When an author names their book something like The Summer of the Swans, it's a fair bet that it's intended as a metaphor, that the swans will be symbolic of a character, or an idea, or a theme. Betsy Byars probably had that intention, but it isn't at all certain what exactly the swans (or summer, for that matter) represent.
The story is simple. 14-year-old Sara is midway through summer and just feeling weird. She does the same things she's done every other summer, but instead of having a great time she's miserable. She doesn't like Aunt Willie, her older sister Wanda annoys her, and she's a little tired of looking after her mentally handicapped 10-year-old brother Charlie.
One evening Sara takes Charlie down to the lake to look at the swans. He becomes fascinated by the birds, and when Sara tries to take him home he resists. Later that night, when the family is in bed, Charlie gets up and tries to go back to the lake to be with the swans. But he loses his way, and when his aunt and sisters wake up he's nowhere to be found.
A community-wide manhunt ensues, with Sara tirelessly searching for her brother at the lake, through fields, and in the woods. As she searches, she encounters Joe Melby, a boy she thinks stole her brother's watch and only gave it back to make everyone think he hadn't taken it in the first place. She treats him rudely, but he joins her in the search anyway, and gradually she rethinks her attitude and the two end up friends. Charlie is found, and they all live happily ever after.
There's a little more to the story (Sara's best friend Mary is the one who proves Joe didn't steal the watch; the kids's mother is dead and their father only sees them on weekends because he works as a miner in another state), but not a lot more. Byars's book reads quickly, and the pace at which events unfold is somewhat breathless, though in a children's book that's a good thing.
What's not a good thing is that it's not at all clear what the significance of everything might be. Sara loves Charlie and treats him kindly from the beginning, so there's no real development there; the relationship between Sara and Joe goes from rotten to pretty great way too fast; and, the swans don't really seem to have much to do with anything.
Sure, Charlie likes the swans. Sure, the swans are the reason he runs away in the first place. Sure, there's a brief reference to Sara wanting to fly away like the swans and just go somewhere else. But at the end, all we get is Sara finding Charlie, Charlie being fussed over by Aunt Willie, and Sara going to a party with Joe.
The most common theme among the Newbery Medal winners is that of growing up. Kids start out grumpy, or angsty, or just plain bored, and after a major event they become aware of adulthood and the need to leave childhood behind. In The Summer of the Swans, other than the fact that Sara makes nice with Joe, we never really see this conflict or its resolution.
In other words, the characters pretty much flatline. Byars tells us that Sara changes, but we don't see any change. Sure, in the end she's out of her funk, but how serious can an adolescent summertime funk be? She'd break out of it sooner or later. There's no reason not to read The Summer of the Swans, but there's no real reason to read it, either. This one gets a pass.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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