Friday, July 20, 2012

The Summer Book

There are some books that I can't keep. I buy one of them, reread it and then think of someone else who needs to read it too. A year or so later, I buy it again. The English Patient is one of those books, so is Happy All the Time. And then there's Tove Jansson's The Summer Book.

It's such a deceptive little book, beginning with its light and sparkling title. Written by the author of the children's series, The Moomintrolls, these stories about a little girl and her grandmother on an island off the coast of Sweden promise a charming, nostalgic look at childhood and the wisdom of age, something to pick up, enjoy, and forget. So wrong, so very, very wrong.

I can't count how many times I've read this book and each time I find a part of it that I would swear I've never read before. Each time, a new chapter hits me with particular force and overshadows the rest. This time around, it's the one about Midsummer's Eve.

Only people who live in the north understand what midsummer means. It's a day that taps into our deepest fears and our strongest hopes; it goes beyond the rational into the most primitive form of magic. We're never closer to our troglodyte origins than on the longest day of the year, when darkness makes a courtesy appearance, if it comes at all, and then steadily increases each day after until that is all there is.It's a day of celebration and loss, with a healthy dose of fear tossed into the mix. It's the true New Year's Eve, but only for northerners. For everybody else it's Titania and Oberon frolicking in an English wood.

For Tove Jansson's small girl Sophia, it begins with Eriksson, a silent fisherman who comes only when unexpected, bringing a gift. He shows up with a box of fireworks and the promise, "I'll drop by on Midsummer's Eve, if that's all right, and we'll see how they work."

In preparation, the house is filled with green branches and wildflowers, a site for a bonfire is set up, a launching pad is built for the fireworks, and a supper table is set for four. Sophia's father finds a can of gasoline because a strong wind blows in from the north, carrying rain, and "it was a disgrace for a Midsummer bonfire not to burn."

But Eriksson comes in  the rain, after dark; "quite dark, since no lamps can be lit on Midsummer." He rushes Sophia, her father, and the grandmother onto his boat and out to sea. Only a few bonfires cut through the rain and fog but the water is full of boats all going in the same direction, coming "out of the darkness, like shadows. Wooden crates with a heavy load of lovely, rounded bottles were bobbing on the gray sea" and the boats scoop them up, "ignoring each other...The salvage went on, like a neatly balanced dance...the Coast Guard turning a blind eye...Grandmother watched it, and appreciated and remembered." 

"By dawn the sea was empty." Eriksson drops the family off at their house and leaves. Only one rocket in the box of rain-soaked fireworks goes off; it "sailed up toward the sunrise in a shower of blue stars."

Lawlessness and magic and "the rising and falling sea"--this was my childhood as much as it was Tove Jansson's. This time, this is the gift I found in The Summer Book; I "watched it, and appreciated and remembered" and was pierced by that missing comma. I'll keep reading but this time, here is where my heart stopped. In the next reading, it will be someplace else that I'll discover for the very first time, perhaps in this copy, perhaps in a completely new volume while this one rests on somebody else's bookshelf.


Amanda said...

me me me!!! now Iìm going to have to go out and get a copy. Thanks as always xxxx

shaved monkey said...

I'm sorry, what was in the bottles? How did they get out at sea? Why must the authorities turn a blind eye? I'm missing something here.

Janet Brown said...

You will love it. Amanda--wish I could send you mine.

Janet Brown said...

Steve, the wonder of this is she doesn't give much away. But if you grew up on a coast, you know what's found in the water is fair game--wreckers were a commonplace in England at one time, holding lanterns in a storm to lure ships onto the rocks.
Jansson doesn't give much more than I have here--as I said, I've read this many times and this is the first time this chapter has leaped out at me. You need to find this book for yourself and see what captures you. (As the father of a daughter, you're going to find something!)

Kim said...

This is so lovely. I haven't read The Summer Book in years, and now I'm going to buy 2 copies - one for me and one for my mom!!

janet brown said...

Thank you, Kim. The marvelous thing about rereading it now is the NYRB edition includes Jansson's original illustrations.