Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Summer of the Swans (and Early 70's TV)

I don't know why I never heard of this book as a child - I grew up in the 70's, and this won the Newbery Award in 1971. I think it would have been very good for me to read this story then. One of the only children with a mental disability that I ever encountered in grade school was a kid with Down Syndrome, who swam in a lake near my hometown that I frequented every summer. Sadly, my friends and I avoided Eric as much as possible. Would reading this kind of book have made a difference? It couldn't have hurt.

I didn't start out liking Summer much. Sara, the 14 year old narrator, got on my nerves with her constant complaints about the summer, bickering with her older sister, and getting annoyed with 10 year old brother Charlie, who is non-verbal and likes routines, his wrist watch, and the swans that visit the town's lake.

But the story really grew on me. Sara reminded me a lot of Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time (are 13 or 14 year old girls anywhere at any time ever happy with their appearance, their friends, and their families? I know I wasn't). I thought the description from Charlie's point of view was well-done and not at all condescending, which is what I expected after reading the cover blurb.

I couldn't help mentally comparing The Summer of the Swans to Rules, by Cynthia Lord (one of this year's Newbery Honors books, which is about a big sister with an younger brother who is autistic, an amazing book), and expecting Summer to fall far short. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't.

The TV references made me feel old, though. I don't think kids (or most adults under 40) reading The Summer of the Swans are going to feel the same stab of recognition that I did when Byars mentions the theme song from Green Acres, or the afternoon line-up of the The Newlyweds and The Dating Game. Or "that coyote in 'Road Runner' who is always getting flattened and dynamited and crushed and in the next scene is strolling along, completely normal again" (p. 95). Unless they've seen a lot of Nick at Nite or TVLand or something like that.

Unfortunately, this passage could have been written about the playground at my son's school:
"Well, do you know what that nice little Gretchen Wyant did? I was standing in the bushes by the spigot, turning off the hose, and this nice little Gretchen Wyant didn't see me - all she saw was Charlie at the fence - and she said, 'How's the retard today?' only she made it sound even uglier, 'How's the reeeeetard,' like that. Nothing ever made me so mad. The best sight of my whole life was nice little Gretchen Wyant standing there in her wet Taiwan silk dress with her mouth hanging open." (p. 69)
Well, there isn't a hose and you won't see any girls wearing silk dresses on the playground here. But it's pretty sad that reeeeetard is still one of the most popular insults I hear among 3rd and 4th graders (and worse, more common among many adults) almost forty years after The Summer of the Swans.


Sandy D. said...

And it now occurs to me that Charlie isn't wearing a watch on the cover. Major mistake, as it's an important part of the book. Makes you wonder if the illustrator read the book.

alisonwonderland said...

i grew up in the 70s too - and i did read this book. i remember really liking it. i even still have a copy (with a different cover.) i look forward to re-reading it when i finally get to it for this project. (i also will look for Rules.)

aloi said...

sandy d., yes you're right! i didn't notice that!

have only just read it and felt like i was in a time warp!