Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the feature in which we give a wrinkled look at the books we loved as youth. Today, Lizzie Skurnick rereads Lois Lowry's tearjerker 'A Summer to Die', in which — spoiler alert! — the girl dies.
A note before we begin: A Summer to Die was not my Death book. My Death books (I had several; bear with me) were, excepting the pre-digested A Taste of Blackberries, Just Like Always (cancer ward, snotty blond, not to be confused with Just Like Sisters), Beat the Turtle Drum (horses, tree climbing, snotty sister), Bridge to Terabithia (running, bossy BFF, creek-swinging), and Jacob Have I Loved, in which the snotty sister, Caroline, doesn't actually die, though the dark-haired Louise wishes she would, often.
A Summer to Die is the story of two sisters: Meg; circumspect, awkward, and artistic; and Molly, confident and blonde, going so far as to make the cheerleading team (to the consternation of their English professor father). Which brings us to an important point about Death books: while survivalist narratives confine themselves to the nature of suffering tout seul, for someone to die in YA, you have to have two. Preferably a blonde- and brown-haired two, one lovely, haughty, and impatient with the other's caution; the other mousy, observant, and impatient with the other's confidence. (It occurs to me that I can just go ahead and tack on My Darling, My Hamburger here, as the important point is not for the blonde to die but for the blonde to suffer.)
Ah, yes! Spoiler alert! The blonde always dies. What we cannot achieve in life, we can in print. (Though in so doing the author often seems to forget that in killing off the casually superior compatriot, she propels her to an angelic realm wherein her beauty, once a terrestrial torment, is now not only also beatific but forever free of the ravages of age.)
Anyway. Meg and Molly (Meg is slightly younger) are recently removed to a lovely, rambling home in the country in order for their professor father to finish a book in peace. There, before tragedy strikes, Molly runs among the flowers, Meg masters photography, their mother quilts, their father writes, and Meg and Molly befriend Will, a kindly old widower next door, as well as his hippie tenants, Maria and Ben. In this temporary Eden, Meg putters in a darkroom with Will, walks in the snow, dances with her father and mother along to the radio, and, eventually, photographs the live birth of the child ("Happy") of said hippies. (Molly, during this whole part, is DYING, but more on that in a second.)
Which brings me to a third point — who knew I had so many points? — about Death novels: they tend to occur not in the mix of the larger, outside world but rather in leafy, close-knit environs, as if the assembled were only making a pit stop in the Elysian Fields to briefly acquaint the doomed member of their party with their future resting place before heading back to the land of the living.
Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Spring and Fall," in which the speaker informs another Margaret that what she thinks is sorrow over the falling of leaves is really only sorrow for herself ("Margaret, are you weeping/Over Goldengrove unleaving?"), is the philosophical and aesthetic spine of the narrative. But as Molly's leukemia gets worse, the miniature village becomes even more isolated — though happily — in its ever-thinning grove. It's a happy isolation, and in its particulars made me remember a late-70s world that is now vanished, if it ever existed — one free of irony, in which the boundaries between adulthood and childhood were entirely permeable, in which teenagehood was not a state of isolation from one's adult familiars or a brief bridge to being a grown-up, but simply an alternative state, like being from France.
In this world, Meg is free to pursue serious photography simply because she enjoys it, not as a means to a collegiate end; Molly and Meg can befriend an elderly widower next door without anything being odd about it; a young couple can welcome two girls into their family not only as valued companions but as peers. Adults can be guides or students: When Molly wants to learn the names of all the flowers before she dies, Will teaches her; when Meg masters her darkroom, Will studies with her. And adults are never simply a stand-in for unpleasant authority: when Ben and Maria talk about wanting to get married by a river to guitar music, you know it's not simply to spite their rich parents. Most strikingly, when Meg is asked to photograph the (home!) birth of Ben and Maria's child, she only response is a mild inquiry from Will and her father, and the scene concerns mostly Meg's pleasure in her mastery over the camera and the vivid experience of watching a child being born, not a budding Annie Liebovitz but one wholly formed.
