Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

One time in April there was a full moon, and the sea was covered with ice.  Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.

Who reads a book called The Summer Book in the middle of winter?  I do--but Brent is to blame, because he got me this slim collection of stories for Christmas.  They are by the Swedish-Finnish novelist Tove Jansson, better known for her collection of Moomintroll books for kids, and they all deal with the relationship between a young girl, Sophia, and her grandmother, on the island where they live during summers in the Gulf of Finland.

Sophia's mother has recently died--it gets one sentence in the novel--so it falls to Grandmother, a caring but prickly and reserved woman, to bring up Sophia.  Sophia's father--Grandmother's son--lurks in the corners of the narrative, planting bulbs and gathering supplies, but seems utterly distant from the girl and the old woman.  Jansson has a light, sardonic touch that helps these stories mine that relationship for simple, but profound, truths.  Grandmother indulges Sophia's childlike views on the world: in one story, Sophia prays to God for something eventful to happen because she is bored.  When a wild storm whips up, Sophia is elated, until Grandmother reminds her that people may be hurt, and Sophia is aghast: her prayer has brought the storm.  Not so fast, Grandmother says--I prayed for it first:

"You said yourself that He listens," said Sophia coldly.  "You said He hears everything you pray for."

Grandmother lay down on the herring net and said, "Yes, He does.  But you see I was first."

"What do you mean?"

"I prayed for a storm before you did, that's what."

"When did you pray?" asked Sophia suspiciously.

"This morning."

"But then why," Sophia burst out sternly, "why did you take along so little food and not enough clothes?  Didn't you trust him?"

"Yes, of course... But maybe I thought it would be exciting to try and get along without..."

Sophia sighed.  "Yes," she said.  "That's just like you.  Did you take your medicine?"

"Yes, I did."

"Good.  Then you can go to sleep and stop worrying about all the trouble you've caused.  "I won't tell anyone."

"That's nice of you," Grandmother said.

The relationship between Sophia and Grandmother is not always positive:

One evening, Sophia wrote a letter and stuck it under the door.  It said, "I hate you.  With warm personal wishes, Sophia."

All the words were correctly spelled.

But it is always rich and deep.  In one of my favorite stories, Grandmother gets Sophia a cat named Moppy, who turns out to be a savage beast, killing birds and leaving them in the family house.  Moppy returns no affection.  So Grandmother trades with a local family, Moppy for a docile cat named Fluff:

Fluff purred and stretched warm sleepy legs in all directions.  The sheet was covered with cat hair.

"Get up!" Sophia shouted.  "it's a storm!"  But the cat just turned over on its broad stomach.  And suddenly Sophia was furious.  She kicked open the door and threw the cat out in the wind and watched how it laid its ears back, and she screamed, "Hunt!  Do something!  Be like a cat!"  And then she started to cry and ran to the guest room and banged on the door.

"What's wrong now? Grandmother said.

"I want Moppy back!" Sophia screamed.

"But you know how it'll be," Grandmother said.

"It'll be awful," said Sophia gravely.  "But it's Moppy I love."

And so they traded cats again.

I also really liked a story in which Grandmother encourages Sophia, recently freaked out by having accidentally split a worm in half--and watched the two halves become separate worms--to write a book investigating the vermin of the island, so she might face her fears:

"Presumably, everything that happened to them after that only seemed like half as much, but this was sort of a relief, and then, too, nothing they did was their fault any more, somehow.  They just blamed each other.  Or else they'd say that after a thing like that, you just weren't yourself anymore..."

In each of these stories, Jansson is playing an old game: mining the immature perceptions of children for their deeper wisdom, in opposition to the received knowledge of the adult.  But The Summer Book never descends into sentimentality, and succeeds by casting an oblique eye on danger, trauma, and death.  Its prose is clean and unadorned, but often understatedly beautiful, and belies a steely intelligence.  It may be a book about summer, but it has a sobering, clear-eyed quality that--here at the end of the year, at least--seems a bit winterish to me.

No comments: