Alice Hoffman’s short story collection Local Girls contains coming-of-age tales focused on protagonist Gretel Samuelson, as well as the affect divorce and tragedy have on her family. In “Still Among the Living,” the summer after her freshman year at New York University, Gretel visits her older cousin Margot in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Despite the 90° F temperature, Gretel disembarks the plane wearing the black wool dress she had worn to mother’s funeral. Both Gretel and Margot are mourning Gretel’s mother’s death, but don’t talk about her. The scene on page 178—where Gretel dives into a pool while wearing the dress before finally cutting it off after exiting the pool—is significant because it illustrates a turning point in her coming to terms with her mother’s death.
Early in the story after a shopping trip, Gretel rejects the bikini Margot bought her to go swimming. When they arrive back at Margot’s house, Gretel keeps the black wool dress on but cuts out the neck of her dress with a pair of scissors “in deference to the weather.” (171) Later, Margot—who is infertile and desperate for a child—gives a healer her diamond ring in exchange for a recipe for conception. Gretel wonders if that healer could have helped save her mother. Despite Margot’s insistence that the family had tried everything, Gretel questions that maybe they didn’t do enough. When she says that, her black dress feels “like a nest of hornets on her back” (174). The dress is a prickly reminder of her mother’s suffering and the niggling feeling that it could have been prevented.
The conception recipe directs Margot to eat an avocado with spices from the healer and have sex two times with Margot's husband, once in the moonlight and once in the dark. In order to escape hearing Margot and husband having noisy sex, Gretel puts on the black wool dress and goes outside. Despite dangling her legs in the pool, she still feels unrelieved. In fact, the black wool dress is scratchy and “driving her mad” as if it had fleas. Margot’s attempt at becoming a mother reminds readers—and probably Gretel—of Gretel’s mother; the black dress, which links Gretel to her mother, is at its most uncomfortable at this moment. Instead of ripping it off, she surprises herself and dives in pool with it still on. Yet once Gretel is underwater, she feels a whole new world of peace, relief, cleansing, and even pleasure. She swims in the dress for what may be hours before returning to house. By then, the black woolen dress has shrunk so tight that Gretel can’t take it off; instead, she cuts if off with a pair of manicuring scissors.
This scene is significant because it represents a step Gretel has taken in coming to terms with her mother’s death. Although still sad, she seems to feel relief; she may no longer have the nagging feeling that something could have been done to prevent or treat her mother’s metastatic cancer. The cutting off and removal of the dress symbolizes her active move toward freedom from the guilt of her mother’s death.