Reading Journal: "The Summer Book"

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book. Originally published in Swedish in 1971. Reprinted, in English translation, in 2008. New York Review Books Classics.

A review, sort of.

The summer of 2004 was our first summer on the island without my father-in-law. It was strange and heartbreaking to find so much evidence of his presence there: notes he had left, instructions, projects he had left unfinished the summer before. At first, I felt I didn’t want to disturb the hammer or the ax from the places where he had left them. But life went on: there was firewood to split, new dock planks to hammer down.

The boys fought with each other and built forts in the woods. Two girls, Ella and Katie, visited the island and I taught them how to make bread. I watched birds—loons, goldeneyes, sandpipers, redstarts—and kept track of the wildflowers as they bloomed. I started to keep a journal, and to read books about islands. First, Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Then David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, about the biological richness and fragility of islands. Then Kathleen Dean Moore’s The Pine Island Paradox

Again and again, I face an island’s paradox: Not even an island is an island. Storm-washed and rain-sodden, so hard to get to, so hard to escape, Pine Island is the very symbol of isolation and exile. But any geographer will tell you that an island is in fact only a high point in the continuous skin of the planet, the small part we can see of the hidden substance that connects everything on earth. It’s a sign—a beautiful, rock-solid, bird-spattered sign—of the wholeness of being, the intricate interdependencies that link people and places.

At night on the island, we watched the shooting stars and the Northern Lights. “Saw double open cluster in Perseus,” I wrote in my journal. One afternoon, the dog cornered a porcupine and ended up with a snout like a pincushion. I disliked leaving the island. In the woods, fallen trees had softened into nurse logs—green and plush with moss, veined with the roots of twinflowers and small cedars. The island healed itself. New life arose from death.

The summers blend together. Without studying my journal, I can’t sort events into their proper summers. Was it in 2004 or 2005 that I discovered the brown water scorpion? When was it that I watched the birds strip the elder of its berries in a single afternoon? Time loses its distinct shape. Memory grows over everything like moss.

Reading Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book reminded me of my island journal. Her writing conveys that timeless, yet time-haunted quality of island life. The book is a series of vignettes in which not terribly much happens, which don’t quite calcify into either plot or moral, but beautifully convey the richness and strangeness and elusive meaningfulness of a summer on an island. The main characters are six-year old Sophie and her grandmother. Sophie’s father appears, but only speaks once. Sophie’s mother has recently died, and her death quietly haunts the narrative. Like islands themselves, Sophie and her grandmother are weathered, vulnerable, both self-sufficient and interdependent. Their relationship is rendered without a touch of sentimentality, in spare language that is bright and stark and beautiful. Large themes—life and death, God, fate, and chance—are touched upon in a manner that is both light and serious. The moral of each story seems to bend away from the reader’s grasp, like something reached for underwater. Jansson’s writing reminded me of the other Scandinavian book I read this year, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. It has that same deceptive simplicity, the same thematic undercurrent of mortality and loss. But I liked The Summer Book more. It was less weighted with the need to find meaning, and paradoxically more meaningful. It was like being on an island: taking everything in, and sometimes seeing the sense it all makes.


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