Author Thomas Thornburg takes us on a journey to a working class neighbourhood of a Midwestern city, towards the end of the Second World War, where social and racial divides are very much still the norm, in his novel Where Summer Strives. When a wealthy, educated, but disillusioned young man, Harvey Sloan, decides to lose himself in alcohol, he winds up falling from a freight car he had jumped, right into the working class neighbourhood and decides to stay a while. The bulk of the story is told through the eyes of eleven-year-old Tobe Jackson, who witnesses the profound changes taking place all around him, with the guileless eyes that only the young can possess. When a black family moves into the exclusively white neighbourhood, Tobe is drawn to the young black boy Samuel and they become fast friends. With Harvey’s educated ways and Samuel’s family’s racial heritage the scene is set for confrontation and a challenging of old ideas and prejudices.
Thomas Thornburg has shown considerable bravery, as an author, to tell this story through the eyes of a child, but he has done an excellent job. He captures extraordinarily well, the spirit of 1940’s America, rife as it was with its racial and social prejudices. Where Summer Strives shows that the key to understanding those who are different to us is communication and friendship. Samuel, as a character, was the perfect foil to Tobe. Before Samuel’s arrival, Tobe was the smart one at school, he was the learned one of their group, but despite that Tobe and Samuel could find common ground and make their differences work for them, rather than against them. The dialogue, although at times difficult to read because of the local and time-period colloquialisms, certainly seemed to ring true of the period and the seeming nothingness that can capture immediately the interest of young boys and hold them rapt for a length of time was portrayed perfectly. As a social commentary of the time period and the location this book does a fine job and I enjoyed the read. I can definitely recommend this story for those readers who like to think a little as they read, not to suggest there isn’t plenty of action in this book, because there is.