You don't always have to read a fantasy novel to visit another world. Sometimes other worlds exist right here on Earth, next to us, in front of us, behind us. And sometimes I think it is harder to create a real world like the one Andrea Beaty conjurs up in The Secrets of the Cicada Summer than it is to bring to life a realm filled with wizards and wands. While in high school I developed a penchant for Southern writers and books set in the South and I have had a soft spot for them ever since. Born and raised in Southern California, the geography, culture and people of the South are almost as alien to me as Saturn or Hogwarts. I realize that Illinois is not exactly the Deep South, but the setting for the novel, Olena, IL, population 117 sure does seem that way.
With The Secrets of the Cicada Summer, Beaty has written a book that reminds me of the kind I read when I was a kid, before kid's books also doubled as doorstops. Books were short, characters were straightforward and there wasn't a lot of emotional hand wringing or introspection or explanation, for that matter, despite the fact that the early 1980s was a pretty hardscrabble, gritty time in kid's lit. Remember Katherine Paterson's Newbery Honor winner from 1978, The Great Gilly Hopkins? I'd never even heard of the foster care system when I read that book, or the idea that a parent would/could choose to give up a child after bearing and raising him/her for a time. Despite the potentially dark material, Paterson created a character who, while she may have acted out, was also pretty reasonable and very smart when it came right down to it. I guess I have to fess up here and admit that I am thinking about Susan Patron's Newbery winner The Higher Power Of Lucky, which I reviewed over a year ago, and comparing it to The Secrets of the Cicada Summer. I liked that book, but I just didn't love it the way I wanted to, the way I love The Secrets of the Cicada Summer. Even though Lucky and Lily, both the narrators of their stories, have experienced loss and are trying to make sense of their lives, I feel like Lucky was just too quirky to be really likable. Patron imbued her with so many little details, habits and unique thoughts that she seemed as weighted down by these personality triats as she was by the backpack that she carried everywhere with her. Lily, although four years older and living in a different time than Lucky, feels more authentic and easier to relate to because she doesn't have so much baggage, despite her losses. For me, Beaty's book is more reminiscent of Polly Horvath's magnificent books, My 100 Adeventures and the sequel, Northward to the Moon, in which Jane tries to make her own world, while at the same time making sense of it.
Twelve year old Lily, who lives on a farm with her father, lost her mother several years back and her older brother Pete, two years earlier. Since the death of her brother, she has stopped speaking. When we first see her, she is at school and in the midst of a spelling test. The cicadas are making a racket right outside the classroom window. Lily observes her classmates and the cicadas then wanders out of class. Because she has stopped speaking and, because this is a time (possibly the 1940s or early 1950s) when there are not so many psychological diagnoses for this kind of behavior, Lily is allowed to do whatever she pleases. And so she heads to the school library where she hides in the stacks and hoards Nancy Drew novels. Everyone thinks she is both kinds of dumb so she keeps her reading to herself, stealing the books when she has to. Summer is coming and she needs a good supply, even though she has read every Nancy Drew book many times over. As Lily is hiding in her favorite tree, she is caught out by Tinny, who has just moved to town to live with her Great Aunt Fern, proprietor of the one store in town. Fern is also the owner of the barn and the two cars inside it that sits on the Mathis' farm. Tinny, who has come from Chicago, is street smart and savvy and starts in on Lily right away, threatening to find out and then divulge her secret.
Lily's secret is that she is neither kind of dumb, but she is so desperate to be left alone that she runs away from Tinny and avoids her as much as she can in a small town. However, the mystery lover in Lily just can be quieted and soon she is spying on Tinny and listening in with new interest to the conversations that go on around her as she silently sweeps the floors of Fern's store, a meeting place for townsfolk, or surveying the scene at the gossip spot in town, the post office. Lily quickly discovers that Tinny is up to no good and hiding something. But so is Lily. As she sleuths out Tinny's secrets, Lily's secret slowly unfolds in flashback chapters that reveal her relationship with her beloved older brother and the event that brought tragedy to their lives for a second time. Beaty does a masterful job drawing these two stories together, and when they collide the result is climactic and cathartic, for Lily and the reader.
Olena is, of course, populated with interesting, vivid characters with quasi-oddball traits. There is Lily's father, who is always patting the keys in the pocket of his overalls. There is Fern who is always hugging silent Lily and referring to her as a "poor, motherless child." There are the sisters Miss Opal and Miss Ruby, who cook for Lily and her father every Friday night so that they eat at least one good meal a week. And, of course, there is the town of Olena itself. It is amazing the way Beaty creates this world, seemingly in one breath, that is as shimmering as a hot summer day that is buzzing with the drone of the cicadas.
Andrea Beaty is the author of many picture books, including the masterfully rhymed Iggy Peck Architect as well as the very funny Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies with brilliant illustrations by Dan Santat. Beaty is also one of the reviewers, along with Carolyn Crimini and Julia Durango over at Three Silly Chicks, where the three authors "Read, Write and Review Funny Books for Kids."
I included the covers of both editions of the book, as they are both wonderfully evocative and magnificent in their own ways. The hardcover edition, which was called Cicada Summer, was done by John Hendrix and the paperback, renamed The Secrets of the Cicada Summer, was illustrated by one of my new favorites, Amy June Bates.