By Tove Jansson
A remote island, one of many in the Finnish archipelago, is the setting for Tove Jansson’s lovely little The Summer Book. Sophie and her grandmother, inhabit the island in the Scandinavian summer. They spend their hours building Venetian castles, writing a book about angleworms, discussing God, Heaven and Hell, superstitions. They squabble, make up, squabble again.They entertain visitors, take in a cat, worry about storms, swim, take a boat out to another island. The summer seems long and endless but the island is filled with fascinating things to wonder about, work on and watch. “A small island, on the other hand, takes care of itself. It drinks melting snow and spring rain and, finally dew, and if there is a drought, the island waits for the next summer and grows its flowers then instead. The flowers are used to it, and wait quietly in their roots. There’s no need to feel sorry for the flowers, Grandmother said.” The island is a character in itself.
Sophie’s father is around in the background, working, planting flowers not native to the island, bringing in supplies; only someone to worry about as he goes out in a storm or someone whose warnings about forbidden things are to be ignored. In the background is also Sophie’s mother’s death, an event that is never fully explored, but which tinges everything.
It’s a series of summers, we are never sure how many. We know little of Sophie’s and her grandmother’s lives other than their island days. Yet what we see of them in these summer days on the island affirms the love they have for each other and for the island. It affirms the power of imagination that lets a little girl and an old woman create an entire world on a tiny piece of land surrounded by sea. Death is always there in the background - the grandmother’s impending one or Sophie’s mother’s recent one. It fills the book with a curious sense of sadness. Yet it is a happy book, one that affirms life and beauty and hope, filled with little nuggets of wisdom and common sense. “Sophie asked her grandmother what Heaven looked like, and Grandmother said it might be like the pasture they were just then walking by, on their way to the village over on the mainland.” or “”It’s funny about love,” Sophie said. “The more you love someone, the less they love you back.” “That’s very true,” Grandmother observed.”And so what do you do?” “ You go on loving,” said Sophie threateningly.” You love harder and harder.””
Sophie and her grandmother wind their way into your heart slowly and gradually. Just as the small island does. And you suddenly realize that you have discovered a gem of a book that you wish you had a child to pass on to.