Sara Pennypacker. You know her, right? She’s the creator of the irrepressible Clementine, a series that’s up to five books so far, with the last being just as well-loved as the first. I’d read a couple of reviews of her latest book, a non-Clementine title, and the reviews were so different that when I saw the the title at the library, I picked it up to form my own opinion of the story. (One review was rapturously positive and one was very negative over what the reader considered to be extremely disturbing elements of the story.) My response is overall positive, though not nearly as effusively positive as the review linked above. The story neither shocked shocked nor scandalized me.
Summer of the Gypsy Moths is the story of Stella, a foster child taken in by her great aunt Louise, and Angel, an orphan taken in by Louise from “the system.” Stella and Angel are total opposites–Stella is organized and responsible, having been raised by a completely undependable and irresponsible mother. Angel is rebellious and angry, interested mainly in running away to live with her aunt who considers it her “fate” to care for Angel. The problem of the story presents itself very early when Louise dies from an undisclosed heart condition not long after Louise and Angel have come to live with her. Louise and Angel make a hasty decision to not tell the authorities; instead, they bury Louise themselves in the garden and carry on with life as if Louise is just down with a broken ankle. Louise is the caretaker for a quartet of vacation rental cabins on Cape Code, and Stella, responsible as she is, is completely capable of changing over the cabins between summer tenants. What she doesn’t know, she can look up in her collection of Heloise columns she inherited upon her grandmother’s death. It’s a long summer of work, hunger, and dodging pointed questions about Louise, but through it Stella and Angel learn to depend on each other and that maybe family doesn’t look like what one expects.
Summer of the Gypsy Moths is well-written, with fully-realized main characters. I especially like how Stella has learned to cope with the instabilities in her life–by imagining herself as an iceberg:
I stayed cool, remembering the Museum of Science film about icebergs I’d seen. Those icebergs, floating silent and steady, ignoring the fierce storms raging around them. Since Angel had moved in, I’d had to remind myself about the icebergs a lot. (8)
Stella is a very likeable character, all rules and regulations and routines. She knows how to get things done, but behind that very responsible facade is a little girl who desperately wants someone to love her. Likewise, there’s much more to Angel than meets the eye. Yes, she is an angry child, but she’s also talented and cares more about Louise and Stella than it seems at first. Pennypacker excels at character development.
As much as I enjoyed Summer of the Gypsy Moths, though, it didn’t just wow me. The length of time the girls manage to carry on their charade seems to me a bit much–how could two pre-teens get away with something like this when Louise actually had responsibilities and people who would miss her? While I didn’t think it far-fetched or unbelievable that two foster children would try to escape the system indefinitely, I just don’t think that in real life it would be quite so easy to pull it off. (I have relatives who have been foster parents for years and have adopted four children through the system, so I have had some personal experience observing and interacting with foster children.) Of course, this is a middle grade novel, so I was willing to suspend disbelief to stay with the story. It’s a very common theme in middle grade fiction, too–children–girls, especially–looking for family. Maybe it just seemed a little too “been there, done that” to me, with the difference that this one contains an over-the-top story element. It’s not to say that it isn’t a very good, solid story–it is. Right now I’m reading with an eye to the Cybils, and this one didn’t do it for me. It’s nice, but not wow. (HarperCollins, 2012)
**Conservative readers will want to know that there is a reference in this book to “all different kinds of families,” which includes those with two mommies, etc. It’s a slight, quick reference–just a passing thought of Stella’s–but it is there.