Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea
Morgan Callan Rogers
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It’s 1963. Twelveyearold Florine Gilham is enjoying an idyllic summer in her Maine village goofing off with her three best friends, baking bread with her grandmother, and swimming at the beach with her lively mom, Carlie, while her lobsterman father, Leeman, is busy making a living. Everything is as it should be until Carlie leaves for her annual weekend trip up the coast with her best friend, Patty. They have been gone two days when Patty calls to say that Carlie has gone missing.
As soon as they hear the news, Leeman launches a desperate search while Florine waits for news, both to no avail. Police conduct interviews and investigate suspects, the Coast Guard searches offshore, but nothing turns up. As summer passes into fall, and then winter, with no news or word from Carlie, it becomes obvious to Florine and her father that they must establish a new sense of normal. Lee takes up drinking to cope with his pain. Although the sincere support and offers of assistance from their neighbors help, it is clear that Florine and Leeman are the only ones who must learn to work through their loss and carry on.
Much to Florine’s chagrin, her father begins dating a former flame, Stella, and a relationship forms as she brings order back into Leeman’s life. But Florine resents this woman who has invaded her mother’s home and she lets everyone know it. Florine is so upset at this development that she moves in with her unflappable grandmother.
Even as she expresses her outrage, Florine is swept along with the turbulent decade that was the 1960s. She discovers rock n’ roll, experiments with drinking and sex and, with the support of her friends, tries to formulate plans for life beyond high school. Isolated by her grief, the strongwilled and fiercely independent Florine continually tries to learn the truth about her mother. Nothing can stop her from believing, hoping, and praying that Carlie is still out there, even as her limited memories slip away.
Told through Florine’s point of view in her wry, wisecracking dialect, Morgan Callan Rogers’s debut novel is anchored by a lovable protagonist. Lyrical descriptions of the Maine landscape, where every tide and every snowfall touches its villagers, lends a dramatic backdrop to her characters’ authentic struggles. Engaging and quietly powerful, Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is a beautiful, heartbreaking story about learning to live with loss.
Morgan Callan Rogers is a native Mainer who grew up in the shipbuilding city of Bath. She splits her time between coastal Maine and South Dakota. Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is her first novel.
Q. The voice in your debut novel is pitchperfect. Where did the character of Florine come from and how did you bring her to life?
She brought herself to life! I read a letter to the editor by a local woman outraged by the theft of one of her neighbor’s lawn ornaments. The letter writer wrote as she would speak, in a southern coastal, smalltown Maine dialect, and it was priceless. She spoke of what the lawn ornament had meant to her neighbors, how they missed it, and begged for its return. I decided to write a story from the point of view of the woman who had lost the ornament. Her name, Florine, came to me immediately. Her voice did, as well. I know these people. I grew up with them. Several of them began to speak through her voice, with her humor, and with her outlook. I was born with that voice in my head. I just started typing and she talked. And talked. And talked.
Q. In another author’s hands the story of a woman gone missing might have turned into a mystery novel. Did you always know what kind of book this would be, and did that change at all during the writing process?
I know that it drives some readers crazy that the mystery of Carlie’s disappearance is left unsolved. But think about people in real life who never know what happened to a loved one. How horrible and frustrating is that? I wanted to explore the issue of what it’s like to grow up, or live, one’s life when someone is missing. How does that affect growth in a child? How does a person move on without closure? That theme was my intent, and it never wavered.
Q. You’re a native Mainer, and from the descriptions in this book, it’s obvious that placeand knowing where one comes fromis important to you. Can you talk about your relationship to the region and how it informed this story?
It’s in my bones. My father’s family settled in Maine early. If you ask my Yankee father when, exactly, he will say that we were here, before the rocks. And I have a trace of Mi’kmaq Indian in me, so perhaps part of that is true. I’m an observer and I always have been one. Scents, sounds, color, all get absorbed. I was lucky enough to grow up during the summers in a cottage in a place not so different from The Point. Those summers formed my soul. I wandered and dreamed all the time. I hung out with a gang of siblings, cousins, and friends who became, and still remain, family. It was idyllic, in many ways. As I’m writing this from my desk in western South Dakota, I can hear the wind through the pines and smell the salt from the water. The Maine coast and woods have always filled me up and that love and innate knowledge of it spills onto the page through the eyes of a character who also knows it, inside and out.
