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thimble summer

12 february 2012

Thimble Summer, winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal, comes from a placid that-magic-summer genre that even includes, at a great cultural distance, the 2012 Newbery Medal book Dead End in Norvelt. It is the summer when everything and nothing changes for Garnet Linden, when she learns about the world of adults and goes on being a child. It's a plotless summer. Things happen, first among them Garnet's discovery of a "magic" silver thimble, but they are incidents strung on a thread, not a mesh of desires and schemes. Thimble Summer is lovely and lyrical, acknowledging some harsh realities of Depression America, but making nothing tragic out of them. Above all it embodies a belief in certainties: the certainty of rural life, of self-sufficient communities, of the settler ethos, of the basic goodness of the heartland. In other words, it's fiction; but fiction, after all, is a way of expressing the world we'd like to make if we could.

Thimble Summer is a chronicle of midwest yeomanry. The Lindens and their neighbors help each other raise barns, tend the kiln that provides lime for building, and get the harvest in. Even the quaint little towns that dot the agricultural landscape seem like metropolitan centers, with their shops and attractions – not least of which is a public library that Garnet and her friend Citronella get locked into overnight, so avid are they to read and impress the Newbery jury. Anyone who wants to work hard in this fecund, tradition-bound world of simple technologies and unaffected abundance is welcome to a place at the table and a pile of flapjacks.

It has to be noted that Elizabeth Enright herself knew about midwestern farms mainly as guest and observer. She did spend a lot of time in rural Wisconsin as a child, at her uncle Frank Lloyd Wright's estate Taliesen; her relation to the land was more that of curious gentry than salt of the earth. Having made that necessary observation, though, I want to qualify it. How much writing really proceeds from an authentic connection to non-literary work? Writers are writers, after all; they observe, they assimilate, and then they set to work with their own tools and materials.

And Enright was more than a writer. Trained as a graphic artist, she was her own illustrator. The pictures in Thimble Summer are as memorable as the text, perhaps more so. They are stylized, modernist, and boldly designed. They are representational, but with abstract elements (falling rain, abundant domestic objects drawn out of perspective) that convey a sense of rural life itself as stylized, repetitive, comfortable, and democratic.

The 1930s in America were not a time of rosy optimism. Thimble Summer idealizes them, but shouldn't be blamed for that; not all writers of the time could be Clifford Odets or John Steinbeck. Hopping a freight train in Thimble Summer, as a robust youth named Eric does, is for Enright a ticket away from cares, not a sentence to indigence. But in its own way Enright's idealized Midwest is a model for the quasi-socialized world of subsistence homesteads that was part of the Roosevelt dream. (And still part of ours; it's the setting of Gantos's Norvelt.) Thimble Summer is a gentle book, now largely forgotten. But Enright herself knew the romance of forgotten things, and she might appreciate how her work has aged.

Enright, Elizabeth. Thimble Summer. 1938. New York: Square Fish/Holt [Macmillan], 2010.