they watch their father sink deeper and deeper into himself, the children realize that they must intervene to save him and save their family. Plot chapters alternate with flashback chapters about the various animals who have come into and left the McLuckie family. Lynch's story is dark and at times leaves the reader wondering what is real and what is not. The depiction of a parent moving into depression and becoming detached from reality is disturbing, particularly when the children are forced to fend for themselves in a strange town with no support. However, at the end, readers are left with a sense that healing has begun as the father takes action to destroy the shadow that haunts him. KLIATT Codes: J—Recommended forjunior high school students. 2004, HarperCollins, 208p., Ages 12 to 15.
—Michele Winship
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-The author of such literary and emotionally provocative young adult novels as Gypsy Davey (1998) and Freewill (2001, both HarperCollins) offers another dark and clever fable. The badly named McLuckies-father and two children-move to a somewhat ramshackle oceanside house, which the neighboring villagers call the Gravedigger's Cottage. Recounted by teenage Sylvia, a story of dead pets and parental distraction unfolds to reveal how psychologically delicate the McLuckies truly are, in spite of their individual protestations that it is the rest of the world, not themselves, that lacks integrity. The protagonist's younger brother, Walter, brings home a weird neighbor child who begins by professing his love for Sylvia and then goads the family members into seeing that they are not the brave crew they have been pretending to be. While character development and plot work well in alternate chapters, they come to a standstill in the interspersed sections, each of which revolves around the presence and eventual death of a family pet. This device becomes not only relentlessly grim but also repetitive, numbing readers' concern for either the animals or their owners. The pun on the house's name is protracted and also becomes overly obvious. The eventual catharsis between father and children is sweet, but those who revel in the dourness of the tale to that point may dismiss the climax as too fairy tale. At the same time, those who search for happy endings may not have the stomach to weather the destruction of small animal life and young egos along the way.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An old gravedigger's cottage and its nearby beach are the setting for this mournful, slightly creepy family story. Fourteen-year-old Sylvia moves there with her 10-year-old brother, Walter, and their sad, eccentric father for a fresh start far away from the place where both Sylvia's and Walter's mothers died. A long string of pets died there too. Death weighs heavily on all three members of this strongly bonded family. Sylvia loves the odd cottage but Dad seems to be folding over into himself as, grief-bent, he begins manic home-improvement projects rather than going to his job. Sylvia and Walter try to boss him into not being crazy, all the while worried they'll lose him. In a unique, deliberate voice, Sylvia resists responsibility for her father even while accepting it. A little morbid, very loving, and dubiously hopeful at the end about Dad's mental state-and whether their newest pet might actually live. (Fiction. 10-14)

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The Gravedigger's Cottage

By Chris Lynch


Copyright © 2004 Chris Lynch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0460-1


Sea Grass

My dad always says he doesn't live in a country, he lives in a house. He doesn't live in a town or a village, he lives in a house. He sure doesn't live in any neighborhood. He lives in, you know, a house.

I live in a house. I also live in a house near the sea, but not right staring at the sea. You don't need to be staring at the sea to be at the sea, feeling and absorbing and living the sea.

In fact, I have this idea that you could do away with all the individual senses of the sea—the smell of it and the salt taste in the air and the smash of the waves—and still, without any clues, somehow you would know you were at the sea. Just because it is such a thing, the sea.

I live in a house, by the sea.

But I also live in a country, in a village, and in a neighborhood, and that matters.

And in the house I live in there are two guys, my dad and my little brother, Walter, who is ten. I am the lady of the house, and I am fourteen. I'm Sylvia.

Nobody calls me Sylvie. Sylvia's my name, it's the name I was given, it's the name I like. It's me. My dad calls me Vee, which I like, but mostly from him or from Walter but not really from anybody else—though nobody else has really attempted it yet. Probably that's for the best all around.

Now here's the thing about Walter. We are more alike than you would expect a fourteen-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy to ever be. We are the same, practically, or anyway as same as anybody can be with a ten-year-old boy. Which is to say we are different. Very, very different.

But different only in the obvious ways, none of the unobvious ways, and absolutely none of the important ways. We think alike. Which is to say, he is a good little thinker there, my Walter. We are so alike because we have all that same stuff inside us and behind us and all around us. We have been there, together, and we are still there, together. I like the way he thinks. He's got a good brain.

But I could never tell him that. That would spoil it.

