The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

On the shores of Scotland is a sea house where two tales unravel. Ruth, who is renovating the house, and hiding from her past and found another: mermaid bones buried beneath the floorboards. Ruth’s mother drowned when her daughter was very young, leaving her orphaned. In an attempt to find a piece of her family history, and perhaps an answer to the loss of her mother, Ruth moves back to Scotland, the place her mother was from yet had never told her daughter any details about, only more selkie legends. Over a hundred years before her,  the Reverend Alexander Ferguson inhabited the house. A man obsessed with local tales of mermaids and selkies, he was part of a great tragedy the residents still remember. His assistant, a native named Miriam, taught him her family’s legends while he searched for the answer to the question, “Do selkies really exist?”

Similar Book Recommendations:

The Seduction of Water by Carol Goodman begins with a woman telling the story her mother told, about a Selkie woman who became a man’s wife and weaved a green glass net of tears in her daughter’s hair. Her mother, a writer famous for her selkie legend, has passed on, but her daughter still believes the net of tears exists, and is searching for it, as well as answers about the eccentric mother she hardly knew, and how the past formulated whom she became.

The Lake House by Kate Morton takes place in two time periods, where a tragedy involving a child took place and a detective on leave brings up the cold case to try to solve the mystery.

The Changeling Sea and The Bell at Sealey Head are fantasy novels by Patricia McKillip about the sea and its power to tie past and present together in a web of mystery.

The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith is a tale about a father who was once a sailor, looking for hope on board a ship again, after losing his wife and child.

The Reverend Ferguson told Moira that “the fiction of Austen can be very amusing.” Some of her most popular books are Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Northanger Abbey.

Themed Recipe:

Ruth was carrying and eating from a bag of cherries on her last outing with her mother, just before she died. Moira often made Brose (oatmeal with cream) in the morning for the Reverend’s breakfast, and Ruth’s neighbor brought her milk and cream in his old whisky bottles. To combine these main ingredients, I created Cherry Oat (Brose) Cupcakes with Cherry Jam Whiskey Frosting and a cherry jam center.

 

Cherries and Brose Cupcakes

  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) salted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cups oats pureed to a flour consistency
  • 1 cup AP flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 5-6 heaping tsp thick cherry preserves, about ½ cup
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 1 tbsp heavy whipping cream

Frosting:

  • 2 sticks (1 cup) salted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tbsp heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp whiskey
  • ½ cup cherry preserves

Instructions:

Make oat flour by grinding oats in a food processor until it reaches a flour-type consistency. Combine in a small bowl with AP flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside. Combine one stick of butter in the bowl of a stand mixer, using a paddle attachment, on medium low speed with the brown and white sugars. Mix until fully combined and they all create a sort of combined dough. Then add the eggs, one at a time, along with one tbsp of heavy whipping cream, and one tsp of vanilla. Once those are all fully incorporated, drop the speed to low and add the flour mixture in small amounts, about ⅓ or ¼ at a time. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides with a spatula, if needed. When all those ingredients are combined, add the cherry preserves and mix on medium speed for about a minute, a tablespoonful at a time. You want to create chunks of cherry distributed throughout the batter. Also, I would recommend getting your cherry preserves from a local food market, rather than a supermarket. Mass produced preserves will be too sweet, and you will need to cut back on the brown sugar by about half. Or you can purchase no sugar added preserves if there is no local market available. Raw cherries could also be substituted, if they are in season, just be sure to dice them into small chunks. When the cherries are spread throughout the batter, reduce the speed to medium low and add the heavy whipping cream, and mix for only as long as necessary to evenly distribute it throughout the batter. You don’t want to overmix it, but adding the heavy cream at the end makes the flavor stand out better and taste more like brose with cream.

