Cicada Summer, Andrea Beaty's first middle grade novel, was my fifth book for the 48 Hour Book Challenge. Cicada Summer is one of those books that is brief yet substantial, a quick read that stays with the reader long after the book is closed.
It's a cicada summer in the small, southern Illinois town of Olena. Every seventeen years the cicadas hatch from the ground, and fill the town with their buzzing. The buzzing provides a backdrop to life-altering events for a girl named Lily Mathis. Lily has been hiding in plain sight ever since the death of her brother two years earlier, silent and never looking anyone in the eye. Everyone believes that she is brain-damaged, though the reader learns the details of what happened to Lily and her brother only gradually. She secretly pays attention to details, and sneaks Nancy Drew novels out of the library, but no one else knows this. Until, that is, Tinny Bridges comes to town, and catches Lily reading.
Tinny is trouble for Lily right from the get-go. She steals things, and blames Lily. She manipulates her way into every corner of Lily's life, taking things that Lily feels are hers, things that she can't defend without revealing her secret. And eventually, Tinny and Lily change one another's lives forever.
Tinny and Lily are both complex, multi-layered characters. Lily shuffles around town and wanders in and out of school, and lets her father think he's lost her, too, but she notocies everything. Tinny lies and steals and puts on airs to impress the adults, but she notices everything, too. And you wonder whether, perhaps, her actions are a deliberate attempt to push Lily back into the land of the living.
The small-town setting, especially the scenes that take place in the general store, feels pitch-perfect. Andrea Beaty reveals both a gift for language and a keen sense of Lily's voice throughout the book. I could have flagged something to quote on nearly every page. But here are a couple of examples:
"The other road that heads north and south into the countryside is blacktop, but only as far as Neal's Hill. After that, it gives up and turns into gravel, and when it's gone so far nobody cares anymore, it narrows down to a dirt lane between soybean fields." (Chapter 2)
"Most everything in Olena is on the Hard Road. At one end, there's the Olena First Baptist Church. I guess the first settlers were hoping for more people, but we never got enough for a Second Baptist Church. Just a few Methodists out in the country, but they don't bother anybody." (Chapter 2)
"Sometimes when the store is crowded, there are four or five stories going on at the same time, and the women's voices swirl around in the air and bubble up and splash like water on rocks. The sound is smooth and sweet." (Chapter 4)
See what I mean? Beaty draws on all of the senses in her descriptions, but especially uses sound as a recurring motif. Ironic, the way that Lily notices sounds, even though she has withdrawn her voice from the sounds of the community. I kind of want to just quote the whole book. Just one more passage, one that shows the understated humor in Fern's voice:
"Our Old Lady Parties started when I was about six, because Fern noticed how much tomato soup Dad was buying in the store.
"Those kids will turn into tomato soup if you don't learn to cook, Paul Mathis!" she said.
That Friday night, Fern turned up on our porch with a pot of chicken and dumplings and a blackberry cobbler.
We let her right in."
Lily's single parent father (the mother apparently died when Lily was very young) is a quiet, constant presence. His love of and fear for his daughter are revealed through a protective gesture that he makes throughout the book. And his love means everything to Lily.
I'm just going to go ahead and say it. This book has that Newbery award feel to me. Deep characters, beautiful writing with pockets of humor, and a touching story. I would like to read it again, to savor it (but not until after the 48 Hour Book Challenge). Highly, highly recommended. Don't let the small size fool you. Cicada Summer is a keeper.
Publication Date: May 1, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes may not reflect the final finished book.
Other Blog Reviews: Just One More Book!, Cicada Summer, Welcome to My Tweendom
Author Interviews: Cynsations
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.