My dad likes to sit in his chair, and he likes to go to flea markets on the weekends and look at other people's chairs. And he likes large multipacks of thick white socks that don't have the seam running right across the front bumper of his toes. Soft thick socks that have the seam in the right place make my dad feel nice, and the other kind make him feel not at all nice; and he likes to live completely within his nice cozy socks, within his nice cozy house.

And we want him feeling nice. He doesn't feel nice quite enough of the time, Dad doesn't.

Which is not to say that he is not nice. He is the nicest dad you ever met. He just doesn't feel nice. So probably you might wonder how I would know how a person feels if he doesn't talk about how he feels, which is exactly what my dad does not talk about. Probably you'd be wondering how I'd know that.

"Because she knows everything, that's how. Because she is Sylvia, and she knows everything."

That's what Walter would say. But he wouldn't mean it in a good way, in case you were wondering. But I would thank him anyway.

"Thank you, Walter."

"I was being sarcastic."

"But I love you." This would drive him nuts.

"Don't start that, Sylvia."

"But I love you."

"You know ..." he'd say to me, but I already would know he wouldn't finish his thought, "you know, Sylvia ..."

"I know," I'd say, as he stomped away.

Anyway, he was kind of right about me knowing feelings just because I do. Mostly, though, I know my dad's feelings. And so does Walter. We watch him and watch over him. That is our job, to watch over him and see to him, and to allow him to watch over us and see to us.

It is a good system. Everybody benefits.

Even if I do most of the work. That's to be expected. I'm the woman of the house.

But that's okay. It's nice to be needed. Everybody wants to be needed.

Our house, the house that we recently moved into, sits in a little sand flea of a coastal village. It's not a highly happening place where people move to all the time, but my dad's work had been asking him to move here about once a year for a few years. Guess they were having trouble staffing this particular office. My dad is a financial guy, which means I have no idea what he does all day. But according to him, he is a "small-business terrifier," going in and scaring them into showing him their records. I told him I thought that was sad. He told me he agreed.

Anyway, our house. The Gravedigger's Cottage is what it's called. Everyone we met in the first days after we got here, from the mailman to the electric meter reader to the cashier in the local store, spoke to us with a mix of real fear and admiration when they informed us that we had taken up residence in the famous Gravedigger's Cottage, aka The Diggers. But no one could make a half-decent attempt at telling us why the house was known as the Gravedigger's Cottage. The person who sold it to us was a retired schoolteacher, not a gravedigger.

Which was not any big deal except that this gravedigger business started to attach itself, like a big ugly sucker fish, to us. Somehow the locals decided that the legend of the Gravedigger's Cottage had something to do with the people who had lived there for sixteen days, rather than any of the occupants who had taken lukewarm baths there—the hot water was the lamest part of the house—for the previous hundred years or so.

Which I thought was rather unfair.

It bothered Walter a lot right from the start that kids would call us the Diggerkids. They would run or ride up to our hedge, yelling clever stuff like "Dig it!" or "Diggers!" and then be gone by the time we got to the window or the door. It bothered Walter way more when they called our dad the Gravedigger.

Walter began keeping a small collection of perfect throwing rocks in a beach pail by his bedroom window.

I wouldn't go that far myself. But I didn't like it that they were calling my dad the Gravedigger. No, I didn't like that. My dad, the Gravedigger. If ever there were proof that whoever runs life has a nasty sense of humor, that was it.

My dad bought this house I think more for the sea grass than for any other single thing. Surely he bought it for the actual sea, which was nearby, and for its quirky weirdness—it is a long and low L-shaped white stone thing laid out all on one floor, except for the gabled bedrooms above—and for the garage. He likes garages and all the stuff you can stuff in them and appears unaware that there is any connection between them and automobiles. When I suggested that it would be nice to park the car in the garage, he responded that having a car in a garage was like having a toilet in the kitchen—two perfectly useful things that spoil each other. And that, pretty much, settled that.

But mostly I think he bought the place for the sea grass, for the tall ruggedy hedge, and for the apple trees.

We have two of them. Seashore apple trees, Dad calls them, and he is as proud of them as if they were our very own twisted, leafy brothers.

Have you ever tasted those apples? Those luminous lime-colored, bumpy, knotted, gnarly apples that live on the salted air and thin earth of the seaside? They are very special apples, with a character, Dad insists, that comes out of their hard life facing into mean North Atlantic winds all the time. "Mighty special" is Dad's way of describing those apples. Before this year, he always drove us everywhere, hunting down those weird little apples—and the truth is, Walter and I were always a little disappointed to find them.

And now they are growing in our very yard. "Unlike anything else you are ever likely to taste," Dad pronounced loudly when he first stood under his very own fruit tree.

