Let me begin by saying that this is not meant to be a book review. Or if it appears to be, it is quite unintentional. Few dispute that summertime is about reading, at least for a certain class of people not inclined to more rigorous activities such as white-water rafting or rock climbing. Reading in summer is a kind of deep breathing accorded to some in the brief moments of leisure they have when the world is at its most verdant and vibrant.
The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson, is one of those deep-breath reads that is most suitable to the season. It was first published in 1972 in Swedish, and then translated into English in 1974. My copy is a slim volume with a lovely image of a remote island in summer in the Gulf of Finland, where the book's "story," if it could be called that, takes place.
Six-year-old Sophia, who has lost her mother, is spending time with her elderly artist grandmother and her father at their summer cottage on the island. The young girl and the old woman have their share of adventures on the tiny outcropping of rocks, trees and sea that make up their remote summer locale, with the spirited vigour and depth that only the best literature can convey. I read this book with intense pleasure. So intense, in fact, that I am writing about it. And perhaps that is what the best books do: make you want to tell others about them.
Part of my pleasure derives from the fact the book is set in Finland, where the summers are short and where enjoyment of the season is enhanced by a sense of its fleeting brevity. In a northern clime, too, the gains made in summer by the flora are transitory and delicate, easy to miss if not for the sense, cultivated by some, that the summer is all one has as a bulwark against the darkness and cold that is winter.
Finland, in short, is much like my corner of the eastern Prairies, where spring is abrupt and summer almost as sudden. Living as close as I do to Lake Winnipeg, and not far from the lake country of northern Ontario, where cottage life is the summer norm for many middle-class families, the story of The Summer Book rings especially true to me. There is the ferment of activity before the travel to the summer place and then the dog days of idle leisure spent there. There are boats and swimming, beachcombing and blueberry picking.
Author Tove Jansson built the cottage where The Summer Book takes place in 1947, with her brother Lars. She spent nearly every summer of her life there until she removed herself to an even smaller island not far away, where she summered five months of the year until she was 77. In the recently re-released British edition of the book, the introduction is by Esther Freud, who notes that in her visit to the island, it took her all of four-and-a-half minutes to circumnavigate the entire space covered in the book.
But, of course, such a tour could only be superficial compared to the depth of the world created by Jansson's intensely keen and sensitive eye, honed by years of familiarity with one season in one place. And too, her characters - an old woman and a young girl - are exactly the right kind of people to know a place in both its wonder and frailty.
The Summer Book has never been out of print in Scandinavia. It is one of that country's modern classics. If I had a cottage, it would be a permanent fixture there. It's the kind of book one can read over and over again, like the best kind of children's books. Jansson, of course, was initially a children's writer famous for her Moomin series. In fact, it was because I mentioned Jansson's children's books that a friend suggested I read The Summer Book in the first place. She had loved the book; it was one of her favourites, but she had trouble keeping her copy as she was always giving it away.
Initially, I had trouble acquiring a copy myself; at the time I heard about it, the book was out of print in North America. I tried ordering it on-line through AbeBooks, but that failed. Luckily, however, a small British imprint called Sort of books had just reissued it, and I was able to order it from my local bookstore. The book has subsequently experienced a bit of a renaissance, and is slowly making its way back into the reading consciousness of North Americans - which is appropriate, I feel, especially for Canadians.
This book made me really reflect on what summer means for a northern people like us. The shortness of the season, the frailty of the life it supports, the stoic, bracing equanimity that is at the heart of the characters' approach to the place is captivating and compelling.
"When are you going to die?" asks the six-year-old Sophie of her grandmother. "Soon, but that is no concern of yours," snaps the grandmother as she and Sophie search for her false teeth in the undergrowth by their cottage on a warm July morning. The opening is an intimate summer scene, all right, played out before the eye in a book that answers beautifully the perennial question: What are you reading this summer?
Sally Ito lives in Winnipeg and writes for the online children's literature website and blog PaperTigers, http://www.papertigers.org.
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