Monday, March 16, 2009

Thimble Summer

Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright, is a quiet and very old-fashioned children's story. It was a pleasant read, full of the sensory pleasures of summer on a farm in southern Wisconsin - but the characters never seemed real nor particularly interesting to me. Even the main character, nine year old Garnet, remained distant right up to the end of the book.

There were hundreds of odors in the night air; Garnet raised her nose like a puppy to smell them all. Cabbages decaying richly in gardens made her hold her breath in passing; but the cornfields were wonderful, they had a special smell after dark that you never noticed in the daytime. It didn't smell like corn at all, but strange and spicy like incense in a church (p 33).

I can attest to the fact that corn has a distinctive smell on a hot summer night (though it never reminded me of incense), but I couldn't help but remember that Garnet's family raises pigs in Thimble Summer. You can smell a pig farm from close to a mile away - or more, if it's windy. Forget cabbages. Anyway, that's what I remember when I think about the smell of cornfields in the summer. That and speeding down gravel roads with the wind blowing through the windows and the 8-track player blasting Pink Floyd, but that really dates me.

I know that there's no need to dwell on all of the not-so-wonderful parts of farm life, like pig manure, but despite the fact that Thimble Summer is set (and was written) during the Great Depression, there's not much in the book that isn't overwhelmingly nice.

There are lots of other Newbery winners that celebrate rural life (and A Year Down Yonder and Out of the Dust, which I both loved, are also set in the 1930's), but the other winners - even the mainly upbeat books, like Miracles on Maple Hill and Caddie Woodlawn - have drama and emotion and memorable characters along with their portrayals of farm life. I kept expecting to get more of this in Thimble Summer, but before I knew it, the summer was over and nothing more had materialized.

I did have a good time talking about Depression-era food with my mom, who grew up on a farm then:

The two girls went into the kitchen for something to eat. They found a chocolate cake in the cakebox and some hermits in a crockery jar. That was the wonderful thing about Citronella's house; there was always a cake in the kitchen at the right time. Often there was a dish of vinegar candy, too; and the cooky jar was never quite empty. Probably that was why most of the Hausers were so fat (p. 28).

Cakeboxes! A few people probably still have breadboxes, but I'll bet only antique dealers and people with family heirlooms have still cakeboxes (or pie safes, come to think of it).

If you want a pleasant interlude in a time and a place that is far away from most of our lives, you might enjoy Thimble Summer. Just don't expect much action, depth, or development with your nostalgia.


Sandy D. said...

I forgot to mention that Enright also illustrated the book. I used the audio cover here, because it has the original Enright cover on it (as the first edition that I read had on it). I was too lazy to photograph my book before returning it to the library.

I liked this cover better than the ones that were done in later editions. Don't know why they changed it. I've felt that way about a lot of the old Newbery winners.

Amanda (the librarian) said...

Yuk, my collection's copy is one where the dust cover was removed and discarded (and it's just got a plain binding underneath). Thank you for sharing the original art work!

Sarah said...

Enright was of the generation that didn't feel it necessary to dwell on all the ugliness in the world. That's why they had the gumption to beat the Depression and win WWII, among other things. Literature like this was one of the reasons they were so strong.We'd all be a lot better off if we didn't spend so much time dwelling on the bad. Focusing on the good helps you realize your blessings. Whining never did anyone any good.

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