"And a good thing too," Walter pronounced not so loudly. Walter cannot stand the kind of apples that come off our very own trees.

But every year after our apple-picking trips, we ate the pie and the applesauce and apple butter and apple jelly and whatever all Dad could squeeze out of the crop and his evil Old New England Harvest-time book of ideas; and now that the trees were our very own, we could be sure of many bitter harvests to come.

Dad enjoys his apples. Even if, if I'm honest, I will tell you that they seem to be apples that were never intended to be eaten by humans. He enjoys all apples because he is apple mental.

And hedges and sea grass, those too. We have a big seven-foot hedge that runs here and there sporadically all around our property, trying hard to separate the house from the world and establish where we begin and everything else ends. It is a game old hedge, but sloppy and ragged enough to leave spaces for the truly curious to have a peek. And at the back of the property, where the garage meets the hedge, there is a little natural walkway, a strange but fantastic miniature sand dune scene all our own, where we have a mysterious long and deep layer of the most silky white beach sand you ever saw, and out of it is growing the tallest, heartiest, stalkiest crop of beach grass that ever grew. It serves as an escort, a regal green honor guard as we drive the long unplanned and unpaved driveway to our house, our home, our private cozy little Gravedigger's Cottage far off the main road from everything at all. It is about two hundred yards, I'd say, from the spot where you turn off the road to where you pass right by our garage for anything but cars, to where you drive up almost all the way through our backyard to bump up to the back of the house.

And the whole way, it is like we are in some kind of parade or attending a big movie opening. Taller and taller the grasses get, brushing the sides of the car, reaching up over the fender, over the window glass, the wispy fingers of the green and gold sea grass stroking us with their tough razor stalks and their feathery light tips. Caressing us and ushering us home, all the way until we are all the way in, at the Gravedigger's Cottage and nowhere else. Out of the country, out of the town, out of the neighborhood, and into the house.

It fits Dad's idea of having a home. He never cared one way or another for possessing things, never quite believed it was possible. He subscribes to the theory of negative ownership, meaning the place you own can never really be yours, be fully a part of you, but your owning it really just means you're the only one with the undeniable right to be there.

And the rest of the universe can't come inside without your say-so.

The trees, the hedges, the sea grass, the distance between the back door and the rest of the world. I think Dad was sold on the house before he ever even went inside it.



We don't talk about our mothers a great deal. There were two of them, one mine and one Walter's. Two Mrs. McLuckies.

I know, but it's true. There was a time, when I was just getting mature, when I doubted it myself. It suddenly occurred to me that it might have been a bizarre joke, that that wasn't our name at all, since how could anybody have a name like that in real life, especially if they had been fairly spectacularly not so lucky? So I looked it up on the Internet. A very Scottish name, apparently. Traceable back hundreds of years to a settlement on the Isle of Mull. Lucky enough to have gotten off a place with a name like Mull, I suppose.

So I am Sylvia McLuckie, just as my mother was Sylvia McLuckie before me. Walter is Walter McLuckie, and Dad is Mr. McLuckie.

And, back then, there were the two Mrs. McLuckies, within four years of each other. And then there were none.

There hasn't been another one since. Not even close.

I don't know that I would even want another one, myself. And I definitely don't know if I would want one if I were Dad. How hard must that have been, to lose so much so early? And then again, so soon?

I don't know, really. It's easier for a baby to lose something. It has to be. But what about a man? A husband, a dad? What about that?

I wouldn't know because, like I said, we don't talk a great deal about the two Mrs. McLuckies. About the missing Mrs. McLuckies. I never specifically heard my dad talk about how it felt to lose them both. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, is what the saying says. But I doubt if whoever said it had ever loved and lost so much so quickly.

I think you might choose not loving at all.

But while there is no Mrs. McLuckie III, you could not say there is no love. My dad can love stuff.

He loves, like I said, socks and chairs. Apples. Everything related to the seaside, while not necessarily the open sea. Privacy. He loves wind and rain but not snow. Food. One-star movie reviews. He enjoys those nasty reviews about as much as most people enjoy four-star movies. And he loves nearly empty old movie theaters when it's a matinee and they're playing a one-star movie. Tea he loves, both the normal Earl Grey kind and the herbal tea that doesn't even taste like anything.

And us. Me and Walter. He loves us just about as much as it is possible. I wonder sometimes if he has so much stored up in his tank for my brother and me because he was never allowed to spend much of it on our mothers. I wonder that.


Things Die

I know things die.

"You make them die."

"Shut up, Walter."

