YA Book Club: Lois Lowry’s ‘A Summer to Die’
Friends, this is my death book. At least, it was growing up.
What is a death book, you ask? It’s the book you read (and read, and read) as a child that focused on the death of a beautiful, innocent, forever-preserved in amber character, who was most likely saintly and blonde. As adults, we take for granted that we understand the concept of death, or in the very least, we’ve been faced with its reality enough times to know what loss feels like. I know for me, reading books about it as a kid helped turn the hypothetical into a more firm grasp on what it actually means to die (even if that was typically couched as a cheerleader murdering her peers due to an ancient evil that possesses her.) Although as an adult, having faced loss, death is still an unknowable thing to me.
As a result of this being my death book, A Summer To Die always has a soft spot in my heart. I remember it fondly (if not vaguely) so I’m always shocked when I pick it up again, because it makes me cry every time. This, as you may know, is not my usual trashy fare, so I tend to forget that until I read it, again. It’s a very sweet, moving book.
So, what is A Summer to Die about?
Meg Chalmers is 13 years old and wants to be somebody when she grows up. She doesn’t exactly know who, yet, but she knows she wants to make a difference. That’s a stark contrast to her older sister Molly, who is 15, beautiful, and only dreams of getting married and having kids. Despite their differences, the two girls get along as well as you could expect now that they have to share a bedroom in an old house out in the countryside.
Their father is an English professor at a University, and he’s been granted a 1-year sabbatical to finish his book. Since he was always getting distracted in their big house in “the city,” he moved his two daughters and wife out to the country to get some peace and quiet.
You’d think that this would cause turmoil and upset amongst the Chalmers sisters, but it doesn’t. Other than having to share a room for the first time, they get along pretty well. Molly gets a boyfriend right off the bat, and Meg begins to pursue her hobby of photography in earnest, while their father writes, and their mother works on a quilt that she is making from the scraps of the girls’ childhood outfits. Life goes on. It’s an idyllic way to pass the winter for the family, if not a little isolated. That changes when Meg begins to explore her surroundings and encounters the owner of the property her family is renting from, an older man named Will. Through Will Meg finds a friend and someone to talk to outside of her family.
The winter passes relatively uneventfully, save for a stubborn cold Molly has, the primary symptom of which is persistent nosebleeds. The village doctor says that’s just the cold, dry winter air, and she should get better once spring comes.
While Molly is recuperating, she spends her time languishing on the couch in the kitchen, in a “centerfold model” pose (Meg’s words) while life happens around her. She also, at one point, gets upset at her mother for including her first bra as a piece of the quilt, which is by far the most vivid scene in my memory from when I read this as a child.
…And for a while, Molly does get better, but only for a while.
Spring comes and one night Meg wakes up with the feeling that something isn’t right. Molly is having an uncontrollable nose bleed, so Meg must wake up her parents and they rush Molly to the hospital leaving Meg alone in the house. Molly won’t return home for weeks, and during this time, all Meg is told is that Molly is “sick” and that they’re trying to find the right medication to treat her illness. When she’s finally given pills to treat her illness, Meg is confused why it took so long for the doctors to finally settle on simple pills.
With Molly home, life attempts to return to normal for Meg, although Molly’s personality is changed. She’s no longer even-tempered and good-humored. She’s tired, brittle, and gets upset easily. Meg begins to resent her sister for being coddled by her parents and refusing to be her normal self. She’s on pills, after all. She’s going to be fine.
During this time, another house on the property is rented to a young pregnant couple, Maria and Ben. They are a weird couple, with a complete lack of personal boundaries. I didn’t like them as a kid, and I didn’t like them now.
Since the property is so remote (Molly only gets to see her boyfriend at school, although they still talk on the phone) the three houses form a community, and the girls spend a lot of their free time with either Will, Ben and Maria, or all three. Meg is interested in the couple because they are fixing up the house, putting in a garden, and trying to restore the property to what it once was. Molly is fixated on the baby and spends her time with Maria making clothes for it.
Through Will, Meg has a common interest in photography, and she and Will spend hours working in the darkroom her father built for her, experimenting with developing prints. Will teaches Molly the names of wildflowers, which she memorizes and presses in her flower book. Will even brings Molly pussy willow sprigs to help her feel better once she’s home from the hospital. She keeps them in an empty vase on her nightstand so they’ll never bloom and thus won’t die.
During this time, Meg is spending more time with Ben and Maria, and at some point, Ben, like a big dummy, finally asks Meg about Molly. All Meg tells him is that she’s sick and taking pills to get better. Then, this damned idiot thinks it’s a great idea to show her around the house, pointing out where the baby will be born. Where it will sleep. Maria jumps in and grabs both her breasts and proclaims that this is “where it’ll eat.” If that’s not weird enough, f*cking Ben takes Meg by the hand, Meg, who JUST told him her sister was sick, and leads her outside to point out where they will bury the baby. YES. RECORD SCRATCH NOISE HERE. These f*cks think it is appropriate to demonstrate where they will bury the baby should their home delivery without a doctor should go wrong. Let that sink in for a second. I get that we as human beings were doing home births for millennia without going to the hospital. We were also dying of smallpox, tetanus, and drinking dirty water, so, like, embrace modern medicine, man. At least have a damn doula with you when you give birth. Meg is appropriately horrified at this display of complete lack of boundaries and empathy, tells Ben he is the worst, and runs off. You go, girl!
