Through a series of vignettes, Tove Jansson in The Summer Book (first published 1972) manages to create a magical summer on an island, a summer in which one young girl grows up a little and a grandmother comes to terms with her advancing age. Young Sophie has recently lost her mother, and that’s all we know about that. As she spends one seemingly magical summer in her family cabin with her grandmother and her father, she grows up, learns to cope, and finds peace in nature.
The friendship between grandchild and grandmother is the highlight of the book. Sophie is in between babyhood and childhood, while grandmother watches her play with wistfulness for her own childhood.
I loved Ms Jansson’s tone throughout the book. In my favorite scene near the beginning, “Moonlight,” Sophie wakes in the night and looks out the window and sees a different world:
The ice was black, and in the middle of the ice she saw the open stove door and the fire – in fact she saw two stove doors, very close together. In the second window, the two fires were burning underground, and through the third window she saw a double reflection of the whole room, trunks and chests and boxes with gaping lids. They were filled with moss and snow and dry grass, all of them open, with bottoms of coal-black shadow. She saw two children out on the rock, and there was a rowan tree growing right through them. The sky behind them was dark blue. (page 9)
I read this section over and over again. I loved how seeing a double reflection out the window became, to Sophie the child, a different world full of impossibilities. I love how Ms Jansson wrote it. A perfectly captured the scene.
Later, I got a little insight into grandmother’s thoughts about life when the tent. Sophie wants to know what Grandma thinks sleeping in a tent outside is like, and Grandma responds.
“I know I do everything. I’ve been doing everything for an awfully long time, and I’ve seen and lived as hard as I could, and it’s been unbelievable, I tell you, unbelievable. But now I have the feeling everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!” (page 85)
She’s frustrated at her lack of memory. Ms Jansson captures her frustration realistically and I loved the bit of resolution at the end of the chapter.
The Summer Book does not have a plot per se. It’s a character-based series of beautifully written vignettes. My overall impression of the book after I finished it was that growing up isn’t all it cracked up to be. We need to treasure the little things in life that give it magic. I look forward to revisiting The Summer Book in the future, because there are plenty more gems in its deceptively simple stories.
Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.