To make the frosting, cream together 2 sticks of butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer with a whisk attachment on medium speed, until light and fluffy. Once fully mixed, drop the speed to low and add one cup of powdered sugar. When that is incorporated, add the tbsp plus tsp of whiskey, tbsp of heavy whipping cream, and the tsp of vanilla extract. Then add the last two cups of powdered sugar slowly, in thirds, waiting until one part is fully mixed in before adding the others. When all are fully combined add the ½ cup of preserves on low speed just until fully incorporated. Do not overmix or your frosting will be runny. Pipe onto cupcakes that have been cooled about 10-15 minutes.

Discussion Questions

  1.     Ruth describes the lizards she is cataloguing as “sleek little bundles of self-preservation.” Why does she compare herself to them multiple times, saying she has a lizard-brain? Why would be some of the advantages of being in the present and turning in a moment to fight-or-flight, as opposed to living in the future, as most of us do, and potentially worrying too much?
  2.     The children’s home was a hard place for Ruth to live in, but, then, she admitted, “if I hadn’t hated the children’s home so completely, I would never have spent so much time hanging out at the local library.” Why was it good that Ruth found the library and, especially, the reference section? Was there a place you ever escaped to as a teenager, and if so, what made it special? Do you have a favorite library section?
  3.     Dougal, the current minister, offered to do a house blessing when Ruth and Michael were moving into the sea house. “When people move into a new house, I often come over and pray in each room to bless it. A fresh start.” Why would he do this, and why would people want him to? Would praying over a house really dispel bad energy? Are there other ways as well? Would Ruth probably have had fewer issues in the house at night had he blessed it? Do you think she might have found out about the bones under the house sooner? Have you ever experienced any “presence” in a house, and was anything done about it?
  4.     When walking to the Northton village, “across the fertile grasslands between the hill slopes and the sand dunes, only ruined walls remained…” the Reverend “felt a lingering nostalgia in the midst of such beautiful emptiness, for the history of a people now gone from that place.” Do you think he felt this way because he was an imaginative person (believing in mermaids and selkies) or a historian (who loved research and history), or is it just that some places feel like they have a lot of history, and the Reverend couldn’t help but be swept up by it? Are there any places you’ve been that made you feel this way? Does there have to be a personal connection to a place, or do some places call to us for unknown reasons? Why did the sea house call to Ruth?
  5.     The Reverend Ferguson told Moira that “the fiction of Austen can be very amusing.” Some of her most popular books are Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Northanger Abbey. Which do you think Moira would have enjoyed most? Do you think she might have liked the Bronte sisters’ works as well?
  6.     In the selkie legend that the Reverend’s grandmother told him, Ishbel “acquired” a Selkie man by taking his skin so he couldn’t go back to being a seal. Yet when he grew strong enough o walk, he “made straight for the shore and sat down near the hissing surf. Ishbel wondered that he could be friends with something that had all but killed him a few weeks before.” Why is that, that he still so loved the sea that nearly drowned him in a storm? Why are sailors, surfers, and so many who love the ocean, still that way, even after it tries to harm or even kill them? What is it that so many people love about the ocean?
  7.     Many times, Ruth had to tell people that her mom drowned when she was a child. Often there response was that it must have been hard for her. She often shrugged “It was always tiring, explaining to people. Me ending up having to reassure them that I’m fine, really. Don’t worry about it.” Why did people react that way, in need of assurance? Why was that so exhausting for Ruth? How did her mother’s death really make her feel, and was she avoiding it? How do other people talk about or bring up the loss of a loved one? Are there any non-awkward things a person can say that might have made it easier for Ruth?
  8.     “Angus John’s habit of walking in without knocking was our introduction to how you socialized in the islands. It turned out that it was quite in order to wander into someone’s  house and sit there in companionable silence while the host got on with whatever they were doing.” And that “the host…should be…preparing a snack.” How is this different from the culture and customs Ruth was used to? Could this have created any7 awkward situations for an unknowing newcomer like Ruth? Why would it be polite for the homeowner to provide a snack? What did the visitor bring in return? Are there any American Southern customs similar to this? What about in the rest of the world? Why would this be very dangerous in some areas of the world, but not as much in others, like where they were?