"Dad doesn't like you telling me to shut up, Sylvia."

"Well, he doesn't like you making me feel like a ghoul either."

"Well, you do make things die, Vee. You just do."

"Shut up. I don't make them die. They just die. Things die, Walter. Everything dies."

"But you speed things up a little."

He's being quite unfair.

"Yah? Who killed the hamster then, Walter?"


"Remember the hamster, Walter? Remember Vladimir?"

"Stop it, Sylvia. That was different."

"Yah, it was different because it was murder, and mine were all accidents."

"It was not murder! It was love. I loved Vladimir to death, and you know it. I didn't know any better. I was only little. I thought he was like any other stuffed animal."

"Remember his eyes? Remember when you squeezed so hard his eyes—"


He did. He squeezed that poor hamster into the next world like toothpaste out of a tube, and I know he didn't know what he was doing, but is that enough to get you off the hook? Does that make it any more okay, because he didn't know what he was doing? I think most stuff happens because people don't know what they are doing—to animals or to themselves or to other people—but does that mean that the same stuff hasn't happened, once it has happened? Stuff is always happening, but I never notice it un-happening, and hardly anybody seems to know what they're doing.

Walter is right; I've buried a lot of pets.

"It's why we had to move."

"It is not why we had to move. We moved for Dad's work."

"We had to move because there was no more land left where we were before. Your pet cemetery surrounding our house was finally all filled up, every inch. They said we were a health hazard with all the rotting animals in our yard. Everybody was afraid the ground was going to come bubbling up with the bodies of all these dogs and turtles and birds and everything, like a scene from a pet zombie horror movie. The people of the town came to our door late one night, with torches—"

This did not happen. Walter is a boy, and he's ten, and so he says things like that. He's programmed to be a jerk.

"Dad doesn't like it when you call me names."

"Dad isn't listening. Perhaps you should do likewise."

You want to know all about my mom, probably.

I'd like to know that myself.

I lied. I wouldn't like to know. It doesn't bother me anymore. I swear. She is not here because she has never been here, and that's just all right. All right with me. She was gone almost when I first woke up, you know, woke up to the world; and like anything that's not there when you first wake up you can't very well miss it. Same goes for Walter's mom, my second mom. I was still wiping my eyes practically, waking up and calming down at the same time from what happened the first time, and there it happened again. Poor Walter never even knew what hit him. Poor Walter. Poor, lucky Walter. Can't miss what you never knew, can you?

Except you can, of course. You can miss. You can and you do miss, and if I lied you would know, so I will try not to lie to you.

But I told the truth at the same time as lying ...

Both at the same time. I don't miss my mom, exactly, because I didn't know her. Much. I'm sure she was lovely. I mean, I have seen pictures, of course, and she was lovely. Very, very lovely to look at.

And I have no doubt she was also lovely on the inside. I am sure she could hold a kid on her knee and clean scrapes without making them hurt worse. I am sure she could sing. I am sure she smelled like strawberry or patchouli or Oil of Olay, if that is an actual smell. I'm sure she read out loud at bedtime and had a purse full of lipstick and Kleenex and butterscotch candies and Wash 'n Dri moist towelettes for emergencies. I'm sure she could cook. I'm sure she could sing. I know I already said that, but just then I was thinking that she would be singing while she was cooking, and so I said it again because it occurred to me again. I hope you don't mind. I don't think you do. I bet she was a very careful driver, and courteous. I bet she was a good swimmer. I bet she would go into the pool and swim with us, no matter that a lot of parents don't go into the pools and I think it is because they are self-conscious about their flabby parental bodies. Although I know she had a lovely figure. I saw it in a picture. I bet her taste in clothes was excellent.


Excerpted from The Gravedigger's Cottage by Chris Lynch. Copyright © 2004 Chris Lynch. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Chris Lynch (b. 1962), a Boston native, is an award-winning author of several acclaimed young adult novels, including Freewill (2001), which won the Michael L. Printz Honor, and National Book Award finalist Inexcusable (2005). Lynch holds an MA from the writing program at Emerson College, and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Lesley University. He mentors aspiring writers and continues to work on new literary projects while splitting time between Boston and Scotland.       
Chris Lynch (b. 1962), a Boston native, is an award-winning author of several acclaimed young adult novels, including Freewill (2001), which won the Michael L. Printz Honor, and National Book Award finalist Inexcusable (2005). Lynch holds an MA from the writing program at Emerson College, and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Lesley University. He mentors aspiring writers and continues to work on new literary projects while splitting time between Boston and Scotland.

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