Summer, Stories, and Schadenfraude

 

“I’m always going to call this summer the Thimble Summer.” Elizabeth Enright, Thimble Summer

When I was my daughter’s age, summers were spent sitting outside in a tire swing on our small patch of green on a city street, under a weeping willow, while my mother retold her own adapted versions of Tennessee Williams plays. My favorite was the Glass Menagerie, with the misheard illness “blue roses” and the fragile animal collection, and it wasn’t until I was older when I better understood the context and nuances of the story. I still marvel at her ability to create sanitized, non-tragic versions of Night of the Iguana and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but she was a better storyteller than I will ever be.

What I remember about those summers are the stories, and the way that summer was synonymous with reading and telling stories. I read Nancy Drew books in the car on the way to the ocean, stretched out on a hot day in a lawn chair with a comic book and a glass of lemonade, read under the covers when it was too hot or stormy to sleep. I don’t get nearly enough time to read now, or read for enjoyment hardly at all, but books still mark time for me in a new tradition I have started with my daughter. The first day of summer, we begin Thimble Summer.

It’s better-written than the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, more lyrical and elegant, and Enright did the 1930s-art deco color illustrations herself (the book was published in 1939, and was in fact the Newberry Award winner for that year.) A city kid, I had always wanted to live on a farm, and Garnet (how my mother and I loved that name!) was a Wisconsin farm girl, an existence I envied, even though she had no running water and no electricity and it was the Great Depression.

One of my students pointed out a few years ago the appeal of “playing poor” as a child, citing the Boxcar Children as an inspiration. She and her siblings would pretend to live in the boxcar, forage for broken cups and plates and edible weeds, and have so much fun acting out the story. For some reason, tales about poverty were more appealing than Disney stories, and not in a “aren’t poor people so lucky because they live such simple and uncomplicated lives and know what’s really important” bullshit trickle-down economics way, but maybe in a way that allowed us to test ourselves, to see how we could manage hard times. For me, the 1970s, with the gas shortage and the recession was an anxiety-producing time, but you could read Thimble Summer or the Boxcar Children or even more contemporary stories about working-class families like Ramona and her Father or the Noonday Friends and see that other people had it worse, and that yes, not having money sucks, but that there are other ways to imagine how to navigate it beyond the rags to riches fantasy. After all, even the Boxcar Children end up moving their old boxcar onto the lawn of their grandfather’s estate.

 

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