Thursday, March 17, 2011

Summer people

I participate in a book group that reads and discusses a slew (8-10) of new children's books each month. We rely on the group's members who might belong to an ALA Youth Media Award committee, but we struck out a bit for our March reading, so I suggested that we read a classic children's book instead: Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright. This book is as old as I am! It mostly wears it well.

Portia Blake has spent every summer with her cousin Julian's family deep in the country (in upstate New York?), but this is the first year she and her younger brother Foster have made the trip themselves. Portia has a bit of a crush on her slightly older cousin, despite the fact that he calls her Porsh. She's looking forward to long summer days exploring the area's natural beauty (even though Julian has a tendency to kill the insects and butterflies he finds). During one of their outings, they make their way through some overgrowth and find themselves on the edge of a swampy, mosquito-infested lake. But the lake has abandoned summer cottages all around it, and when Julian and Portia go exploring they discover that two of the cottages are occupied.

The two elderly residents are Minnehaha Cheever and her brother Pindar Payton, whose family had a cottage on the lake when it was called Lake Tarrigo. But in 1903, a dam was built nearby and the lake soon began to silt up and all the summer families left. Min and Pin decided to come back, christening the lake Gone-Away, since they prefer to live away from society. Nothing much has changed for them since 1903. But they are delighted to meet the children, and Portia and Julian are equally enchanted.

The two kids visit nearly every day, and -- after Foster gets into trouble following them -- share their secret with a few friends. The children decide to make over one of the cottages into a clubhouse, and when Portia's father and mother are invited to Gone-Away, they decide to buy the least-rundown house (that of Mrs. Brace-Gideon, so you know it's fancy), so that they can live in the country year-round.

[This image from the book's frontispiece came from 1904: The Year Everything Important Happened. The illustrations are by Beth and Joe Krush.]

Gone-Away Lake is nostalgic without being sentimental, so I think it reads fairly well in 2011. Portia and Julian's independence is something we think of nostalgically (kids today just aren't able to roam far and wide), but this level of independence occurs in a lot of children's books so I don't think it's impossible for kids to relate to. The idea of a long, lazy summer with "nothing" to do is vividly created here -- more nostalgia. And if the gender roles are a little unyielding (once Portia and Julian invite friends to Gone-Away, Portia gets shunted aside in the exploring arena and goes off to play dress-up with Min's 19th-century wardrobe), well, it was published in 1957. While it doesn't have the action of modern children's books, there is plenty of discovery that may keep a young reader turning the pages.

The narrator, Colleen Delany, reads this in a fairly old-fashioned way. The narration feels very breathless and "wide-eyed," as if she wants to make sure that we understand that every single thing that happens in this novel is equally important. I find this somewhat exhausting to listen to. This is particularly evident when Delany is voicing Portia. And, for a younger boy character -- Davey, a friend of Foster's -- she does the thing I think I hate the most: Speaking through a stuffed nose. Why is that ever a choice for young boys?

Delany's formality works best with the characters of Min and Pin, who come across with a stateliness that is in line with their refusal to change with the times. And I appreciate that she doesn't go all quavery (and "old") with them.

I listened to another of Enright's novels about a year ago, and I think I liked it better. But there's no denying that her books have a real feel for childhood -- a childhood that doesn't date: One of happy families, kid-friendly adventures and self-discovery without a lesson.

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
Narrated by Colleen Delany
Listen and Live Audio, 2008 6:00

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