The Language of Sand by Ellen Block, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
The Language of Sand

The Language of Sand

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by Ellen Block

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A magical novel that unravels one of life’s greatest mysteries—how to go on after a devastating loss—through the power of words and their ability to heal, to transform, and to touch the heart.
Luck: an event that could be for good or ill, depending on your interpretation.
As a lexicographer, Abigail Harker has always


A magical novel that unravels one of life’s greatest mysteries—how to go on after a devastating loss—through the power of words and their ability to heal, to transform, and to touch the heart.
Luck: an event that could be for good or ill, depending on your interpretation.
As a lexicographer, Abigail Harker has always taken refuge in the meaning of words. But when fate erases in one tragic moment what she loves the most, the very foundations of her life vanish. 

    Abigail retreats to Chapel Isle, a secluded island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As caretaker of a run-down lighthouse, she hopes to redefine herself. But as a resident soon remarks, “If you came to Chapel Isle for normal, you came to the wrong place.” 

    For on Chapel Isle, no one can be neatly defined. From a scientific genius to the feuding fishermen’s wives, from a handsome hothead to the ghost said to be haunting the lighthouse, everyone is struggling to find meaning where meaning seems lost. And when a series of mysterious crimes strikes the island, Abigail finds that she must face down her deepest fears if she is to save herself, her neighbors, and the new life she’s unexpectedly come to cherish.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Block (The Lightning Rule) explores in her quaint latest the notion of how losing oneself in a new adventure can help heal wounds. After Abigail Harker's husband and four-year-old son are killed when their suburban Boston home burns down, she moves to a place her husband treasured, Chapel Isle, N.C., leaving behind her beloved job as a lexicographer to become caretaker of a defunct lighthouse. Her living quarters are a shambles (and possibly haunted), and as she fixes up her digs and makes friends with the (naturally) colorful locals, Abigail finds a way through grief and toward a less fussy self. Block writes gracefully about heartache and the mending of an injured soul, and the smalltown backdrop is pleasant without being kitschy. (May)
From the Publisher
The Language of Sand has something for everyone: myths, mystery, community, humor, grief, and ultimately healing. I found myself not only rooting for Abigail but for the whole community of Chapel Isle. Block manages to hold sass and heartfelt emotion in perfect equilibrium.”—Brunonia Barry, New York Times bestselling author of The Lace Reader
“[A] book-club-friendly read that will have readers itching for a sequel.”—Booklist
"In subtle, graceful prose, Ellen Block gives us a tale that is both filled with longing and hopeful."—Cathy Buchanan, author of The Day the Falls Stood Still

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


a•be•ce•dar•i•an?(¯a´b¯e s¯e dâr´¯e n), n.1. a person who is learning the letters of the alphabet.2. a beginner in any field of learning.—adj. 3. of or pertaining to the alphabet.?. arranged in alphabetical order.5. rudimentary; ele- mentary; primary.?Also, abecedary.[1595–1605; , ML abeced¯ari¯anus. See abecedary, -an]


Never was a word she didn’t care for. Not because of the infiniteness it implied or because it sounded so stubbornly unforgiving, but because it was, by definition, improbable. Improbability bothered her.

The consummate hyperbole, never was a nervy word, especially for an adverb. Limitless and indiscriminate, never did what few words could. It refused to be qualified, to succumb to rationality or be bridled by it for longer than a single sentence. Never defied logic, and for Abigail Harker, there was nothing more perturbing than that.

Logic was, in a manner, her job. She was a lexicographer. She edited dictionaries for a living. Greek in origin, the term lexicographer was a marriage of lexicon, meaning dictionary, and graphos, signifying a writer or writing. The pleasing precision of its etymology translated to the profession as a whole. It was a career in which Abigail’s syllogistic nature served her well.

Facts, proof, and reasoning were her cardinal directions, while logic acted as the map with which she navigated the world, keeping her on course and helping her maintain her bearings. A compass could shiver at due north. A weather vane might waver in the wind. Yet logic was as steady as stone. It could take Abigail wherever she needed to go, and on one crisp October day, logic—along with an actual map—took her from a quiet side street of a Boston suburb across six states and over eight hundred miles of unfamiliar highway to Bourne’s Crossing.

