Whether she sets her stories in India, as she did in her National Book Award-winning novel, Homeless Bird, or in Russia, as she did with her remarkable trilogy beginning with Angel in the Square, Whelan is that rare storyteller who has the ability to invest the settings of her stories with the kind of emotional resonance usually found only in the most carefully drawn characters.
In her newest book, Summer of the War, Whelan returns to an island off the coast of her beloved Michigan’s upper peninsula, a setting which she explored in The Island Trilogy (Once on this Island, Farewell to the Island, and Return to the Island), during and after the events of the War of 1812, except that her new book is set during World War II.
When the story opens, the war feels very far away as fourteen year-old Mirabelle and her brother and sisters join their grandparents at the cottage on Turtle Island, just as they have for as long as Belle can remember.
In winter’s ice and snow we closed our eyes and saw the green island and the blue lake and were comforted. I dreamed about the big wooden cottage painted green so that it disappeared into the trees. I knew every tree and every inch of deserted beach. It made the world better just to think about the summer afternoons that never seemed to end and the long evenings when we sat on the porch watching the sun sink into the lake like a great orange balloon. The minute school was out, we began packing.
Belle’s love for the island shines through in this paragraph, and in time we feel the same depth of emotion that she has for the island, as well as for her gruff but lovable Grandpa, her generous and understanding Grandma, her brother, Tommy, 10, and sisters, Emily, 12, and Nancy, 8.
For Belle, it’s as if time stands still on the island and nothing changes. And, though this year her parents have decided to stay behind in Detroit to help with the war effort (her father, too old for service, volunteers to help build planes; her mother, a doctor, must practice medicine again), Belle hopes this summer on the island can still offer the same unchanging stretch of time as previous summers.
But war inevitably intrudes on her fantasy. It comes to Belle and her family despite the island’s remote location and its natural beauty, which serves as a strong emotional counterpoint throughout the story to the far-off rumblings of war.
At first, the war infiltrates the island’s peace in subtle ways. Not only does the family have to scrimp on gas because of rationing, but Belle’s friend, Ned, has dreams of joining the Navy next year. Then one day a letter arrives announcing the arrival of Belle’s older cousin, Caroline, who lived with her father in France after her mother (Belle's Aunt Julia) died and, once the war began, moved back to the states to live in Washington, DC. When the State Department assigns Carrie’s father to England, Carrie is sent to stay with her cousin, Belle, and the rest of her mother’s family in Michigan.
From the moment Carrie steps off the boat onto the island’s dock, it’s like a bomb exploding, shattering the island’s peace and sending sharp and painful reminders of war’s destructiveness into the hearts of Belle’s family and the islanders who are part of their life on the island. The fragments pierce Belle’s heart especially. She had initially looked forward to a summer with a cousin who speaks French and has seen the world. Only her anticipation turns to horror as Carrie shows her disdain for everything to do with her relatives and their provincial life on the island.
Belle tries hard to sympathize. But no matter how hard she tries to overlook the mess that Carrie makes in the room that they share, her cousin’s rudeness to her friends, and the way her cousin thinks nothing of stealing her best friend, Belle's life on the once-tranquil island only becomes more and more miserable. Belle had longed for a summer of sameness. Now she has to deal with a summer of endless changes, frustration, and disagreeable surprises.
Despite the unexpected disruption in their lives, Belle and her family try to observe the same rituals that they’ve observed every summer--repairing the stone cribs that support the dock, taking trips into town for groceries, watching the wild waves on the Lake Huron side of the island, planting a garden, bird-watching. But, nonetheless, Belle feels herself changing, and despises her cousin for bringing change into her life and to the island, which, until this year, had always been a sanctuary of peacefulness.
It isn’t until Carrie runs off during the night that Belle realizes just how much she is at war with Carrie, and how much Carrie is at war with the family. As much as Belle had hoped the island’s remote peacefulness might have protected her from the war, she finally realizes that war has come to the island and touched her, too.
But the "war" on the island ends when the mail brings tragic news of Carrie’s father in London. With this news, the entire family–including Carrie–understands that she is now a permanent member of the family in ways that both she and Belle must come to accept. In time, Belle does learn what Carrie wants most--the ability to be herself--and Carrie is able to accept the kindness offered by a family who she hadn’t known before, especially after she discovers in the attic clues to her mother’s past that help cement the fragile bond that she feels with Grandpa and Grandma, Belle, and the rest of her new family.
In this process of transfomation, Carrie shows her cousin something that Belle needed to learn about her family and herself:
...Carrie’s look said she would be one of the family but she would still be Carrie. Grandpa’s look said, “Yes, but it’s my decision to let you be Carrie.” I realized with a shock that Grandpa didn’t mind a little independence, that you could be independent and he’d still be there watching over you to see that you were safe. Carrie had opened a door for me. I saw that like the stone cribs, Grandpa and the rest of the family supported us, holding us together, but like the stones in the cribs, each one of us was different from the other and that was all right.With a magical touch, Whelan spins a story of the war and its horrors on a remote island in Michigan’s north woods, and offers readers a remarkable portrait of two very different girls at a time when not only their lives but the entire world is changing
(Summer of the War by Gloria Whelan is scheduled for release from HarperCollins Publishers in August, 2006. For more information, check out harperteen.com or Gloria Whelan’s website at www.gloriawhelan.com.)