Thursday, April 12, 2007

book review - Summer of Light

Title: Summer of Light
Author: W. Dale Cramer
Publisher: Bethany House
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
ISBN: 0764229966

Getting fired from his construction job on the high steel is only the last in a string of bizarre events that finds Mick at home and in charge of doing the shopping, laundry, cooking and every other job that makes up the life of a homemaker. However, during the year that Summer of Light encompasses, Mick pretty much masters all the above while keeping his wandering four-year-old within view, all three kids fed, caught up with homework, at scheduled activities and, as much as possible, unbored. In a book that ranges from slaptstick to tender, W. Dale Cramer entertains and more. As in previous books, he uses the stories of ordinary people - this time Mick Brannigan and his family - to focus on things that really matter, like gaining strength from the look of discovery in a child's eyes, accepting help when it's offered, and finding God amongst the poor and the outcast.

The characters in this book are everyday people one could meet in any town. Mick, the point-of -view and main character, is an iron-worker whose cooking experience when he starts his homemaker stint consists of boiling water and throwing a pack of dry noodles in his lunch bucket. His wife Layne, who has just started a long-postponed career as a paralegal, is both career woman and mother bear, willing to stand up to anyone to defend their kids - eight-year-old-Ben, seven-year-old Toad (Clarissa) and four-year-old Dylan. Aubrey, Mick's uppity neighbor who becomes his photographic mentor, is one of the characters I found most amusing, especially at the beginning. Finally there is the mysterious Man With No Hands who drifts in and out of the action. He seemed to me a sort of Christ figure (reminding me of Cramer characters Harley in Sutter's Cross and Moss in Bad Ground).

The construction site of an Atlanta high rise is soon displaced by the Brannigans' suburban acreage as the story's setting. Both are described in satisfying detail. Putting a domestically inexperienced yet creative man like Mick in charge of a suburban spread complete with three kids, a wily dog, goat and chickens is a recipe for all kinds of hilarious misadventures. The sight of a man's man fumbling with the multi-task challenges of the above gave this (female) reader lots of chuckles.

Which brings up what was, for me, one of the most satisfying aspects of the book - the themes it addresses. An obvious one is male and female roles. Mick experiences a self-esteem crisis when he goes from being an iron worker to stay-at-home-dad (a role that author Cramer himself became familiar with when he quit his job in construction to stay home with his sons). Mick soon realizes there are differences in how men and women do most things, including how they cook and parent. The theme of parenting generally gets lots of attention.

Another theme that threads through the book is destiny - the idea that things which seemingly happen arbitrarily really do have a planner or designer behind them. Reflections on religion and faith follow naturally from that. The Man With No Hands plays no small part in helping Mick face spiritual issues. Though Mick never does fit in with the crowd at his wife's church, Layne gives him room to spend Sundays the way he chooses and he eventually finds his own place at the downtown mission.

Cramer's story-telling style is lively and folksy - like neighbors gossiping over the fence. Resembling other Cramer books, Summer of Light is also spiced with lots of homey wisdom and astute observations about life. For example:

It doesn't matter how many roads you go down, you won't find wisdom there anyway. It's always at the beginning. Wisdom is in the heart of a child.


He (Mick) figured every generation of parents in history was equally horrified by the thought of their children doing the things they did when they were kids and it never occurred to any of the parents that those were the very things that made them who they were.
Another stylistic element comes via Mick's newly kindled interest in photography. Mick's search for pictures that tell a story and the need for him to then title those pictures is a way Cramer introduces symbols into the book that are not only literary but graphic.

For a book that satisfies on many levels, Summer of Light is an excellent choice. Don't be surprised, though, when it leaves an aftertaste far more lasting than you'd expect from a book that goes down so easily.


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