  9.     Why did Ruth, who was English, have such a hard time relating to the ways of Leaf, who was Californian? Was it just culture, or were there other things that separated them, including the way they were raised and what they were taught or learned about the world? Leaf offered to be a listening ear to Ruth, and Ruth had to remind herself, “that’s what friends do, they share their secrets. They give a little bit of themselves away. But I felt like I was standing to near the edge of a long drop, dizzy with vertigo.” Why did talking about personal things make Ruth feel this way? Was she even closed off a bit to Michael, arguably her closest friend?
  10.   Angus John was what some people would consider superstitious. And told interesting stories to Ruth and Leaf. For example, “have you noticed how ordinary things around your own house can be haunted, how they can disappear and reappear again where they shouldn’t be…a lot of quarrels have been started by the spirits that settle in everyday objects…the spirits of quarrels that are not laid to rest for years.”Why did he believe in such things? What was the item and what was the quarrel he was referring to? Why did people on the island believe and tell such tales? Why was Ruth and why are we fascinated by such things now, even if we don’t believe?
  11.   Angus John also told the girls the solution to the quarrel between the sisters: “that’s what you have to do to send a haunting spirit back to the day it came from; you just call things by their true name. That is the easy part… the other part is harder-naming the spirit that was placed onto [the object].” Why is it hard to name the spirit, or to figure out what spirit it is that is causing the issue? How is this akin to advice often given in modern counseling, to name what it is that ails us in order to overcome it or rid ourselves of it? Is there truly then a set of “spirits,” of, for example, greed, jealousy, fear, etc, and were these old tales actually veiled wisdom? Is this like any other tales or parables told by different cultures or writers?
  12.   Reverend Alexander’s friend Fanny “lost the child she was carrying, but there were complications…she will never be a mother. She accepts this, although it has broken her heart.” Even though financially she is in a similar situation as Ruth, and also has a supportive husband, why is Ruth not excited that she can bear a child? Why do some women take this gift for granted, or see it as a burden? Why do others realize the gift that it is? Why can’t some women who want them bear children, and others who don’t want them, can? Is there a solution, such as fostering or adoption, which would solve the issue for both types?
  13.   A man working at a museum criticized Reverend Ferguson or believing in mermaids, Creation, and God, after reading Darwin. But he rebutted with the accounts of Creation “are truthful, but in the way that one sometimes requires a story to reveal to us the truth we cannot see; to answer where we come from, and thus know who we truly are.” How do these things reveal truth to the reverend? To Ruth? To us? What truths did you discover in this book?
  14.   Ruth awoke one night and saw “her; I saw that solitary child, waiting, always waiting, in the hallway of a stranger’s house.” Who was the child, and why did she follow Ruth? Did Ruth ever rid herself of the girl, or will she always be with her, in a way? Why does this happen to some people, psychologically?
  15.   Reverend Alexander Ferguson could be defined as a man who was guilty of “too much pruning and not enough feeding…a broken man, yes, but it is only as broken men that we are ready to come to truth and grace, to walk beyond ourselves where faith begins.” Why? What broke him? Is there often only one breaking in a person’s lifetime, or many, often in different levels? What are some you can think of that person might experience, or that Ruth experienced?

16.   Ruth bitterly observed a child’s headstone which read “a child known to God,” and that if God “knew about that child, he might at least have taken better care of it.” How, could it be argued, that maybe he did, and perhaps she was jealous, and felt she hadn’t been taken better care of how? How had she been taken care of though, and how would a perspective change have enabled her to see that? How did that happen for the Reverend? Is that why Leaf was so easygoing and happy most of the time, because she was willing to look at the ways in which she’d been taken care of in life, or “blessed”? How could this perspective, and the advice from the previous question, make Ruth’s, and our lives and perspectives on life better?