Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright

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With all the political turmoil here in the U.S. last week, I turned for comfort to this middle-grade novel by the author of the Melendy Quartet (The Saturdays, etc.) and one of my favorites from childhood: Gone-Away Lake.

First published in 1939 and winner of the Newbery Medal that year, Thimble Summer is the story of nine-year-old Garnet Linden who finds a silver thimble in a dried-up waterbed. She wonders if it might be magical, and indeed that night rain finally comes to her family’s drought-stricken farm, saving their crops.

Depression-era Wisconsin is beautifully captured in this story, as is life on a small family farm. Garnet adopts the runt in a litter of pigs to raise and by the end of the summer is ready to show him at the fair. The joy of a dip in the river after a day in the fields or threshing is captured with imagery appropriate for someone of Garnet’s age.

It’s not all swimming holes and ice cream cones. During an all-night vigil tending the lime kiln that must be continually stoked if they are to have the necessary lime to build their new barn, a mysterious figure appears in the woods. It turns out to be a boy not that much older than Garnet who, left parentless, has been hitchhiking around the country taking jobs as a farmworker when necessary. The Lindens ask him to stay on to help with building the barn, wanting the help but mostly wanting to feed the undernourished boy.

In another adventure, Garnet and her friend Citronella stay too long at the library and are locked in for the night. What starts out as a fun adventure gradually becomes something more, as Enright expertly channels the mind and heart of a young girl.

Last week someone who is writing a memoir questioned her right to do so when her life has no terrible tragedies. I have come across this fear in the memoir classes I teach, so I told her that every life, no matter how blessed, has setbacks and difficulties to overcome. Handled well, these create the necessary conflict to drive the story. Memoir doesn’t have to become what some have called the trauma olympics. What matters most is the quality of the writing.

As noted in Anita Silvey’s The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators, in writing this book Enright called on memories of summers spent on Frank Lloyd Wright’s farm in Wisconsin, as well as family stories passed on by her mother and grandmother.

Knowing this adds an extra dimension to the story for me, but truly I was just grateful to be back in the world of my own childhood, happily curled up in a corner of our neighborhood library reading everything from fairy tales and King Arthur stories to books about the adventures of ordinary children like me.

What is a favorite childhood book of yours?

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse

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Another Middle Grade coming-of-age story told in verse—pure coincidence that this was next up on my TBR (to be read) pile when I stopped to read Brown Girl Dreaming. Hesse’s story is also a Newbery winner but is fiction rather than memoir. Thirteen-year-old Billie Jo loves playing the piano when she isn’t busy helping her father and pregnant mother try to keep body and soul together in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

She is good enough to be asked to play in shows, often with handsome Mad Dog. If she gets well enough known with her music, she can leave the failing farm and the ubiquitous dust behind and go to California. Then a terrible accident throws all her plans into disarray.

Spanning a two-year period from January 1934 to December 1935, these poems paint a vivid picture of what life was like during that terrible time. She describes having to turn the glasses and plates upside down on the table until the last second before serving the meal, and still the food is saturated with dust. There is the heartbreak of a field of wheat, already decimated by drought and wind, be flattened by hail or devoured by grasshoppers.

In some aspects, Billie Jo’s life is similar to many teens: wanting more independence than her mother is willing to give her, feeling as though she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. When her teacher is in a production of Madame Butterfly, and Mad Dog says that “most everyone’s” heard of that opera, Billie Jo is miffed.

How does that
singing plowboy know something I don’t?
And how much more is out there
most everyone else has heard of
except me?

And she has a best friend. But when Livie leaves for California with her family, Billie Jo says, “I couldn’t get the muscles in my throat relaxed enough / to tell her how much I’d miss her.”

Poetry works well as a form for this novel. The fractured narrative adds to the feeling that you are reading a diary. Also, the necessary compression distills each scene into its essence while retaining the emotional impact. Hesse makes effective use of symbols as well, such as the mother’s special cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. Here is one complete poem, called “Broken Promise”:

It rained
a little
everywhere
but here.

Other poems are longer and tell a more complete narrative, such as “Blankets of Black” about going to Texhoma for Grandma Lucas’s funeral. Billie Jo’s detailed description of the ordeal is riveting.

While written for ages 11-14, Billie Jo’s story will certainly appeal to adults as well. For younger readers, it’s a good introduction to the terrible tragedy of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression.

Have you read a Young Adult or Middle Grade novel that brought an historical period to life for you?