Neither a city nor a town, Bourne’s Crossing was merely a dock situated at a finger-shaped outcropping of the North Carolina coast. Wind undulated through the saw grass that had grown unchecked around the pilings, and the silvered timbers stretched into the water like a plank off a pirate ship. The nearby dock house, a shingled shed in desperate need of a new roof, was the sole structure for as far as the eye could see. The last bastion of civilization on a forlorn stretch of the coast, Bourne’s Crossing served as the only means of getting from the mainland to the distant island of Chapel Isle. Which was exactly where Abigail was headed.

She drove her Volvo station wagon onto the dock, and the wooden boards let out a disconcerting creak. Uncertain if it was wise to pull forward any farther, she stopped and sifted through her purse for the brochure the real estate agent had sent her. According to the literature, the ferry from Bourne’s Crossing ran every two hours on the hour. A departure was scheduled for four p.m. The clock on her dashboard read four on the dot. But there were no other cars, no people, and no ferry.

At the bottom of the last page of the brochure, Abigail noticed a minuscule notation she hadn’t seen before: Ferry hours subject to change off season.

She sighed. “If there was ever a time for second thoughts.”

Coming to Chapel Isle had seemed to be a perfectly logical idea when she was back in Boston. Now Abigail could see the decision for what it was: a monumental leap of faith. She worried that she might be too weak in the knees to make the jump.

As she got out of her car and headed for the dock house, a strong ocean breeze kicked up, sending eddies of sand skidding across the tract of asphalt road that ended right at the dock. The warm fall air was tinged with wetness, giving it an edge.

“Hello?” Abigail called, opening the screen door.

Inside the dock house was a small office furnished with folding chairs, a bulky wooden desk, and a TV topped by a mangled hanger acting as an antenna. A coffee mug was perched on a filing cabinet, giving the impression that whoever had been there just stepped away. Abigail stood around, growing more uneasy with each passing second. After ten minutes, she gave up and went outside.

The wind was waiting for her. It ruffled her clothes, heaved her hair, and rattled the screen door to the dock house as she wrangled it shut. To her right was the road she’d come in on. On her left was the wide expanse of the Atlantic.

“Well, what now?”

Squinting, Abigail searched the horizon, only to discover there was no horizon line. The color of the water and the color of the sky blended into an unbroken block of deep blue as solid as a wall. She couldn’t tell if it was a trick of the light or if her eyes were failing after the long drive. Panic began to pluck at her. She was utterly alone at Bourne’s Crossing, disarmingly alone.

“Fourteen hours on the road and delirium has officially set in.”

Then a dark dot emerged in the distance, a fleck of contrast against what could have been ocean or air. Abigail stared until she could sense her eyes dilating. Soon the outline of a boat became clear. It was the ferry.

Even at a distance, it was obvious the vessel had seen better days. Too many seasons at sea had weathered the paint and lightened the ship’s logo, a cresting wave capped by the words Chapel Isle Ferry, to a faint shadow. The wide, squared-off craft had rows of benches that rimmed the railings and room for more than a dozen cars on deck, though presently there were none.

As soon as the ferry docked, a lanky kid in an oil-stained sweatshirt and plastic sunglasses jogged from the wheelhouse to the stern and looped the lead lines to one of the pilings.

“You comin’ or not?” he shouted over the drone of the idling engine.

“Oh. Right. Sorry.”

Abigail hastened to her Volvo and steered on deck. Moments later, the ferry growled to life and was off again. She wasn’t sure whether to get out or sit tight.

“You don’t have to stay in your vehicle, miss.”

Startled, Abigail’s hand flew to her chest. The kid in the sweatshirt was standing at her window.

“I didn’t know if it was safe,” she said, adjusting her collar to pretend she hadn’t been frightened.

“Hell, I don’t know if it’s safe myself. But it is a long ride. Wouldn’t want you going stir-crazy in there.”

He spoke in a sluggish Southern drawl, each syllable lagging behind the other as if they were freight cars in a slow-moving train. Abigail always took note of accents, slang, colloquialisms. Verbal affects were proof, from her perspective, of the capacity of the English language, the fortitude. It was a phenomenon in and of itself. The abuse it endured was awe-inspiring. Words were shortened, lengthened, plundered, and bastardized, yet they went on, ever resilient. Words had a strong constitution she envied.

“Round trip?” he asked.

“One way.”

The kid gave her a dubious glance. “That’ll be fifteen-fifty.”

Abigail handed over the money with vigor to convince him, as well as herself, that she knew what she was doing.

