In Grandma’s Footsteps

I have to say there is a particular pleasure in reading about the sweet still heat of summer when we are in the depths of midwinter. It gives a person hope, you know, to be reminded of the endless summers of childhood, and their dependable charms. The Slaves chose as their group read this month, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, one of a handful of books that she wrote for adults. Jansson is far better known for her children’s books about the Moomins, which I can remember distantly from my own early reading days. In fact, for me, there wasn’t so very much difference between The Summer Book and Moominsummer Madness, say. Family and its quirky ways are fundamental to both. There’s something mythic and yet intimate going on here, something eccentric but philosophically grounded, something quite sharp and occasionally melancholy, but deeply lovable nevertheless. The Moomins used to ponder life and its meaning and wrap up their thoughts in axiomatic utterances (like Little My: ‘Possessions mean worries and luggage bags one has to drag around.’). And essentially, The Summer Book performs the same sort of metamorphosis, taking the strange and sometimes disconcerting experience of the world and making it manageable, tolerable and sometimes quite delightful.

The Summer Book recounts a series of stories about life on an island off the coast of Finland. It’s home to motherless Sophia and her grandmother, oh and also Sophia’s father only he features mostly through his absence, given that he is always writing and ignoring his womenfolk. I suppose in all fairness we should include the island itself as a character, flat, volcanic, scrubby, designed to withstand extreme weather conditions, and yet rich in wildlife and fauna, possessing its own beauty. We hear the voice of the narrator most of all in the descriptions of the island, and that voice is attentive and appreciative, viewing both the landscape and the characters that inhabit it with loving benevolence. The grandmother and Sophia are both beautifully drawn characters. Sophia is passionate, engaged, quick to fear, quick to excitement and always ready to rage against the obstacles and difficulties that befall her. Grandmother is pragmatic and slow-moving, accepting and stolid, cunning and wise. Each of the vignettes that make up the book show the two of them in a kind of tableau of learning, as Sophia meets the blunt edge of the world and has it smoothed for her by her grandmother’s wisdom. Not that Grandmother really wants to have to do this; as an elderly lady she often feels tired and ill and not necessarily up to a child’s longing for adventure. The two of them argue and clash as much as they cooperate and comply. But watching Grandmother use clever strategies to soothe, placate or instruct Sophia is definitely a key part of this book’s appeal.

What the book brings out quite brilliantly is the richness of a child’s fantasy life and how hard that can be to handle. Sophia has no knowledge of the world, only familiarity with some of its basic practices and a great number of fears and fantasies. Grandmother, by contrast, at the end of her life, has very few fantasies left to her; instead she is right up close against the reality of things. Generally, sleeping, reading and enjoying nature are all she really wants to do (I could sympathise), but she leaps into action when the summer starts to fade, and the island dwelling has to be secured for the winter months. Then she is immensely busy with things, with bringing household objects in for safety, setting out candles and cigarettes in case any visitors are forced to take shelter on their island while they are away. ‘With an odd kind of tenderness, she examined the nameplates of boats long since broken up, some storm indications that had been written on the wall, penciled data on dead seals they had found, and a mink they had shot… How can I ever leave this room, she thought?’ For Grandmother, life has been reduced down to a tide of significant flotsam and jetsam, all of it resonant with memories.

For Sophia, life is still bursting with fantasies, like what it might be that has crawled into her father’s old dressing gown and is terrifying her, or her own personal vision of religion, or what might have happened at a party to which she was not invited, or the thought that because she prayed for excitement, a devastating storm is her responsibility. In each case, she turns to her Grandmother (often angrily) in order to have her fantasies tamed and turned into images that don’t overwhelm her emotionally. Grandmother’s ability to turn Sophia’s nameless dread into stories that reassure because they invoke a known reality is a real joy to watch. This must be wisdom in its purest form; the transformation of proliferating fear into a sensible, grounded, truthful representation of what might be; the valuable use of knowledge, of what genuinely is, to boundary and contain the menace of the unknown. We love Grandmother because she understands how necessary this is for Sophia, and even when she’s not particularly up for it, she accomplishes this feat anyway. That’s real love.

Not that this is in any way a saccharine narrative, thank goodness. No the exchanges between Sophia and her Grandmother are often harsh, and both behave as ordinary, flawed, imperfect human beings. The Summer Book enchants precisely because it is so honest and innocent. Even though I’m not that keen on episodic structures, this series of short tales was perfect for its subject matter, and in fact made me think more of Eastern teaching parables than anything else. Definitely one I would reread again in the future, as a reminder that even the simplest life contains many ups and downs, but that managing them is exactly the task we must learn how to do.

16 thoughts on “In Grandma’s Footsteps

  1. Oh yes, the honesty of this book was marvelous as was the relationship between Sophia and Grandmother, the young and old, innocent and experienced helping each other along was a joy to read.

  2. I love what you said about Grandmother’s wisdom. Both characters – and their relationship – were drawn so beautifully. I also loved the fact that Jansson wrote Sophia with such respect – for her fantasy life like you said, for her emotional states, for her humanity, which is very much there regardless of her young age. Thank you for reminding me that I need to read more Tove Jansson!

  3. I like your point about the episodes as tableaux of learning. You describe how the grandmother handles Sophia’s fear brilliantly! I really want to read the Moomin books now, if they are at all like this book.

