Summer of the Gypsy Moths
Eleven-year-old Stella is always in search of connections, which is really not surprising. As someone who has moved a dozen times, who is used to leaving with --- or even being left by --- her impulsive mom, Stella has too few connections in her life. "Discovering one of those ties feels so good," she reflects, "as if I'm sinking safer into the earth, as if my bones are made of iron and my blood is melted lead."
"Although Stella's situation is obviously extreme, she has much to show all readers about how to cope with loss, changing expectations, and the tricky and rewarding process of making and keeping connections."
Stella, who just wants a place she can sink into with her whole body, thinks she may have found one in Cape Cod, where her Great-Aunt Louise lives in a cottage near the ocean, helping to oversee a set of vacation cottages nearby. Stella doesn't know Great-Aunt Louise that well, but she does know that she likes this place where she feels like she can belong. The only thing spoiling her happiness is the presence of Angel, a foster girl Stella's age who also lives with Louise. Angel is anything but friendly toward Stella, and to be fair, Stella hasn't exactly made an effort with Angel either. The two girls don't seem to have any connection whatsoever.
Soon enough, though, Stella and Angel are forced to work together in profound and awful ways. When Louise dies suddenly, both girls are too scared to report the death to the police. If they did that, they almost certainly would be sent away to other foster homes that wouldn't be as idyllic, friendly, or safe as Louise's cottage by the sea.
So the two girls do their best to hide Louise's demise, burying her in her beloved garden and stepping up to help her neighbor George manage the vacation cottages. Even as they cope with this horrible situation, which is far more than most 11-year-olds would be able to handle, Stella and Angel start to realize that they can work together to help George in meaningful ways…and that they may share more connections than they ever would have expected.
Sara Pennypacker is best known for the whimsical, exuberant Clementine series of chapter books for slightly younger readers. In SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS, she takes a darker and more mature tone --- the scenes around discovery and disposal of Louise's body are almost troubling in their realism. But there still is sweetness at the center of the novel, as well as a blissful sense of place. This is not surprising since Pennypacker herself lives part-time on Cape Cod, where the book is set.
Like summer itself, SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS has a bittersweet tone, as Stella gradually comes to terms with the truth about her mother and allows herself to think about the future in new and unexpected ways. Although Stella's situation is obviously extreme, she has much to show all readers about how to cope with loss, changing expectations, and the tricky and rewarding process of making and keeping connections.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 30, 2012