Saturday, September 3, 2011

Memories of Summer, Ruth White

Title:  Memories of Summer
Author:  Ruth White
Publisher:  Laurel Leaf
Year:  2001
Pages:  160
Genre:  Realistic Fiction/Historical Fiction
Themes:  Family, Mental Illness
Age Level:  7th Grade and Up

Memories of Summer is the moving story of Lyric and Summer, two sisters who move from coal mining country in the Appalachians to Flint, Michigan in the mid-1950s.  Their mother died when both girls were quite young, and after the death of their grandfather in a coal mine explosion their father, Poppy, decides to try his luck in the booming auto industry.  Summer has always been different than the other children, and shortly after moving to Flint she begins to demonstrate more and more bizarre behavior.  After a series of frightening episodes, she is diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Fourteen-year-old Lyric and Poppy desperately want to care for her at home, but hiding her disability and managing her increasingly dangerous behavior become more than they can handle alone.

White's touching story is based on the real events of her childhood and adolescence, when it was her own sister who descended into the madness that is schizophrenia.  She chose to set her story in the days before mental illness was as accepted and understood as it is today.  It is clear that the story comes from her own personal experiences from the depth of feeling and the inherent authenticity of Lyric's narrative voice.  While the main purpose of the story is to highlight the effects of mental illness on family dynamics and relationships, White also does a good job capturing the time period-a time period when many southern families were migrating north to find work in the ever-expanding manufacturing industry.  My own grandparents came to Chicago by way of Alabama to find work in the railroads.  White clearly captures the ambivalence that Lyric feels towards her sister-love and embarrassment and worry and annoyance  coming over her in waves depending on the situation.  In an interview with the author at the end of the book, White states that often in her novels she rewrites history to give herself at least moderately happy endings for events from her life that were anything but.  However, in Memories of Summer, she found that she could not pretend, even for a fictionalized version of her life, that the story of her sister ended in anything but the tragedy of institutionalization.

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