A sensitive young-adult novel about loss set against the backdrop of a castle, where the parents of three friends serve as caretakers
The Summer of the Pike. By Jutta Richter. Illustrated by Quint Buchholz. Translated from the German by Anna Brailovsky. Milkweed, 91 pp., $16.95 (hardcover), $6.95 paperback. Ages 9 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Librarians didn’t give a Newbery Medal to Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt’s great young-adult fantasy about immortality. But in the three decades since its publication, it has found its own kind of eternal life for its sensitive treatment of the cycles of the natural world and their relation to the question, “Why must we die?”
The Summer of the Pike is a couple of notches below that modern classic. But this brief, poignant novel may still appeal to many fans of Babbitt’s book. Like Tuck Everlasting, it offers a complex and thoughtful exploration of death, set against the backdrop of a changing natural world.
Anna and her two best friends, Daniel and Lucas, live on the grounds of a castle in modern Germany where their parents are caretakers. The manor allows the children to enjoy diversions such as feeding the peacocks on the lawn and watching the small silvery fish in the moat. But one May, the boys’ mother begins to show the effects of her cancer treatments, and Daniel suspects she is dying even as adults try to hide the truth from him. Daniel tells himself that if he can catch an elusive pike in the moat, his mother will live. Anna wants to comfort him but is too wise to believe in magic. She dreads that he will catch the pike, because she doesn’t want to see him kill it.
This allegorical novel further resembles Tuck Everlasting in its richness of symbols, some involving water. The moat lacks the magical powers of the spring that confers eternal life in Babbitt’s book but represents the circularity of life and death. There’s also a dual symbolism into the fearsome pike. As a natural predator, it represents that greatest of all predators, death. But the act of fishing in novels often signals the plumbing of a psyche or soul, and its frequent appearance in this book suggests the greater understanding of their lives that Daniel and Anna gain through their losses.
Jutta Richter has won many honors in Germany, and this book leaves no doubt that deserves a wider audience here.. She never denies how sad the loss of a parent is for children. But she avoids the dreary pedagogy of so many American young-adult novels on death, which read less like stories than a forced march through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief. Her tone emerges in Anna’s thoughts as her friends’ mother grows weaker: “She was in the process of disappearing. Just like the yellow of the mustard had disappeared, and the red of the poppies. Just like the little white chamomile blossoms would disappear, and after that the summer lilac.”
Best line: Quoted above in the last line of the review.
Worst line: Anna Brailovksky’s translation is lucid but includes occasional solecisms. One is her use of “alright,” which is not an English word, for “all right.”
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.
Published: November 2006 www.milkweed.org
Furthermore: Jutta Richter’s The Cat: Or, How I Lost Eternity (Milkweed, $14, paperback) will be published later this month in an edition translated by Anna Brailovsky and illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner. Richter’s German honors include the 2004 Herman Hesse Prize for her body of work.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.