“Out of a hundred,” he said, eyeing the large bill. He peeled her change from a stack of tens and singles, counting each aloud tediously. She guessed he was about twenty-five, less than ten years her junior. Though she couldn’t see his eyes behind the plastic sunglasses, what Abigail could see was that his clothes needed washing and his hair needed cutting, like a child who’d been left to fend for himself for too long.

“So,” he said, “you a doctor or a lawyer?”

The odd question caught her off guard. “A doctor. Technically. I’m a—”

“Figured as much. If it ain’t summer, folks don’t come to Chapel Isle. Not unless they’re doctors or lawyers. Doctors for taking care of people. Lawyers for taking care of those the doctors didn’t take care of right.”

“You’re saying nobody visits in the fall or winter?”

“Yup.” His response was resolute.

Although the serenity of the island’s low season was part of its appeal, this kid had Abigail envisioning tumbleweeds rolling through the center of town.

“What sorta doctor are you?”

“I have a Ph.D., actually. I’m a lexicographer, not a—”

“Oh, X-ray stuff. Gotcha.”

Before she could correct him, the kid shoved his hand through the window, saying, “I’m Denny. Denny Meloch. I run the ferry. Pleased to meet you.”

Abigail introduced herself and shook his hand. “If you run the ferry, Denny, who’s steering?”

“That’d be my dad,” he answered sheepishly. “It’s his rig. Won’t let anybody forget it. Least of all me.”

The boat was picking up speed, and the revving engine filled the awkward silence that followed his comment. With the current growing more conspicuous the faster they went, Abigail realized she hadn’t removed her seat belt. Denny, however, was unfazed by the waves. He kept his stance wide, taking in every roll placidly.

“You have a lot of stuff in there.” Denny was giving her Volvo the once-over.

“It appears that way, doesn’t it?”

Bags, boxes, and luggage were pressed against the windows. The car held the last remaining possessions Abigail had in the world. While packing, she’d tried to imagine paring down an entire house to fit into the station wagon. Deciding what was worth keeping versus what wasn’t would have been daunting. Except Abigail didn’t have the luxury of choice. The fire had reduced her life to the lean mass she currently carried.

“You moving to the island for good?”

“How long is for good?” she asked, making light of his serious question.

Denny shrugged. “Either you’re here to stay or you’re here to leave. No two ways about it.”

“What do you mean, ‘here to leave’?”

“Tourists. They start pouring in when the weather gets sunny. Run for the hills once it turns. Don’t get me wrong. We need ’em. Couldn’t get by without ’em. Summer business is the only business we got besides fishing. That don’t mean we have to like ’em.”

“Denny,” someone yelled, interrupting him.

In her side mirror, Abigail saw a stout man peering from the wheelhouse. The brim of his cap cast his face in shadow.

“Is that your father?”

“Yup. That’s him.” Denny’s cheeks flushed. “As I said, you don’t have to sit in your car.”

With that, he scuttled off, his parting statement issued half as fact, half as a challenge. If Abigail stayed in her car, she wouldn’t last on the island. If she got out, she might be different.

The ocean was becoming choppier, the waves more brazen. Abigail unhooked her seat belt and her stomach instantly tightened. Was it seasickness or fear? She opted to believe it was the former.

A burst of clammy air caught her on the chin when she opened her door. Droplets of water seeped through her clothes, prickling the flesh beneath. Maintaining her balance for the short walk from the station wagon to the railing took effort. It was as though her body was drunk but she wasn’t. The ferry slogged heavily through the water, and by the sound of it, the engine was battling to make headway.

Abigail got to the side, then plunked down on a bench, happy to have it hold her. As gusts of wind whipped her hair into her mouth and eyes, she brushed aside the strands, only to have them flung back at her, an exercise in frustration. She wasn’t a let-the-wind-comb-your-hair kind of woman, not figuratively or literally. The free and easy spirit didn’t apply to Abigail. Few things in the world were free and not many were easy, including getting from the car to the bench. Yet she had. It wasn’t much. It would have to be enough.

The rocking of the boat made her dizzy, so Abigail fixed her eyes downward on the bench where she sat. A flurry of names, dates, curses, and epithets were carved into the wood, a roster of who had come and gone, trapped under layers of shellac. Swarms of hearts in every size were etched around initials, each crowding the other. She traced the outline of some letters, feeling the deep indentations in the wood and letting her fingertip linger along the craggy curve of a heart.