Q. The wicked stepmother is a common trope, yet Stella is one of the most interesting characters in the book. What’s your secret for making a familiar storyline seem fresh?
I had my characters do the opposite of whatever would be clicheŽ. When I wanted Stella to yell at Florine, I muted her. It was about actionreaction. It was something I discovered during the middle of the writing process, and it changed the course of the book, considerably. Providing humanity to all of my characters gave them more options to ’explain’ themselves to the reader. Plus, Florine is an unreliable narrator, being so young and so wrapped in grief. It would have been unbelievable and wildly boring to make Stella a ’wicked stepmother’. I’ve read books where the figures were allmean, allscary, and I didn’t
want to go that route. It is much more interesting to me to figure out what makes them tick. Also, I was an actress for about twenty years. On stage, one is multidimensional, and it’s important to display those dimensions within the frame of their motivation to the nth degree. That may have informed my writing, as well as the dialogue and timing that go with that.
Q. Told through Florine’s perspective the narrative must be deliberatively limited to what a twelveyearold would understand. As the author, how do you find the balance between what she knows and what the reader knows?
Unless the reader is twelve, one can look back at what one thought and understand that one probably didn’t have all the information about life and experience at that age. But the information one does have at that age is fraught with intense belief and conviction. It is also a seminal time period, when old truths are discarded. Passion is forefront and wisdom hasn’t had a chance to show its compassionate face. It’s when one becomes aware of complexity of the world, one becomes aware of one’s body, and one is fighting both childhood and impending adulthood through a mask of confusion and hormones. Writing her at twelve was a mirror for what I remember about being twelve. As an older reader with the benefit of experience, one knows what she doesn’t know, yet.
Q. Writers often talk about how hard it is to make awful things happen to their characters. In this book, Florine is repeatedly faced with loss and conflict. Describe your emotional experience while writing this book.
I know many things knocked Florine down and she had to find a way to get back up again, but I had faith in her ability to do that. I thought about each one of the major traumas, a lot, during the writing of this book, and yes, they had to happen. I actually tried to soften one of the traumas by taking a different path, but it became obvious to me that that wasn’t going to work. I physically could not type it out. So I went back to what I had originally planned, and we went on, Florine and I. Some people, in real life, have big karmas - things just happen to them. Florine, during this time period in her life, had big karma for some reason. I still cry when I read certain parts, by the way.
Q. Florine’s grief over her mother never goes away but takes different forms as she grows up. Did any insights surprise you in the process of writing this novel?
Oh, many, many insights and surprises happened to me during the writing of this novel. The character of Daddy Leeman Gilham was a particular revelation. I was as surprised as Florine was to learn more about her father. He broke my heart! I was also privileged to be allowed to follow the course of Florine’s grief and note the things that kept her going minute interruptions, little bits of humor, the arc of anger, the passage of time and culture, her own feisty personality, the way that love is expressed in various ways that aren’t necessarily mushy, and the changes, yet timelessness to tides and seasons. This was a remarkable experience and I am grateful to have had it.
Q. What are you working on now?
Two novels, some essays, and a few short stories. I’m also learning to live in a new place that has names like Deadwood and the Badlands. But I will always be a Mainer. It is, as I said, in my bones.
- Shortly after her mother goes missing, Florine recalls meeting her grandparents six years earlier. Why is this memory important?
- Florine is not particularly welcoming to Stella when she starts dating her father. How does this relationship change Florine’s life, for better and worse?
- What does Florine know about her parents’ relationship? What might she be missing?
- The setting for this story is 1960s coastal Maine. How does Florine’s hometown weather the changes of that revolutionary decade? Which aspects of the era are important to the plot?
- Florine is twelve when her mother disappears, a transformative time for any child in any situation. How does the event shape who she becomes?
- Why does Florine throw her grandmother’s glass heart into the sea?
- There’s a strict divide at The Point between the summer visitors and the locals. Why does Florine cross this line and what happens to her?
- There are many things Florine doesn’t understand when her mother disappears. What changes over the course of the book, and what does she learn?
- Before she goes missing, Carlie calls Florine her “little criminal.” Do you think Florine sees herself that way?
- What do you think happened to Carlie?