A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry – Review by Jessica Smock

When I was in junior high in the 1980s, I had no idea who Lois Lowry was.  The Giver – or its quartet of related books — hadn’t been written or won the Newbery Award.   

For the most part, I didn’t care about the reputation of a writer.  Sure, I had a few authors that I had liked over the years.  (I went on a Laura Ingalls Wilder binge, for example, for a few years during elementary school.)  Usually, however, I started a book that I took out from either the town or school library or that I ordered from the rural book borrowing delivery program based on its description in that book’s catalog, and that book had to draw me in during the past few pages or I abandoned it.  Reading was my true passion, my only real true love during my early teen years.  I treated books the way that other teenage girls might deal with boys: I approached each one passionately but if a book betrayed me by boring or annoying me, it was gone from my life forever.

I have no idea how I obtained A Summer To Die by Lois Lowry.  But I do remember that I must have read it about forty times during my early teen years.  The fact that it was written by a talented writer like Lois Lowry didn’t impress me at the time, and it wasn’t until years later when I had taught Lowry’s books as a middle school teacher  – my favorite is actually Number the Stars — that I made the connection.  

A Summer To Die is about a smart, misunderstood girl named Meg whose sister Molly is dying from cancer.  Meg is a girl who doesn’t quite fit into her school, is jealous of her easygoing sibling, and is moody and impatient most of the time.  If Molly is adolescent perfection in its purest form – a beautiful, generous cheerleader – then Meg represents everything that is awkward or unsure about those years.  

Their family has moved to a small house in the country with no one else around but her family.  I could relate to everything about Meg, except for the part about the sick sister.

What I still remember years later is Lowry’s talent at characterization through rich, subtle, everyday details.  The quilt that Molly’s sister has on her bed.  The couple next door who talk about expecting a new baby.  The conversations between Meg and her dad, a professor and writer, as they both try to find words to express their shared grief.

Yet why the book still lasts with me is its realistic portrayal of a family grieving.  Meg is not brave nor even kind in her relationship with her sister.  She reacts like a real teenager would to her sister’s illness.  She is often selfish, confused, and resentful.  She’s concerned mostly about the effects of her sister’s cancer on her own daily life.

The novel is also realistic in showing the progression of leukemia.  But, unlike many books from that time period, it is not emotionally manipulative.  Meg’s empathy and bond with her sister grows gradually and authentically.  

A Summer To Die is also a particularly sophisticated portrayal of the importance of community and friendship during a family’s coping with illness, as the neighbors rally around the family during its crisis, and of the potential of emotional healing after death.

When I read this book as a teenager, I sobbed the way that I did when reading many tearjerkers.  But what has stayed with me over the years is the feeling that those tears were truly earned through a series of small heart-breaking truths and relatable family themes.  

This was also the first book that made me realize the power of re-reading, of peeling back the layers in the richness of language and characters with each reading.  And, upon re-reading it today, I am struck by how timeless the story is.  It does not feel dated or untrue.  In fact, as I look back on my own life experiences since that time, this novel feels truer than ever.

Jessica Smock is a former middle school teacher and curriculum coordinator.  She is a doctoral candidate in educational policy at Boston University who defended her dissertation this month and currently writes about parenting, research, and books at School of Smock (http://www.schoolofsmock.com).