“I think I could have set it anywhere,” East Bay-based novelist Sierra Godfrey says of “A Very Typical Family,” out Tuesday. “But because I poured so much of myself into this novel, Santa Cruz needed to be the setting for home, and for bringing the family back together. Probably because of my past, it feels the most like home out of anywhere I’ve ever lived.”
When she visits Santa Cruz several times a year, Sierra Godfrey is neither a local nor a tourist. She is, in fact, a third thing, a category of people that we don’t often recognize.
She’s a Santa Cruz exile.
Godfrey, 47, is Santa Cruz born and raised. But at the tender age of 12, she moved — or, more precisely, she was moved — out of Santa Cruz when she and her mother took off for a new life in Greece back in the 1980s. Her father continued to live in the family home a few blocks off West Cliff Drive for a few years, until he sold the house and left too. By the age of 16, the Santa Cruz chapter of young Sierra’s life was over.
But psychologically and emotionally, she never fully left Santa Cruz. This week, Godfrey will release her debut novel, titled “A Very Typical Family” (Sourcebooks Landmark). The book’s title is an ironic comment on her subject which is, in fact, a very atypical family. But the backdrop of Santa Cruz as the book’s setting is central to the story’s theme.
“What I really wanted to do,” said the author by phone from her home in the East Bay city of El Cerrito, “is show my experience of things I remember most deeply as a kid. And that came out as sights and sounds and smells — you know, that kelp smell, the screams of the riders on the Giant Dipper that you can hear echoing. That’s just the background noise in Santa Cruz.”
The book is a kind of dark comedy centered on a woman living in Boston returning to her family home in Santa Cruz after the death of her mother. Years earlier, she had accidentally sent her two siblings to prison, and now she must reunite with her brother and sister to settle her mother’s estate, which includes a grand Victorian just blocks from West Cliff Drive, and to figure out the mystery of her brother’s unexplained disappearance.
It is essentially a story of sibling relationships, ironic given that Godfrey grew up as an only child: “It’s really about siblings, the hurt we cause in our family units, and ultimately about our concept of home.”
It’s clear that Godfrey considers “home” to be Santa Cruz, though she departed just on the cusp of adolescence. In fact, she recounts her life as a long journey getting back to Santa Cruz. From her teenage years in Greece, the family eventually returned to the U.S., settling on the East Coast. But she started her own family — a husband and two sons — in the Bay Area, an hour-plus drive from Santa Cruz, which affords her the chance to visit several times a year.
“Leaving at 12 really imprinted on me,” she said of coming to Santa Cruz today. “It’s like this sensory reaction I have. It always hits me right at the start of Highway 17 out of San Jose when I start seeing the Santa Cruz Mountains. It just feels like home.”
For anyone who was plucked from just about anywhere at age of 12, particularly if it’s to a place far away, there’s a temptation to romanticize that lost home. Santa Cruz may, in fact, have a stronger pull than most in that regard. From the hushed ambience of the redwoods, to the wonderland of the beaches, to the obvious excitement and attractions related to the Boardwalk, Santa Cruz may be a particularly poignant place for a child to leave behind.
In Godfrey’s case, her earliest memories were from the viewpoint of a stroller as a toddler as her mother walked and jogged on West Cliff. As a child and student at Natural Bridges Elementary School, she often visited the Westside beaches and tidepools. And, of course, there was always that magical fairyland known as the Beach Boardwalk.
Though “A Very Typical Family” is Godfrey’s first published novel, it is not her first manuscript. All previous efforts, it turns out, were also set in Santa Cruz.
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“I think I could have set it anywhere,” she said of her new book. “But because I poured so much of myself into this novel, Santa Cruz needed to be the setting for home, and for bringing the family back together. Probably because of my past, it feels the most like home out of anywhere I’ve ever lived.”
Though she visits often and says that her ultimate goal is to retire in Santa Cruz, Sierra Godfrey said she feels a part of the vast Santa Cruz diaspora, people who once called the city home, who maintain a deep emotional/spiritual connection to the place, but who also feel as though they’re on the outside looking in.
“I think that there’s a real feeling of an original Santa Cruz community that has lived there, that’s different and apart from people who just visit on the weekend. There’s certainly this change over time that’s happened where a lot of money has come into Santa Cruz,” she said. “It’s really expensive down there, you know. It’s really hard to buy a house — I mean, it’s hard anywhere in the Bay Area, but in Santa Cruz, it’s incredibly difficult to even buy a condo. It’s absurd. And so I think that for the people who have lived there for a very long time, like my parents bought their house in 1974 brand new, for like $30,000, it was insane. And I think that a lot of people still live there who bought years ago, or bought new, or whatever it is. There’s this feeling of home that maybe people don’t get when they’re just visitors.”
The new book’s protagonist inherits her mother’s invaluable Santa Cruz home, an opportunity Godfrey herself didn’t have. The housing dilemma in Santa Cruz undergirds much of “A Very Typical Family.” The book is, in part, about the three siblings’ claim on the house and how, if such a scenario existed in real life, even inheritors of a prime piece of real estate in Santa Cruz might not be able to occupy it because the cost of buying out their siblings could be too high.
In the meantime, Godfrey draws a sense of home and belonging from a place where she is technically only a visitor. Her husband and sons love to visit with her, but she often finds herself alone with her reveries. “A good hike out at Wilder Ranch is lovely,” she said. “Going to some of the smaller, less visited beaches on the Eastside is really lovely. Sitting on the beach, well past the harbor, and just watching the pelicans overhead in a horizontal line, that is my absolute nirvana. I can watch pelicans all day. You can look out at the water, and on clear days, you can just make out the hills in Monterey. Maybe you see an otter pop its head up, or even a sea lion. That is total contentment.”