However, things are getting worse with Molly and she begins to withdraw from her previous life. Her boyfriend is no longer mentioned, although Meg notes that he has a new girlfriend, toward the end of the school year. All Molly does is sleep and pursue her hobby of wildflowers. This all comes to a head when Meg, in the middle of the night, sees that Molly has dark lesions all over her legs, and summons her parents, who take her to the hospital once more. Before she leaves her home, Molly tearfully requests that Meg ask Ben and Maria to not have the baby until she can return.
So Meg, freaked out, alone, thirteen years old, with her sister back in the hospital, goes over to Ben and Maria’s once more, and apologizes. “It’s all cool, man” is basically their response and then they ask Meg to be there to photograph the birth of their child. I mean, they refuse to have a doctor present, but a 13-year-old girl is fine? These f*cking people. We all agree they would absolutely refuse to vaccinate their child, yes? Yes.
It is during this time that Meg finally realizes that Molly isn’t going to get better. She confronts her father about it one night, and he finally tells her the truth. Molly has leukemia—and as long as there was a chance she could recover, the diagnosis was kept from Meg (but obviously not Molly, who was clearly going through the grieving process about her life ending, in the background, as Meg was narrating this story.) However, there is no medical chance for recovery now, and Molly will die. Meg has a hard time processing this information (for obvious reasons) and can’t bring herself to visit her sister in the hospital.
She’s summoned one morning to come to Maria and Ben’s—the baby is on its way.
Meg’s sister is dying in the hospital, Ben and Maria clearly have an idea of that, and they think it’s appropriate to have Meg there to witness their home birth, where there is no medical professional present—exponentially upping the risk that something could go wrong with this whole process. This poor child is going through a traumatic time. Her parents are preoccupied with their dying daughter, and you chucklef*cks are having her work for free, photographing the entire process, where they have taken basically no precautions to ensure there is a contingency plan in case something goes wrong, save for picking out the damn burial plot for the child should it die. These dummies need to get a damn grip on reality.
Anyway, their baby boy is born without a hitch, and Ben hands him to Meg while he cleans Maria up. When Ben asks her how the baby is doing, Meg replies “Everything’s fine. The baby says to tell you he’s happy.”
And that, friends, is how those two decided to name their child “Happy.” I’m not kidding.
Meg, after having witnessed Happy’s birth, feels ready to finally go see her sister in the hospital, bringing her the pussy willow sprigs that were still on her bedside. Her father warns her that Molly is beyond feeling pain at this point, but that it might be a shock to see her sister hooked up to that many machines. He notes that dying is a solitary process, and that all the family can do for Molly now is be there to give her love when she wants it. Are you crying yet? Because I am.
Meg’s visit with Molly is uneventful and short. Molly dies, without fanfare, two weeks later. She simply goes to sleep one afternoon and never wakes up.
Now Meg, and what remains of her family, are left to pick up the pieces of their lives, without Molly in it. They return to their city house, her father has finished his book, but Meg returns to the country property with her father one Fall day to visit Will. He asked that she return during this time to show her his favorite flower, the one that reminded him of her: the fringed venetian. It’s the last wildflower of the season, before winter comes, and it grows alone, where it wants, “not caring if anyone sees them or not.” Meg thanks him for taking her picture, which he entered into an exhibition her father had previously shown her at his university, because the image had made her beautiful and she saw just how much she looked like her sister. The book ends with Will telling Meg, “you were beautiful all along.”
I still love this book. A coming of age tale about growing up in your older sister’s shadow, while she’s dying… that’s a heavy concept. It could have been a maudlin, saccharine, overly sentimental trite piece of crap (which, let’s be honest, Lurlene McDaniel built an empire on those kinds of books) but in Lowry’s hands, this is a sweet, melancholy tale. Although Ben and Maria have always felt out of place to me. Maybe I just have a thing against hippies with no boundaries? I don’t know.
This is the first time I have ever had a copy of A Summer to Die that had an author’s afterward in it—and for the first time the pieces of the puzzle clicked in to place for me. In it, Lowry writes about how her own older sister died prematurely (but is vague on details, and her age at death.) Lowry was able to write so intimately about Meg and Molly’s relationship because it’s one she experienced firsthand. It makes the impact of the book even more devastating when you realize where it’s coming from.
I genuinely love this book, and I’m sure it’s one I will revisit even as I get older—but, friends? I don’t think I’ll ever come around on Ben and Maria. They will always remain the worst.
Next week we’re going to cover another book that was in the constant cycle of being reread: Judy Blume’s Deenie. Until then!
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