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the summer of the swans
20 april 2016
The central plot event in The Summer of the Swans is the disappearance of a young boy – we'd now call him "developmentally disabled," though in 1970 "retarded" was already something of a slur and nothing more positive seems to have replaced it. Charlie Godfrey is a gentle kid, mute by choice or necessity after a childhood illness, who loves sweets and swans and is fascinated by his wristwatch. When he wanders into the woods in pursuit of his favorite swans, he has a hard time of it till his family and his West Virginia village mobilize to find him.
Sounds affecting, and it is. Yet what puts Betsy Byars' Newbery-Medal novel a cut above a sentimental after-school suspenser is the reaction of Charlie's sister Sara, the narrative's principal reflector-character. Sara is very concerned about Charlie and immediately starts out looking for him with some of her friends. She's not guilt-ridden – Charlie's wander can't be her fault – but she's apprehensive of some tragedy (while the reader, knowing that Charlie is cold and scared but unendangered, is less so).
Still, Sara spends much of her search time thinking about herself, about other kids, about the shoes that make her self-conscious, about the boy she's rebuffed but whose alert help in the search leads her to reevaluate. Her world may be about to turn upside down, but she can't stop being a self-centered 14-year-old.
The Summer of the Swans is a delicately-evoked vignette of a unique family under mild pressure. Along with an elder sister (Wanda), Sara and Charlie are being raised by their Aunt Willie, their father's sister. Willie isn't that old herself, just over 40, and seems just about able to hold things together. The children's mother has died, and their father (we gradually learn) is alive and supports them, but lives and works far away. There's a minimum of explicit backstory, which is all the better, for my money. In other words it's not Leave it to Beaver, as if Leave it to Beaver had been Leave it to Beaver in the first place, if you think about it. All mildly unhappy families are different in mildly different ways. Coming to puberty in the midst of one is no day at the beach.
Yet we don't really learn much about Sara's puberty in The Summer of the Swans, either. We can infer it from her age and her moods, but Byars' narration remains oblique and subtle. This is not a novel that hits you over the head, and for that very reason it's one of the better and more vital Newbery books of the mid/late-20th century.
Byars, Betsy. The Summer of the Swans. 1970. Illustrated by Ted CoConis. New York: Puffin [Penguin], 1981. PZ 7 .B98396Su