mitchell k dwyer's Reviews > A Summer to Die

A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry
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May 13, 12

bookshelves: reviewed
Read in May, 2012

Before Lois Lowry wrote two Newbery-winning novels, she wrote a wonderful series about a girl named Anastasia Krupnik. I loved Anastasia before Number the Stars was published and honored, but had never ventured backward into Lowry's bibliography. Then one Saturday last spring, I was exploring Wahiawa and found A Summer to Die in the Goodwill store for ninety-nine cents. It went into the trunk of my car for those times when I needed something to read but didn't have any of my current books with me.

That happened early last week.

And you know what? I'd forgotten how good Lowry is at putting words together. It's easy to think of her two Newbery novels strictly in terms of the ideas they generate or the inventiveness of their stories, but here is an author who writes beautifully, with a wonderful grace and elegance that had me wishing for a longer book. Her prose is very readable but it catches one off-guard sometimes, and to the attentive reader it is quite rewarding:

My father, even though he always recites a poem that begins "April is the cruelest month" to my mother when she's scrubbing the kitchen floor in the spring, agrees with me that it's February that's the worst. Snow, which was fun in December, is just boring, dirty, and downright cold in February. And the same sky that was blue in January is just nothing but white a month later--so white that sometimes you can't tell where the sky ends and the land begins. And it's cold, bitter cold, the kind of cold where you just can't go outside.


Meg and Molly are sisters forced to share a bedroom in a small house in the country while their father, a professor of literature, completes a book. Molly has always been the pretty, popular, resilient one: quick to laugh, eager to have fun, always surrounded by admirers. Meg, a couple of years younger, is the brainy one: contemplative, artistic, conflicted. The sisters clearly love and appreciate each other, but their relationship is put to the test when they are forced to share their bedroom.

As life in their new, temporary country home begins to open up for them (Molly makes the cheerleading squad and has a boyfriend; Meg meets a neighbor who encourages her passion for photography), the sisters seem to be settling into a workable relationship until Molly becomes seriously ill and has to spend time in the hospital.

You can guess from the title that it doesn't look good for Molly. The shadow of her illness falls over the entire household and draws in their close neighbors, too.

The summary on the back of my edition concludes with, "That's the day Meg's world changes forever. Is it too late for Meg to show what she really feels?" I get why someone felt the need to establish some kind of tension for the potential reader, but that's not what this book is at all about. There is enough tension just in the reality of Molly's worsening state and the family's efforts to deal with it. Playing out the sibling rivalry angle is unnecessary and thankfully, Lowry doesn't go that route. What she does instead is let us inside this girl's difficult spring and summer, a time blanketed by her sister's illness but by no means all-consumed by it.

Meg establishes friendships, and through the pursuit of some of her passions, she develops an identity not defined by a comparison (by her or by anyone) to her older sister. She is exposed to new people, new thinking, and new concepts for how the world moves, the way we all were during our special summers. This is not a novel about the relationship between a dying sister and the sister who's going to live; it is a novel about one teenage girl's emergence into herself.

There are a million such books. A Summer to Die is just better than most of them, given its audience and length (about 120 very short pages). My one little quarrel is with the elderly character Will, who speaks in a way that's rife with stereotype and cliche, the way old people supposedly speak in movies aimed at young people, loaded with "my dears" and other archaic formalities that I suspect never really existed except in literature and film. He's a well-thought-out character, but his manner of speech is maddening at times in its unbelievability.

Recommended especially to middle-elementary girls, but thoughtful, open-minded boys will also find this rewarding.
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