If only she were a little bigger, Grandmother thought. Preferably a good deal bigger, so I could tell her I understand how awful it is. Here you come, headlong, into a tight little group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own, and understand, and every threat to what they’re used to only makes them more compact and self-assured. An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure, and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if they world ended at the horizon. Grandmother thought about the potatoes, and Berenice. She gazed out over the lee shore to the waves that swept around the island on both sides and then rejoined and moved on toward the mainland – a long blue landscape of vanishing waves that left only a small wedge of quiet water behind them. A fishing boat with a big white mustache was sailing across the bay. (pgs. 26-27)
The Summer Book is by Swedish author Tove Jansson who is better known for The Moomin books for children. I hesitate to call The Summer Book a novel, nor is it a book of short stories. Instead it is a series of descriptions or vignettes of a summer on a Swedish island, the summer of nine year old Sophia, her elderly Grandmother, and to a smaller extent, Sophia’s Papa. The book is centered on the relationship between Sophia and her Grandmother as they each navigate an enormous change in their circumstances – Sophia is learning to negotiate life without her mother who has died and Grandmother is facing life as an elderly woman unable to do the things she used to do.
The language is so evocative of summer, being so comfortable with “outside” that it becomes a very part of you. While reading I remembered summers of my own – wandering the neighborhood with my friends, playing in the park, sitting in a tree lazily watching life go by. You feel you are on the island experiencing the same summer as Sophia and Grandmother.
Sophia asked her grandmother what Heaven looked like, and Grandmother said it might be like the pasture they were just then walking by on their way to the village. They stopped to look. It was very hot, the road was white and cracked, and all the plants along the ditch had dust on their leaves. They walked into the pasture and sat down in the grass, which was tall and not a bit dusty. It was full of bluebells and cat’s-foot and buttercups…Some kind of farm machinery was running steadily and peacefully in the distance. If you turned it off – which was easy to do – and listened only to the insects, you could hear thousands of millions of them, and they filled the whole world with rising and falling waves of ecstasy and summers.
In reading this book, I can see why Jansson is successful as a writer for children. She has an understanding of children that is rare – she treats Sophia as a real person, not just some precocious young thing and this shows in the deep relationship Jansson describes between Sophia and Grandmother. While the death of Sophia’s mother is only briefly mentioned, it runs as an undercurrent throughout the book and Grandmother respects her loss and doesn’t baby Sophia – rather she gives Sophia choices. She is loving without being smothering and without losing her own uniqueness as she deals with her loss of mobility and memory. Grandmother also has her cranky moments which help round out the picture of Grandmother as a real person. Jansson based the book on her own mother and her niece and the reader has a strong sense of the two as actual people.
The Summer Book has little plot – Sophia and Grandmother build miniature cities, go for walks, sail to other islands – simple summer activities. The beauty of the book is in how true the relationship between Sophia and Grandmother reads and the language which leads the reader to reflect not only on their own summers but their own grandmothers as well. My own grandmother was an amazing woman – feisty, opinionated, a cheater at scrabble. She supported her family by writing – not an easy feat for a woman of her era and had a tremendous crush on JR Ewing of the TV show Dallas because “he lies so well.” She loved that I was a reader letting me have access to her amazing collection of books, giving me books, and even letting me go with her to her PEN meetings when we visited her.
I really enjoyed The Summer Book and an added bonus is all the memories it brings up in the reader.