The Secret Summer is a wistful story, not necessarily coming of age but coming of truth story about families and how we fit into them.
It has hints of nostalgic stories, a dash of classic Judy Blume, a sprinkle of folk stories, fables and legends it’s a gorgeous story about storytelling, the ones we tell the world and the ones we tell ourselves.
Miranda is bereft. She has felt something has been broken between her and her mother for years, a cold shoulder, excused to take business trips all around the world barely spending any time or effort on her daughter so desperate for her love.
One summer with her mum off on another trip, and her father working a career defining case she is being packed off to the only place her parents had left- her ‘Aunt’ Clare, her mother’s best friend who lives with her mixed heritage family on an Island off the coast of Florida and Miranda is terrified of the water.
Across the summer Miranda bonds with Clare’s daughter Sammy, a local boy Caleb and after a dare they get into trouble with a local man thought dead but returned after a long journey. In recompense they help him unpack both his belongings and the stories he gathered on his journey, each ringing symbolism in some way to truths and secrets in the hearts of the children… but there is much more hidden to be uncovered.
The book (without spoilers) deals with the secrets the characters keep Miranda her feeling of being to blame for her mother’s coldness, Sammy her sense of shame about her shame at being not quite American nor Indian ‘enough’, and Caleb at his own fears about being ‘good enough’.
About how these secrets can destroy us inside, but how a problem shared can make a world of difference to the reality of feelings, and how we may be worth much more than we believe.
The book is also clearly about family, about good families, struggling families and broken families and the stories that make or break us and how even well intentioned secrets can fester and spoil relationships but, as this is Middle Grade, there is hope to rebuild.
I once stayed for a month in a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas. Every morning, I went to one café in town, and every morning, I had the same waitress, a young woman with kindness in her eyes. One day, when I had been there a few weeks, we began to talk,
What I found remarkably clever about this novel is that it takes the ‘Old Man Telling Tales’ trope and makes it a modern road to enlightenment, but on a child friendly level.
It has a structure that includes not only story within a story as Taylor tells the children origin of objects from his adventures there is the Nested Story structure where he retells the stories he has collected from people he has met and often these are second or third hand stories too about parents, grandmothers, ancestors or great people.
But this book isn’t so much about the reliability of the storyteller, the emphasis is switched to the meaningfulness of stories and heritage through the feelings evoked in the child listeners all of whom react and resonate with the stories in different ways. With some stories seeming to be hand picked for reflecting the problems of the children themselves.
I gazed up at the light trickling down through the leaves of the August soak. Its branches were hung with clumps of wiry brown stuff that Sammy said was called Spanish Moss. The light made it glow. It reminded me of that old fairy tale mum used to read me, the one with the princess who weaves straw unto gold. I wondered if mum had ever sat in the exact same bench and thought the exact same thing.
Miranda’s experience on the Isle is beautifully evocative of long hot summers of nostalgic children’s books of the past, the Stand by Me and Now and Then of the book world (and Oh my goodness I’ve remembered how much I loved Now & Then and wish SO hard they released it on streaming/blu-ray!!). From the sun screen scented skin to salt sprayed hair and the taste of ice cream in interesting flavours from honeysuckle to goats cheese.
There’s clearly nods from the heritage of Judy Blume novels from the struggles in school to the blossoming crushes reminding me of Just As Long As We’re Together for example but with a much more gentle innocence than Blume.
Overall this is such a wonderful atmospheric and beautiful book about secrets, lies, broken & bruised hearts & hope, such wistful hope.
The Secret Summer by Ali Standish is published by Orchard Books. I received this book through a review scheme this has not affected my opinion.