  4. This book already caught my interest when I read about it on Danielle’s blog. I am even more tempted now. I have the Winter book and might read it first although at present summer does sound more appealing. I can see how the island could really be a person in its own right. It strikes me as a wonderful gift if a writer manages to make nature come to life. What you write does also remind me of my own childhood fantasies. I realize I was very fearless as a child (wonder where that has gone?. I have such an idealized image of grandparents as I myself had none. It seems as if Jansson manages to get the child and the grandmother right. I think this isn’t an easy thing but she would have to or she wouldn’t have been able to write for children and grownups.

  5. Love that description of those exchanges between Sophia and her grandmother. And wisdom as a transformation of dread-ful fantasies into reassuring stories is such an affirming idea. Sounds like a really great book (which I would otherwise never had heard of).

  6. How is it still so cold here?

    There are so many nice observations here and bits that reminded me of specific chapters from the book. It was like having my memories of it shaken up again and new ideas tossed in at the same time. I especially like your idea that Sophia has so many fantasies, but her grandmother is at an age when reality is maybe all that’s left. At the same time she so happily enters into Sophia’s fantasy world to as you say turn what her grandchild sees into things that don’t overwhelm her. I like the way that she’ll go along with the fantasy in as far as she thinks its helping Sophia and helps her explain life, but is quick to say ‘No’ and find a new way to explain things when she thinks Sophia’s fantasy is worrying her. It’s interesting to see when Sophia fights what her grandmother says and when she accepts it, when she wants to be soothed and when she can’t allow herself to be.

  7. Lovely post–you describe the book so well. I like how you explain the grandmother smoothing the girl’s sharp edges–that’s exactly it. I’m thinking about the question you posed on the forum about the lack of the father’s presence and how it would have been quite different had it been the mother. I wonder how introducing another adult into the equation would have changed the relationship between the two. Such a slender little book that seems so simple on the outside!

  8. I had no idea Jannson wrote for adults. I have her Moomin books, ready to read to my daughter as soon as possible. I quite enjoyed your description of this book and will look out for it. Something to remind me that winter won’t last forever would be quite welcome these days.

  9. Wonderful review. I’ve been unable to summarize my thoughts on The Summer Book but I sincerely liked the book. This pinpointed a number of my reasons for liking it beautifully (the characterization, the fantasy aspect…). Though now I’d rather like to reread it, hmm…

  10. Love your review Litlove. You said it perfectly, they were both imperfect but that’s what is so human and real about the characters. I love that about the story. You could really tell that even though they had their moments there was always love at the root of the relationship. It was complicated and messy but it was there.

  11. Okay, so you made me, who loves winter, long a little for summer. I guess that’s why I should always live where there are four seasons. I like what sounds like a very interesting contrast here between granddaughter and grandmother, and it seems from other blog posts that everyone really liked this beautiful book. I only knew the Moomins, whom I can still picture after all these years, although I’d completely forgotten about them until I read this post. I didn’t even know she’d written any adult books.

  12. Stefanie – wasn’t it a great choice? I would never have read it without the prompting of the Slaves – so mark one up to them (again)!

    Lilian – it really is because it is completely unsentimental. And to write a relationship like that without schmaltz is pretty impressive.

    Nymeth – I agree so much with what you say! And this book has me hunting out the Moomin book I am sure I got for my son many years ago. I think it’s time for a trip down that particular memory fjord.

    Mary – I’d love to know what you think of it!

    Dorothy – I am sure I have an old Moomin book somewhere and I’m going to search it out now. Her writing is very addictive, I think!

    Caroline – what an interesting point, and I quite agree. It’s an understanding of what really goes on between children and their carers that makes for wonderful children’s books. I didn’t know Jansson had a winter book – I shall have to look that out now.

    Pete – really interesting book for a psychotherapist, I’d say. The exchanges are as oblique yet as meaningful as any on the couch. I do love a book that uses dialogue to go somewhere quite special.

    Bookgazing – lol! I need to read it again, and do a sun dance out in the garden or something. Yes, indeed, you touch there on issues I didn’t have time to pursue in the post but would have liked to. I thought it was really intriguing when the grandmother wouldn’t buy into the fantasy, and when Sophia kicked against the reassurance. There was just SO much written into those exchanges. I certainly felt that Jansson was an author worth looking at twice.

    Danielle – I think you’re quite right, in that the point of the book was that relationship and it was never meant to be three-way. In some ways, on that lonely island, it could have collapsed into a head-to-head struggle between Sophia and her grandmother, but it was the way that Jansson kept their relationship and the stories developing that made it really easy and special to read.

    Michelle – oh I hear you! I am more than ready for winter to go away now. And how lovely to think of your little girl having the Moomins stored up for her. I used to spend ages planning my son’s reading – one of the very best bits of having children for me!

    Bibliobio – aw thank you! I really loved it too, and would happily reread it. In fact, it was a book that got me thinking about rereading, which is something I don’t often do. It was a special read, wasn’t it?

    Jean – oh that link is a delight! Thank you for that. I am ready for a Jansson revival, having not given the Moomins a thought for about 35 years! I guess she would interest you as a painter, too, although I’ve not seen much of her work. Time to surf the internet again, I think!

    Care – I think I could go out on a limb here and say you’d like it! 🙂

    iliana – don’t you find that you can believe more in the love when it’s bound up with mess and trouble and a bit of strife? Somehow that’s more compelling and plausible than a purely harmonious relationship (of which none exist, I feel sure!). It was a great choice for the Slaves, and I was so glad to read it.

    Emily – how nice to be able to appreciate winter! I liked it as a child, but not so much now. I had completely forgotten about the Moomins too until I read this book, but now will try and search out those old copies. Jansson is an impressive writer, and I’d like to find more by her, if I can.

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