The last time my sister came to visit, we were reminiscing over our once-impressive book collection. We estimated that we easily had 500 or more books. (We can't recall the majority of books in our collection, but we still regret donating our "Elfquest" and "Sandman" complete sets.) Due to moving multiple times and across the Pacific, I now have a much smaller collection. I happily satisfy my thirst for new books at the library - I always feel like I'm getting away with something when I walk out with a stack of books! But "Summer and Bird" by Katherine Catmull is one book that I'll be adding to my collection - I've already got a used copy from Powell's on its way here. I'm buying my own copy to share with friends and to reread.
***These are the opening lines of "Summer and Bird": "The evening before that terrible morning, Summer and Bird were at the edge of the forest. As the light left, they were half together and half apart" (emphasis added by me).
This phrase leapt out at me when I opened the book for review. "Summer and Bird" can be read on one level as a fantasy, a beautifully crafted fairytale about two girls who tumble into the land of the birds. But if you read this book down to its bones, past the mysterious little red house, the wooden egg, the bird-hungry Puppeteer, and other archetypally resonant objects and events, you will understand that this is a book about family, about how closely we cling to and long for those we grow up with, while not understanding the distances between us. And some of these distances are irreconcilable, and learning to observe and respect these distances is part of growing up.
Older sister Summer is practical-minded, active, and thinks like her ornithologist father. Bird is like her mother, who speaks in poems and riddles. Bird is the one who notices that as much as their mother loves the forest, she is "sad and strange" when she returns. They enter the forest in search of their parents, who vanished overnight. All their parents leave behind is the open door of the "inside closet," a compartment they could never open, and a picture letter.
The sisters are quickly separated - not only by physical distance, but by guilt and envy. Summer struggles with the guilt that she was the one who led Bird into the forest, and that Bird's subsequent disappearance is her fault. She also struggles with being in a land that is dictated by song, riddle, and story - a land where her little sister can learn from and converse with a patchwork bird, where cranes draw maps, and Summer is entrusted with a wooden egg. Bird is blinded by hunger: she longs to be the next bird queen, and in her desire to be a bird, she falls prey to the Puppeteer's poison.
Their parents are also separated, and how they first came to be together - and what pulls them apart - is central to the story. Catmull shows how a relationship, even one built on the seemingly solid foundation of a home, a life together, and two children, can be a delicate balancing act, and how longings beyond our control can tear a relationship beyond repair. The push-and-pull of Summer and Bird's parents' relationship is revealed in a recounting of their travels together: "At those times of year, her whole body turned toward another home. And twice a year, on one of their canoe trips, her yearning oars drew their boat off balance, toward a little inlet on the north side of the river, almost masked with overhanging vines and brush. He would feel her yearning and fear it, and pull strong on the other side. For a while, they would paddle this way, in silence, each pulling at their oars as hard as they could, in opposite directions. But their father always won. He kept the canoe sailing straight. And their mother relented and seemed to forget, although she was quiet and sad for days after."
Catmull's writing is lovely, if you like prose with poetic leanings. This is her description of Summer's envy of Bird: "She had had a lifetime of strange, special Bird, called by the turning, burning earth, specially taught (and specially loved?) by their mother, while she herself was only pale and practical, with an unmagnetic, unhearing soul."
After finishing the book, I hopped on Goodreads to see what other people thought. How the novel ends is a sticking point for some readers; while some people didn't like it, I thought it was fitting and honest. I was reminded of my own experience with my parents' divorce - things change, and while many of the changes are for the better, the ghost of what was is always there, too.
Elements of this novel reminded me of Hans Christian Andersen's work. What's always intrigued me about Andersen's stories is that they stemmed from deeply personal experiences and interests, yet contain ideas and thoughts that tap into the roots of who we are and resonate across time and cultures. It's wonderful when you can find a novel that helps you understand a little bit of yourself better - and "Summer and Bird" is one such book.