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Totally not Moomintrollish – The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson – Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, Introduction by Kathryn Davis, illustrations by the author. Originally published in 1972. (Paperback, New York Review Books, published by The New York Review of Books, New York, 2008, pp. 170)

I’m just such a sucker for a feel-good story and lovely gobs of happiness, which is why I so enjoyed a favourite book of one of my favourite authors, Sjón: The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson. Yes, the Finnish author Tove Jansson who conquered the literary world with “Moomintrolls” and other odd Finnish thingamadoodies. It made me so happy when I read it that I wanted to stretch it out for as long as possible, though it is very short, only 170 pages. It is about a family spending a glorious summer on an island off the Gulf of Finland, six-year-old, precocious “Sophia”, “Grandmother” and father, “Papa”. It is pithy and charming, and more personal than most of the other books by Jansson.

Featuring a child, but not for children

Terry Pratchett once wrote that one of his favourite books is Mistress Masham’s Repose, by T.H. White, and he “loved it because it was a children’s book that made absolutely no concessions to children.” (Terry Pratchett, A Slip of the Keyboard, 2014, p. 218) It’s like that with The Summer Book. Jansson’s protagonist might be a child who is still young enough to get frightened, throw tantrums and believe her Grandmother’s absurd lies when it suits her, but it’s not at all childish, or intended as a children’s book. It’s not even remotely Moomintroll-ish. This is the witty, insightful and simply-expressed thoughts of a mature author who depicts the contrasts and similarities between childhood and old age.

Relationship between grandmother and grandchild

The often tetchy but affectionate relationship between Sophia and her Grandmother is at the core of the novel. The island is Sophia’s world – and her Grandmother is as much a fixture in it as the rocks on the shore.

While I read it, I wondered what had happened to Sophia’s mother, since the Grandmother takes the role of caregiver while Sophia’s father writes, does his work, potters around the island or busies himself with ambitious gardening schemes. Grandmother is really, really old and grumpy and creaky. She says to her old friend “Verner”, in astonishment at his helplessness, “But you’re only seventy-five” – so she must be in her late eighties.

Sophia wants to know from her, what it is like to be a Scout and sleep in a tent:

“That’s strange, Grandmother thought. I can’t describe things any more. I can’t find the words, or maybe it’s that I’m not trying hard enough. It was such a long time ago. No one here was even born. And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost. She sat up and said, ‘Some days I can’t remember very well. But sometime you ought to try and sleep in a tent all night.’” (p. 80)

Illustration by Tove Jansson of Grandmother and Sophia from The Summer Book.

Short, pithy, true and charming

Each of the short chapters is about insignificant, familial things, which Jansson makes sound entertaining and funny – a storm, a neighbour’s boat, flowers on the island, and often, Sophia’s over-active imagination. Each incident rings true (and is highly recognizable) as a typical rite-of-passage moment in childhood or old age, but also as a typical moment in Finnish lives.

At one point, Sophia gets a postcard from Venice and dreams up a ladylike mother and daughter from that city, for whom her grandmother builds a little bridge and “palace” of balsa wood, which they put in the garden. When a storm breaks out, Sophia is in hysterics, “crying with her mouth wide open” because she thinks the Venetian lady and her child are dead. Of course, the balsa wood palace had been washed away.

Illustration by Tove Jansson of Sophia contemplating the “Venetian Palace” of balsa wood.

“Venice had disappeared beneath the sea. Grandmother stood gazing at this scene for quite a while; then she turned and went home. She lit the lamp and got out her tools and a suitable piece of balsa wood and put on her glasses.” (p. 45).

When Sophia wakes up, the balsa wood palace is as good as new, thanks to Grandmother’s understanding of the mind of a child and her talent with wood carving.

Life lessons in the summer

Sophia learns quite a few life lessons during the summer on the island – for instance, that one should not break into someone else’s house, what angleworms think when they are cut in half, that one should not pray for storms to happen, how not to treat friends, and also, that cats are cats. Sophia finds a kitten who turns into an aloof, outdoorsy, wild cat, called “Moppy”, that refuses to be cute and be petted. Moppy hisses, bites and brings home dead things. Sophia is mortified. When guests arrive, they trade Moppy for a cuddly bundle of fur called “Fluff”.  Fluff sleeps and eats a lot and lazes around the house like a bundle of…well, fluff. Finally Sophia has enough.

Tove Jansson’s drawing of Moppy, the wild cat, in The Summer Book. Is that not just the most adorable cat?

“‘What’s wrong now?’ Grandmother said. ‘I want Moppy back!’ Sophia screamed. ‘But you know how it’ll be,’ Grandmother said. ‘It’ll be awful,’ said Sophia gravely. ‘But it’s Moppy I love.’ And so they traded cats again.” (p. 60)

Lesson learned: real cats do real cat things.

The end of summer

As summer comes to an end in the stories, the book nears its end also, and the family have to close up the house on the island for winter. It’s an odd ending, which left me with a horrid feeling that Grandmother was about to die, listening to her heart giving out while she is lying in bed.

“A new boat approached, a small boat, probably running on gasoline. It might be a herring boat with an automobile engine – but not this late at night. They always went out right after sunset. In any case, it wasn’t in the channel but heading straight out to sea. Its slow thumping passed the island and continued out, farther and farther away, but never stopping. ‘Isn’t that funny,’ Grandmother said. ‘It’s only my heart, it’s not a herring boat at all.’ For a long time she wondered if she should go back to bed or stay where she was. She guessed she would stay for a while.” (p. 170)

So, actually, along with the warmth, humour, charm, quirkiness and Finnish-ness of the stories, it is about leaving the fantasy world of childhood behind, growing old, and dying. But when I read it, it mostly made me want to hop on a plane and go there myself, dangle my feet in the rock pools, eat handfuls of warm raspberries straight from the shrubs and listen to the wind whip around my safe little cottage. As with all well-written memoirs, or recollections of childhood, the happy moments are recalled the most, but are balanced with a hint of sadness for what has gone by.

The boat used by Jansson and Pietilä on Klovharu Island (Image: moomin.com)
The little island cottage used by Jansson and Pietilä on Klovharu Island which looks like I imagined the cottage in The Summer Book would look. (Image: moomin.com)

A bit of the author in the book

Apparently, Jansson did not reveal much about her personal life or ideas in her other books. In this one, everything is described in lucid, plain, and straightforward language. There are no mysteries about the family’s thoughts or feelings. But how you connect these with the persona of the author is another thing altogether. What is interesting though, is that Jansson and her lifelong companion, graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, met each other during their art studies and formed a bond that would last throughout their lifetime. From the mid 1950s onwards they lived and worked together on numerous projects in literature, art and life. For close to 30 years, their summers together were spent on the island Klovharu, off the coast of Porvoo in the Pellinki archipelago of Finland, in a little cottage much like the one Jansson describes in the book.

About the header: An adaptation of Jansson’s original cover art for the book, set against the backdrop of my painting of a lake with a little island in it.





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