|Possum Summer by Jen K. Blom|
I love possums. And I do realize that not everyone does. ("They look like rats," is what most people say -- a comparison that isn't really fair to possums or rats.) When I started volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center a couple of years ago, the possums quickly became my favorites. Sure, the baby squirrels and raccoons are cuter -- but raccoons are hooligans and squirrels can't be trusted. Give me a quiet, civilized possum any day.
At my volunteer orientation the trainer said something that really stuck with me: If you see a possum by the side of the road, you should always check, even if it is obviously dead. Possums are marsupials -- mothers carry their young in a pouch, like a kangaroo. So a female possum that's been hit by a car, for instance, could still have live babies in her pouch. I have, more than once since then, pulled my car over to side of the road and braved traffic to check on the body of dead possum. So far, I haven't found any babies.
So when I heard about Jen K. Blom's new novel Possum Summer I knew I had to read it. The heroine of the book is eleven year old P (short for Princess, a name she hates), and she does find a baby possum. When she takes her dad's cattle dog out into the woods without permission the dog kills a possum, and P rescues the surviving baby. Feeling responsible for his mother's death, she makes a promise to raise him until he is able to live on his own.
But P's not allowed to have pets. Her father , who is serving in Iraq, believes that every animal on a farm must pull its weight. Still, P is a girl who believes in keeping promises, no matter what. She's already working hard to keep her promise to her father, to take care of the farm while he's away. So there's no way she's going to let her new little possum friend -- who names Isaac -- down.
In a time when children's fiction seems to be increasingly full of heavy grown up problems on one side and vampires and other supernatural creatures on the other, Possum Summer takes us back to an earlier kind of children's book. It's the kind of book that I would have loved as a kid and it's a pleasure to discover that I can still enjoy it very much.
P's world is the farmland of western Oklahoma, and she is the kind of stubborn, tomboyish heroine we expect. The tone reminds me strongly of books like Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows. (Even Charlotte's Web -- although none of the animals talk.)
This is the kind of children's story where the children inhabit a world almost entirely their own. Where every adult is peripheral and long summer days go on forever. (The adults are so peripheral here that their story threads are all pretty much left hanging -- which doesn't seem at all wrong.)
Indeed that sense of childhood timelessness is so strong in Possum Summer that P and her farm feel more than a little anachronistic. Though she is surrounded by the modern world, she is not of the modern world. (I must admit that I have a hard time believing there is a twelve year old anywhere in the developed world who doesn't have at least a workable knowledge of the internet). Her best friend is a computer geek, but P herself is never even seen watching TV. Her room, we are told, is littered with books, but she doesn't tell us what they are, and we never see her reading them. She does have a wonderful Lookbook -- a journal in which she writes and sketches about her day's adventures. And her passion is totally for the farm, the animals, and the Oklahoma countryside.
But in the best children's fiction that world of childhood is never totally undisturbed. The tensions and dangers of the adult world run just beneath the surface like one of those peaceful, pleasant dreams where we feel a constant tug of dark anxiety. In the case of Possum Summer it comes from the financial problems of farmers, an outbreak of rabies that is threatening local animals, and above all from P's father, who has been injured in Iraq and whose relationship with both his daughters is severely strained. Much of the strength of P's character comes from her struggle to measure up to her father's standards -- to keep the promises she made to him -- and at the same time be true to her own nature, which is very different from his.
I have to say, since this an animal-centered blog, that for animal lovers Possum Summer is both wonderful and heartbreaking. The beauty and harshness of life get equal weight. There are a couple of emotionally wrenching scenes and a climax that is, literally (at least for me) breathtaking.
Ultimately, everyone has to leave the world of childhood. Not all at once, but in a series of steps, each of which can carry a heavy price. Possum Summer is about the time in one girl's life when she takes several very large steps toward the responsibilities of growing up. She meets them in the end with courage and unfailing love.
(Note: Possum Summer is also wonderfully illustrated by Omar Rayyan. If I had seen his drawings of the baby possum Isaac when I was young, I would have fallen in love with the species years before. You can check out more of his delightful work here.)
Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.