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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God by Joe Coomer

November 1, 2002

Scribner, New York
1997 (pb)

Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God is quite a departure from the usual fare that is reviewed on this website. Yes, it does involve archaeology, but in a tangential albeit important way; and yes, there is mystery, but not in the usual whodunit style. At its heart, Beachcombing is a beautifully written, sensitive portrait of three women brought together by fate or whimsy, who first separately and then together, must face their individual demons.

Charlotte, the central protagonist and a field archaeologist by training, finds herself in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, running from the memory of her husband, killed in an auto wreck, and from her desperately grieving in-laws, and very possibly from her own loneliness, grief and even guilt. In searching for sanctuary, she is accepted as a renter aboard a motor yacht owned by Grace, an aging and widowed artist, who at times seems to have but a tenuous grip on reality, but whose art work is still the pride (and frustration) of Portsmouth. Charlotte’s roommate aboard the yacht is Chloe, an emotionally over-wrought and not terribly attractive teenager, who is doubly unfortunate by being pregnant with the child of one contemporary literature’s most vividly depicted losers—a physically and emotionally abusive creep with the maturity of an five-year old.

Charlotte takes on part-time employment on a local archaeological dig that soon unearths the mysterious burials of colonial period women—but they are buried outside the community’s cemetery—and there are additional anomalies about the burials that perplex the excavation crew. Meanwhile Grace begins what seems to be a free-fall into dementia, and Chloe approaches her child’s delivery with only Charlotte and Grace for support. Just when it seems there is more than enough tragedy and grief to be borne by these three women, who have now become loving if not always compatible friends, Charlotte’s in-laws appear on the scene, ready to take her to court for the murder of their son, her husband.

Author Joe Coomer then sends his three unlikely heroines off on a voyage of discovery that is at times very funny, sometimes almost heart-rending in its sadness, but always poignant and sensitive. Even had there been no archaeology sub-text, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God has been one of my favorite books since I first read it some three or four years ago. I’ve read again recently, and I suspect I will read again several more times in the future. For me, it was that kind of book!