The need to be remembered was an instinct. No one wanted to be forgotten, to slip away, to be lost from memory. That was why people scrawled words on everything from benches to turnpike overpasses to wet concrete sidewalks. The scars they left made them unforgettable. Sometimes, though, remembering could be worse than being forgotten. Abigail knew that well. Remembering left a different kind of scar.


The afternoon sun was buried under a bale of dull clouds, night poised to push the day aside. Abigail had lost track of how long she’d been sitting on the bench in the wind. Her clothes were damp, her stomach ached, and the horizon line remained absent. She needed to get out of the elements. There was an enclosed seating area behind the wheelhouse. Using the railing to reclaim her balance, Abigail forged toward the door, doing her best to keep her footing.

More benches and a measly snack bar awaited inside. The snack bar was closed, the glass candy case empty, save for three boxes of saltwater taffy that slid from one end of the case to the other in tempo with the waves. On the walls were posters of yachts and schooners, each yellowed with age, as well as a cork bulletin board speckled with bits of paper pinned under staples from signs that had been pulled loose. A handful of flyers remained. Some advertised half-priced fishing trips for Labor Day weekend. Others pitched holiday bicycle rentals, fresh corn, and strawberries. Another read, Dinghy for sale. Will take best offer. Vestiges of the bygone summer, the month-old signs were already obsolete.

Next to the bulletin board was a large map of the Outer Banks, framed and bolted to the wall with a protective sheet of plastic over the top. The dull sheen of smudged fingerprints gave the map a hazy glow. Hovering beneath the surface of the plastic was a string of barrier islands that fringed the coast, each dotted with towns that had names like Nag’s Head, Whalebone, Frisco, and Ocracoke. The name Chapel Isle stood apart among them, its tenor starched, ringing primly in the ear. The reference to religion made it less adventuresome in comparison to the rest. That suited Abigail fine.

Beyond Chapel Isle’s eastern shore was a dashed outline, Ship’s Graveyard, written inside. An inscription hung below. Abigail couldn’t make it out. The plastic covering the map had been rubbed thin there, touched by so many hands that the words blurred. She wiped at the spot with her sleeve and picked at it with her nail. The plastic wouldn’t clear.

“I was worried you fell overboard,” Denny said, surprising Abigail again.

“I needed a break from that wind.”

He cringed. “If you think this is windy, you might not want to stay on the island after all.”

Abigail thought she’d passed the first test. She wasn’t prepared for another.

“What does this say?” she asked, tapping the obscured inscription on the map.

“Says, Not at rest, but at peace. The men who died in the Ship’s Graveyard, who went down with their ships, they never got a proper burial. Never got to be put to rest, so to speak. Means they’re at peace because they died at sea. The place they loved.”

The explanation sent Abigail sinking into her memory. She struggled to stay in the present. Denny was oblivious. His gaze had slid down her body to her hands. He was checking to see if she wore a wedding ring. It dawned on Abigail that he was trying to impress her, that he found her attractive. She automatically tucked her left hand behind her hip.

“That’s, uh, how Chapel Isle got its name,” he continued, clearing his throat. “Since there weren’t bodies to bury, the families would go and stand on the beach dressed in their black clothes and have the funerals right there in the sand. Wouldn’t be no coffins. A preacher would just say the prayers. More proper, I s’pose.”

Abigail could tell that her strange demeanor was starting to make Denny uncomfortable. Since the fire, she would sometimes slip into a sort of fugue, rendering her the opposite of a ghost, a body momentarily devoid of soul. That unnerved people. She couldn’t help it.

“Chop’s kicking a bit. Isn’t much further ’til home.” Denny shifted on his heels self-consciously. “I should get back to work.”

“Okay,” Abigail said, eventually recovering. “I wouldn’t want to keep you.”

“Okay,” he echoed, then turned to go.


“Yeah?” He spun around eagerly.

“Thanks for telling me about the map.”

He held in a smile. “It was nothing.”

The door swung closed behind him, wafting the briny odor of the ocean through the room. The smell summoned Abigail’s childhood memories of summer weekends spent with her family on the shores of Massachusetts—picnics at the beach, pails full of shells, the sticky feel of the salt water as it dried on her skin. The scent had always been synonymous with happiness. That was one of the reasons she’d come to Chapel Isle. To see if it still was.

Meet the Author

Ellen Block is the author (as Brett Ellen Block) of The Grave of God’s Daughter and the Macavity Award-nominated novel, The Lighting Rule. She lives in Los Angeles.

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