Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Book Review: The Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild (1966)

The four Gareth children - Alex, Penny, Robin, and Naomi - live in a house in London called "Medway" with their mother and scientist father. They are surprised enough when their father decides to go away for a year to study epidemics; when he falls ill and their mother must rush quickly to his side, they are thrown for a complete loop. With little time to prepare, the children are sent off to Ireland to spend the summer with their great-aunt Dymphna, who many years before looked after their father after the loss of his parents during World War II. Aunt Dymphna, who lives in "Reenmore," a house filled with books and other items she purchases from flea markets, is an eccentric old lady who values none of the comforts to which the children are so accustomed. She expects the children to cook and clean and to look after and entertain themselves. Though the Gareths have some help in the form of kind and generous neighbors, they are mostly on their own to figure things out, as Aunt Dymphna typically responds to requests for help with cryptic lines of verse and nothing more. To complicate matters further, the children also find themselves hiding a possible fugitive - a boy named Stephan who wears dark glasses -  in one of Aunt Dymphna's bedrooms, fearing that if they don't help him, he will meet with a dangerous end.

This book is quite different from Streatfeild's earlier works. Whereas her titles from the '30s and '40s didn't seem to match a particular formula, this book is much like many other family stories of the 1960s, including those by Elizabeth Enright, to whom the story is dedicated. The main difference between this book and others of its type seems to be in the character of Aunt Dymphna, whose mysterious larger-than-life personality makes her unique among the adults who populate children's books. Aunt Dymphna is a force to be reckoned with, and despite the children's frustrations with her behavior, she never changes, or softens, or apologizes for making the children's visit difficult. She remains who she is, for better or for worse, even to the last moment of the story. It is because of this steadfastness in the character of Aunt Dymphna, and the way the children are forced to grow and change in order to make their time with her bearable, that leads me to dislike the American title for the book, The Magic Summer, and to prefer instead the original British title, The Growing Summer. More than anything else, this is a story about kids who have been a bit spoiled learning how to look after themselves and to grow up in the absence of the kind sympathy of their parents. Aunt Dymphna herself may seem magical, but there is more blood, sweat, and tears in the kids' summer experience than magic.

The subplot involving the young boy with dark glasses, Stephan, who tells the children he has escaped from a Communist country is largely unnecessary and felt like a gimmick to keep kids interested rather than an integral part of the plot. Personally, I think there is plenty of great conflict in the book without Stephan, and I would have happily traded the pages spent on him for more late-night lobster hunts with Aunt Dymphna or a few more awkward exchanges about laundry between Penny and the neighbor women. Though the details of life at Reenmore are wonderfully evocative, and left me with a very clear picture of the setting for the story, I got to the end of the book feeling like I could have enjoyed more detail, not just about the house, but about the neighbor families, the local children, and even Aunt Dymphna's history. It's not that the book doesn't feel complete; I just liked the setting so much, I could have happily spent more time there.

While I think Ballet Shoes is still my favorite Streatfeild title, this book was a treat and I happily read the whole thing in one sitting. It's interesting to see how Streatfeild's writing evolved with the times, and yet remained distinctive as compared with other writers of books of the same genre. I won't forget Aunt Dymphna any time soon, and I look forward to learning about some of the poems she quoted with which I was not familiar. This was the perfect read for a rainy summer afternoon, and one I can enthusiastically recommend.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting... I don't think I've ever read this one. I'll have to keep an eye out. Thanks!