It's not only Meg who is given adult authority. When Meg and her father visit Molly on the verge of her death, her father has a surprising take on his daughter: "'This is a very hard thing to explain, Meg, but Molly is handling this thing very well by herself. She needs us, for our love, but she doesn't need us for anything else now.' He swallowed hard and said, 'Dying is a very solitary thing. The only thing we can do is be there when she wants us to be there.'"
Was this idea of preternatural maturity, this equality across generations, simply a wish on the part of the authors of this era? If you heard the plot of this book described, you would think that the adult part of the book was that Meg has to handle Molly dying. But in fact Meg and Molly were already wholly exposed to an adult world in which they thrive and are fully a part. The world of A Summer to Die made me think a bit of this article about Facebook by Peggy Orenstein, in which she wonders if the world of intimacy across generations, of constant contact with one's family and community, is not some new expression of mass narcissism but in fact the historical norm. It's only a few decades post-WWII in which we had the opportunity and expectation to separate from our family of birth, not simply be absorbed.
Maybe she has a point. After Molly's death, like the Margaret of the poem, Meg is counseled not by her parents but by Will, another kindly older man who gives her a portrait of herself that allows her to move on:
I knew, though I had not known it then, that Will had taken it. He had taken it in the village cemetary the day we buried Molly there and heaped her grave with goldenrod....There was something of Molly in my face. It startled me, seeing it. The line that defined my face, the line that separated the darkness of the trees from the light that curved into my forehead and cheek was the same line that had once identified Molly by its shape. The way I held my shoulders was the same way she had held hers. It was a transient thing, I knew, but when Will had held the camera and released the shutter of one five-hundredth of a second, he had captured and made permanent whatever of Molly was in me. I was grateful, and glad.
See, now the English major part of me wants to observe that the book begins with a line across a room that separates Molly and Meg (death), and the book ends with the line that brings them together (life), but THE HUMAN PART OF ME WANTS TO CRY. God, I have held off on the death part for eight paragraphs, which must be some kind of record. What can I say, I am trauma-avoidant. Fringed gentian is the grove filling with leaves again and pussy willows out of water symbolize what happens to Molly and— shut up, English major. What I will take away today is not only the symbolic import of fringed gentians (sob!), but the newly remembered observation that friends, like gentians, can grow in all kinds of places.
Guys, you did wonderfully well on last week's quiz challenge, Partial Coverage, especially as Google is not really a help in these matters! Before I list the winners of a copy of Shelf Discovery, I point you to the gallery where you may find the answers to all (click here if the image below doesn't show up):
The winners are AS FOLLOWS, in no particular order, only because some of you got some close to right which counted as a half point and...oy. You are winners, all! (If you won for reals though, please send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the words "Partial Coverage Winner" in the subject line):
1. Jennifer Gibbons
2. Kerry Stubbs
3. Jen McCreary
4. Katherine Nelson
5. Jane Mendle
6. Jessica Calgione
7. Alston Erato
8. Bailey Beans (Beans, are you also above as real person up there? I will choose 11 because I think that was a double.)
You guys had the MOST trouble with Ludell and I Never Loved Your Mind. The Root Cellar and Jane-Emily strangely robust. I am WONDERFULLY IMPRESSED.
Okay last thing....Shelf Discovery was #400 ON AMAZON A LOT OF LAST WEEKEND!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you guys!!!! Please continue to spread the word. If you have any interest, all kinds of press, and my blog, are on lizzieskurnick.com/news. I am actually very shortly going to do a post on black book covers prompted by the recent experience of my friend and YA writer Justine Larbalestier. You'll hear more about Ludell! Then I'll do a post on how you didn't know enough to scream, "I never loved your mind, Dewey Daniels! I never loved your mind!!!!!!!!!!!", something I always enjoy.