Friday, June 14, 2013

Review - "Summer of the Gypsy Moths"

The cover of Sara Pennypacker’s (well known for her Clementine stories) 2012 novel, Summer of the Gypsy Moths, is quite misleading. It depicts two girls on a beach, their hair blowing about in the wind, one girl’s arms raised up in what appears to be a celebratory fashion. On first glance, one might guess this was the story of two girls and their summer of fun. But looks can be misleading. The jacket art, by Julia Denos, is actually more telling if you look closely. Neither girl has a smile on their face. The girl in the background looks pensive, and the girl in the foreground, downright defiant. Their separation is also telling. These girls are hardly acting like best friends. Clearly, there is more going on here than meets the eye.

Stella lives with her Great Aunt Louise (her mother is, for lack of a better word, absent). She would love to have time with her family to herself, but Louise has also taken in a foster child, Angel, to be a companion for Stella. This is a problem, because Stella and Angel do not get along, like oil and water. Their plans are to ignore each other, and hope the summer goes by quickly. But when Great Aunt Louise dies suddenly, leaving the children in a lurch, plans change. Stella does not want to go into the system, and Angel doesn’t want yet another foster family. So together the girls decide to bury Louise in the back garden and fake their way through the summer, making up a myriad of excuses whenever anyone comes to call. Part of their deceit involves having to take care of a set of summer vacation cabins, including handing out keys, babysitting and cleaning up. Can the girls keep up the pretense? Can Angel earn enough money to make it to her aunt’s apartment in the city? Can Stella hold out hope that her mother will return, and they’ll live a happy life together? Can a real family be found, even in the midst of such a mess?
In case you’re wondering, the titular gypsy moths refer to a species of the insect that attack Great Aunt Louise’s blueberry bushes and against whom Stella wages a fierce war. And of course, they are symbolic, representing everything from the outside world that threatens Stella’s little piece of happiness. I wrote in the beginning about the cover being misleading, but really, it’s very representative, you just have to read the whole book to understand why. Stella’s posture of defiance and Angel’s of quiet consideration is only earned after weeks of hardship and struggle. Pennypacker has really outdone herself here, creating rich, varied characters and a story that is hard to forget. The road Stella and Angel travel is not an easy one, and is partly of their own making, but their journey is extraordinary and not to be missed.

Verdict: More middle grade from Ms. Pennypacker please!

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker
2012, Balzer + Bray
Library copy

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