Review

The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud

by Ben Sherwood

Yes America, there is a heaven. Just ask Charlie St. Cloud, an earthly saint who secretly helps the dead's transition through the "in between," which waits after life and into the great beyond --- the next world, heaven, nirvana, whatever you may call it.

As caretaker of Waterside Cemetery in the harbor village of Marblehead, Massachusetts, Charlie is the sandy blond, freckle-faced prince of a simple life in the safest of places. He tends the cemetery, plays catch with his younger brother Sam, enjoys quiet evenings at his forest-side cottage, watches the Sox and has his coffee each morning at the docks. The serenity is a thin blanket for Charlie's one big mistake, the accident that changed everything thirteen years ago.

Though he throws a mean curveball and likes a swim in the pond, Sam St. Cloud is dead. But Charlie sees and talks to him because Sam is just like Charlie's other cemetery acquaintances, the others in the "in between," a place where the newly departed and a few spiritual hangers-on await their time to pass onto the next astral plane. Charlie is their gentle yet unofficial guide in that confusing time a soul may experience when it has left its earthly shell.

The literary gatekeeper of world records, true love, miracles and hope, novelist Ben Sherwood (THE MAN WHO ATE THE 747) steps into the pastoral landscape of Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life to explore the tortured lives of those who cannot let go and those who blame themselves for life's misfortunes. He describes Charlie's knowledge of the cemetery's spirits: "Folks often showed up bewildered … Sometimes they didn't even comprehend that life was over and had to spend a few days figuring things out. Others knew right away what had brought them down and they screamed at God and the world from the moment they arrived. They were the ones who held on to friends and family as long as they could. And then there were the folks who had it the easiest of all, letting go quickly and moving on to the next realm."

A high school junior at the time, Charlie's wonderful life ended at the same moment as his little brother Sam's when the car they mischievously "borrowed" to go see a baseball game was struck by a drunk driver. But Charlie's time in the "in between" was brief as he was shocked back to life by fireman Florio Ferrente, a doomed character whose dedication and heroism brings to mind thoughts of New York and D.C., 2001. Charlie was saved to live with the guilt and pain of knowing that he should not have been driving that car and that they shouldn't have been on that bridge when fate knocked them out of this world. Over a decade of lost dreams and major sacrifices later, Charlie feels his sole duties in life are to advise the confused spirits that pass through Waterside and keep a sacred promise, a daily date for catch with his brother's innocent spirit.

A chance meeting with local sail maker Tess Carroll (and a most curious series of plot twists) sways Charlie with the power of the north wind. Transcendent in beauty and long on independence, Tess has a plan to sail around the world to prove her courage, to set a record, to remember the bold spirit of her recently deceased father and to find true love. Charlie finds that he must choose between the past --- living in the promise he made to his brother --- and the sparkling future he could have with Tess, a release, the gift of knowledge and freedom from the false Eden of the cemetery.

A modern day O. Henry, Sherwood conjures the timeless muse of John Lennon to deliver the strongest ecumenical message our country could embrace in this post-September 11th era, when many thousands are still hurting --- the dead speak to us in music, in the wind, like the moon, the stars and the sun, and we just have to listen and know that we are not alone. We all shine on.

Reviewed by Brandon M. Stickney on January 21, 2011

The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud
by Ben Sherwood

  • Publication Date: March 2, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam
  • ISBN-10: 0553802208
  • ISBN-13: 9780553802207