Monday, December 1, 2008

The Summer Book Tove Jansson

Hang on to summer with this gem from Tove Jansson, the Swedish author of the Moomin books for children.
In a country which sees so many hours of winter darkness, summer is revered and this delightfully simple yet powerful story, one of the ten books she wrote for adults, is considered a modern classic and has not been out of print since it was published in 1972.
An elderly artist whiles away the summer with her six year old granddaughter on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. The girl’s mother is dead. Her father, the grandmother’s son, “works in his study” all summer, occasionally emerging to lay his nets.
Never sentimental, the book explores the unique friendship which can exist between the very old and the very young.
The two rub along, sometimes getting on each other’s nerves. Each is grappling with private fears: Sophia, the girl, as she tries to understand the adult world while her grandmother, often tired, confronts her encroaching senility.
Both are independent, honest, yet the bond of love between them is fierce and protective. They learn from each other.

One day Grandmother and Sophia decide to take the dory out for a little row and pass one of the other “summer islands”:
“...there was a large sign with black letters that said PRIVATE PROPERTY - NO TRESPASSING
“We’ll go ashore,” Grandmother said. She was very angry. Sophia looked frightened.. “There’s a big difference,” her grandmother explained. “No well-bred person goes ashore on someone else’s island when there’s no one home. But if they put up a sign, then you do it anyway, because it’s a slap in the face.”
“Naturally,” Sophia said, increasing her knowledge of life considerably.
In the opening chapter, Sophia and her grandmother decide to go for an early morning swim. They sit with their legs dangling in the water.
“I can dive,” Sophia said….
”Do you believe I can dive without me showing you?’ the child asked.
“Yes, of course” Grandmother said . Now, get dressed”…
The first weariness came closer. When we get home, she thought, when we get back I think I’ll take a little nap. And I must remember to tell him this child is still afraid of deep water.
Nothing of consequence happens in the Summer Book. A visitor arrives. A boat spills its load. Father goes to the mainland for supplies. Sophia adopts a kitten.
It is based on Jansson’s own family experiences - of love and nurture, life and nature as well the family’s own summers spent on their “summer island”.
It is exquisitely written - beautiful, sad, funny, positive. Deceptively easy to read, the Summer Book is about the human experience.
Miranda Ingram

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