Tove Jansson wrote The Summer Book shortly after the death of her beloved mother, and it is, not surprisingly, a book haunted by a recently deceased mother. The loss is only mentioned directly once, but then every story is thematically about the child, Sophia, and her grandmother coping, grieving, raging, moving on or not moving on. For that reason, I sense Jansson is both characters---the small girl and the old woman at the same time, trying to comfort each other, thus trying to comfort herself.
Sophia confronts all the childhood terrors such as a robe in the attic that appears to move on its own, while Grandmother struggles with fears of her own mortality, firmly believing she did something to leave her mark on the world but can't quite remember what it is. They go snooping on a new neighbor's island and even break into his new home (Grandmothers Behaving Badly!), until they hear the motor of his boat and run to hide under the boughs of a tree. Of course, being a gentleman, the neighbor runs after them and extends an invitation for cognac. Imagine crawling out from under a tree, dusting yourself off and taking his arm for a leisurely stroll back to the house, as if nothing had happened!
Throughout their day-to-day adventures, they share their excessive---though not unwarranted---worry about the man in their lives. Father. Something of a ghost himself, Father is almost always accounted for as "at his desk, working," burying himself in his work perhaps to deal with the loss of his wife. When he does venture out, taking the boat just as the weather turns, Sophia is beside herself with worry---the fear of losing another parent is there, but never expressly stated. In another story, Father gets the gardening bug and attempts to cultivate the island, only to be met with a drought. What lengths he goes to trying to keep something alive: it gives a sense perhaps of the mother's lingering illness (alluded to in other passages), the finality of the drought not unlike the inevitablility of death.
I love the relationship between Sophia and Grandmother, how they question each other, how they bristle and fight and return and remain bound to each other. I love how they create things with their hands and their imaginations, how they explore the island and discover treasures together.
The indelible image I expect to take away from this book, besides the island, is the miniature house they build together, then make up stories for the occupants. Sophia begs for Grandmother to tell of the Mother calling to her children, and listens as if she can truly hear the voice. When the little house is destroyed by waves and Grandmother secretly builds a new one, I held my breath to see if the fake would pass muster. Sophia leans in and listens....then announces, they're still there. I can hear them. The family is safe.
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