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The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

The perfect Summer Book

Tove Jansson was born in Finland in 1914, her father a sculptor and her mother a graphic designer and illustrator, one brother a photographer, the other an author and cartoonist. Tove herself became a painter, exhibiting her work widely before the Second World War.

Tove Jansson was once well known for her illustrated children’s books featuring the Moomin family, the first published in 1945. She said that “the war had depressed her and she wanted to write something naïve and innocent”. Her series of books about the Moomins made her Finland’s most famous author. Long out of print, the Moomin books are all being re-issued to delight a new generation. They are books that will delight children and the adults reading to them equally.

About the same time that I learned that the Moomin books were being re-issued, a customer recommended another book to me by Tove Jansson, The Summer Book. Tove Jansson wrote several novels and volumes of short stories, but it is The Summer Book that I think Georgian Bay cottagers will especially enjoy reading.

The Summer Book is the story of an 85 year old grandmother, her widowed son, and her six year old granddaughter, Sophia. They spend their summers on the family island in the Gulf of Finland. The introduction to the book begins “An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure, and self-sufficient place.” Although this book was written in 1972 the events take place at an earlier time. Like Georgian Bay island cottagers in years long past, families came for the season with all of the goods necessary for the summer; the mail boat came by, and the ice boat with other provisions, and there were few trips off the island.

In this little book, each chapter is a day in the life of Sophia and her grandmother over the course of one summer. Grandmother is a little unsteady on her feet, she sneaks off against the advice of her son to smoke a cigarette occasionally, she sometimes hides away with her book, or disappears for a much needed nap.  Father is not often featured, although there is a lovely chapter about a storm while Father is off in a boat, and Grandmother must reassure Sophia of his safety – though I am sure she is as concerned as her young granddaughter. Sophia is a somewhat precocious child – bright and used to being the centre of attention. She is independent most of the time, and sometimes slightly sulky. The relationship between grandmother and granddaughter is lovely. They spend their days together – sparing Father the details of their adventures.

Even at the time this book was written there were concerns about the changes happening on the surrounding islands. We can probably all relate to the chapter titled “The Neighbor”. “People who live on islands are always letting their eyes glide along the horizon. They see the lines and curves of the familiar skerries, and the channel markers that have always stood in the same spots, and they are strengthened in their calm awareness that the view is clear and everything is in its place. Now the view was no longer clear. It was broken by a big square house, a new and threatening landmark, a deep notch in the aspect of the horizon that had been their own for a very long time ….. Early one morning, the workman nailed on the tin roof – a huge, angry, glittering roof…”.

Some of you may have beautiful island gardens - you may actually enjoy gardening. Here grandmother and I have something very much in common, we’ve tried half-heartedly over the years to grow a few things on the island without enough success to make it worth the bother. Father, however, has not yet learned to let well enough alone. Not to be defeated, in the chapter “The Enormous Plastic Sausage” Father pulls out all the stops in his attempt at cultivation.

Wanting to discover more about Tove Jansson I did a little research and discovered that “while working as an illustrator and cartoonist for the Swedish-language satirical magazine Garm from the 1930s to 1953. One of her political cartoons achieved a brief international fame: she drew Adolf Hitler as a crying baby in diapers, surrounded by Neville Chamberlain  and other great European leaders, who tried to calm the baby down by giving it slices of cake - Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc.”

Tove Jansson painted and wrote all of her life – and what a wonderful and lasting legacy she has left for us to enjoy.

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