It took me some time to settle into The Summer Book and accept that it isn’t a children’s book. At first I thought that was just because I knew that the author, Tove Jansson, was also the author of the famous Moomins children’s series. But as I read, I realized that I was also reacting to the way the book was written. The writing uses simple words and sentence structures and the whole book is very episodic, with each chapter being its own story and not much of an over-arching plot, both of which are features consistent with children’s books. Furthermore, it is a story about a child and her grandmother and other than possibly a few swear words, there’s nothing in the content that wouldn’t be appropriate for everyone. But it isn’t a children’s book. Or maybe it is a children’s book written for adults.
I think that ought to be a genre.
Once I got used to the style, I very much enjoyed the book. Sophia and Grandmother (whose own name is never mentioned) spend summers on a remote island off the coast of Finland. Other than the occasional visitor and Sophia’s father (who always remains in the background), they have the island to themselves. They explore, always taking care not to destroy the moss by stepping on it, and visit nearby islands. The Summer Book could easily have been simply cozy nostalgia for childhood summers and I probably would have still very much enjoyed it if it had been. Instead it has much more bite to it, which is what unsettled me at first, but probably ultimately makes it a better book.
Sophia was a bit annoying sometimes, but Grandmother definitely goes on my list of favorite characters (not that I have an actual list). I love the fact that she knows how to play. She doesn’t just play along to entertain Sophia, she plays for herself too. And she’s just just a wonderful mix of stubborn and loving, full of both wisdom and inconsistency. In one chapter she may be staying up all night to remake a piece of the miniature version of Venice they built, so that Sophia won’t be saddened by realizing that the original was swept away in a storm, but in the previous chapter she was arguing fervently with Sophia that there is no such thing as hell or the devil, refusing to cede her point no matter how much it upsets Sophia:
“[God] would never do anything so dumb as make a Hell”
“Of course He did!”
“No He didn’t!”
“Yes He did! A big enormous Hell!” …Sophia shouted. “And what are you going to do about the Devil, then? He lives in Hell!”
For a moment Grandmother considered saying that there was no Devil either, but she didn’t want to be mean.
Unsurprisingly, the natural world forms an important part of The Summer Book and is probably the aspect which is most distinctively Finnish. One chapter is essentially a painfully well-done description of why it’s better to plant native plants. Then there’s the moss everywhere and sedges and bogs and migrating birds. And the beautiful but treacherous ocean. Being Finland, it is sleeting in May when they arrive at the island. When the summer is coming to an end, it’s not so much that the nights are getting longer, but that they are getting darker. You can see the stars again and if you get up in the middle of the night you’ll need a flashlight.
Another theme in The Summer Book was the importance of not over-protecting children and letting them go have adventures even if there is some risk involved. That was definitely my own parents’ philosophy and one that I endorse, at least in theory. In practice as a grown-up now, I find that it’s hard and scary to do that. (Particularly perhaps since they aren’t my kids.) I’ve come to appreciate and be impressed by how my parents are able to do it. So I found I really related to a scene where Grandmother was terrified by something that Sophia was climbing. But she knew that she had to trust Sophia to be able to get herself down.
I read The Summer Book as part of Women in Translation month . It was translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal. Although Jansson was Finnish, her mother tongue was Swedish and that was the language she wrote in. In addition, this year also happens to be the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson’s birth (in fact the actual anniversary was last weekend) and I’ve been reading reviews of The Summer Book all summer. I think the first review I read, and the one that inspired me to read it was by Claire at Word by Word. Thanks Claire!
I’ve just discovered that Jansson drew illustrations for The Summer Book, but for some reason the edition I read (Random House, 1974) left out the illustrations! What a terrible decision on the part of the publisher! BiblioBoyfriend suggested that maybe they thought thought that having illustrations made the book seem too childish. I would say that if that is the case, they missed the point. I may have to track down another copy of the book, so that I can see the pictures. And maybe reread some of it at the same time.