I had high hopes that Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal) would melt the snow around my house and cause the flowers to bloom, or at the very least make me imagine I felt warm. But I read it during the coldest week of the year and when one is waiting for the train in -15F (-26C) with windchill making it feel like -30F (-34C), well, it’s probably asking a bit much from a book to give the illusion of warmth. Even though I was not warmed, I still enjoyed the book very much.
The book takes place in summer on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. On the island during the summer lives a young girl, Sophia, her father and her grandmother. When the book begins, Sophia’s mother has recently died. According to the introduction, Sophia is six. Each chapter is a slice of life, a day, maybe two, sometimes only an afternoon. There is no sense of time passing and I get the feeling that even though it seems like it is only one summer, the stories take place across many summers but with no chronology except that this happened “one May” or “in July.” This gives the book a sort of timelessness and recalled to me when I was a kid and school was out for the summer how it seemed like it was going to last forever.
Sophia’s father is pretty much a non-presence in the book. All he does is sit at a table and work. Sometimes he fishes. The book really belongs to Sophia and Grandmother, a young girl and an old woman with heart problems. Of the two, however, Grandmother was the star, at least she was for me. Playing, reading, napping, teaching Sophia about life, Grandmother took almost everything in stride.
There were two chapters of the book that I really loved. The first is the chapter called “The Tent.” We learn that Grandmother was a Scout leader in her youth and thanks to her, girls were allowed to become Scouts and go camping and sleep in tents. They’ve set up a tent not far from the house so Sophia can sleep in one for the first time. Sophia naturally wants to know what being a Scout leader was like and Grandmother only gives her short, non-descriptive answers and thinks:
That’s strange, Grandmother thought. I can’t describe things any more. I can’t find the words, or maybe it’s just that I’m not trying hard enough. It was such a long time ago. No one here was even born. And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost.
Sophia sleeps alone in the tent but gets scared and keeps bothering Grandmother who gets upset. But we find out Grandmother is upset not about Sophia but because she can no longer remember what it is like to sleep in a tent and feels “everything’s gliding away.” Poor Grandmother, just as Sophia is having new experiences the memory of her own is disappearing.
The other chapter I loved is “The Visitor.” The visitor is Verner, an elderly man who would occasionally stop by and bring a bottle of sherry. The chapter is essentially about how when people get old their families start treating them like children, telling them what to do instead of asking. Neither Verner nor Grandmother are happy about this and they encourage each other to not give in or give up outwitting people.
There are so many more delightful moments in this book. It seems like an easy, peaceful read but scratch the surface and there suddenly is more going on than meets the eye.