Cynthia Voigt

A Solitary Blue

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A Solitary Blue Summary

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A Solitary Blue is a 1983 YA novel by Cynthia Voigt. Its protagonist, Jeff Greene, is abandoned by his free-spirit mother when he is seven years old: the novel examines the consequences of this abandonment as Jeff becomes a teenager. A Solitary Blue was awarded a Newbery Honor in 1984, and it is a companion piece to Voigt’s 1983 Newbery Medal-winning Dicey’s Song. The protagonist of that book, Dicey Tillerman, appears towards the end of A Solitary Blue when Jeff befriends her at school.

The novel opens as Jeff, age 7, comes home from school to find a note from his mother, Melody. In the note, she explains that she has left, and instructs him not to be sad. She wants to fight for good causes and “make things better”: the world needs her more than he does. Jeff is stunned. His father, Horace, an academic who Jeff thinks of as “The Professor,” simply retreats to his study, leaving Jeff to make his own supper.

The Professor decides that Jeff needs another adult around the house, and he decides to advertise for a live-in student. Feeling that “girls tend to be unreliable,” the Professor chooses a looming man called Jackson. Jackson is the first in a succession of live-in carers and nannies, none of whom give Jeff the love or security he needs.

Over the next five years, Jeff becomes more and more alienated from his father. He fears that if he creates trouble or disruption for the Professor, his father too will disappear. Things come to a head when Jeff contracts a bad case of flu in sixth grade. He tries to hide his illness so that it doesn’t disrupt his father’s routine. Untreated, Jeff’s flu gets worse, and he becomes feverish. The Professor, finally noticing that his son is sick, sets about trying to take Jeff’s temperature, only to find that he doesn’t even own a thermometer. The Professor asks his friend, Brother Thomas, to come round and take Jeff’s temperature: it’s 104°f. Brother Thomas suggests that the Professor should call the family doctor, but the Professor doesn’t know who their doctor is, so Brother Thomas pushes the Professor to call Melody, who is able to provide the doctor’s contact information. Jeff is treated, and soon begins to feel better. While the Professor is out of the room, Brother Thomas asks Jeff about his parents’ situation.

Jeff has heard nothing from his mother for five years, but now she suddenly invites him to stay with her for the summer at her grandmother’s home in Charleston. Jeff has a wonderful time with Melody, who tells him about her “causes” and plays songs for him on a beat-up acoustic guitar. He gets on well, too, with his elderly great-grandmother, “Gambo.”

The experience is transformative for Jeff. When he returns to Baltimore, he is happier and more optimistic. He writes to his mother on the first day of every month: she never replies, but Jeff finds ways not to blame her. He buys a beat-up guitar of his own, although he has no one to teach him how to play. As Christmas approaches, Jeff gives a lot of thought to Melody’s present, eventually sending her an expensive scarf which he thinks is beautiful. She neither thanks him nor sends him anything in return. Still Jeff thinks positively of her, clinging to the memory of their summer together.

Meanwhile, Brother Thomas has persuaded the Professor that he should take better care of Jeff. The Professor struggles to find ways to connect with his son. For Christmas, he buys Jeff a new guitar. Jeff doesn’t really want it: he likes his guitar because it’s used and worn like Melody’s, but he goes to his father’s study to tell him he likes it. The Professor replies: “Thank you for taking the trouble to make that clear.”

Jeff looks forward to visiting Melody again the following summer, but when he arrives in Charleston, he finds that things have changed. Melody’s attention is fixed on her new boyfriend, Max. Since Max doesn’t take any interest in Jeff, nor does Melody, Jeff is heartbroken. He confronts his mother and they fight. Jeff is forced to accept that his mother doesn’t care about him. To get away from her, he buys a boat, and takes it out to a remote island.  There he sees a solitary blue heron (the “solitary blue” of the title), which Jeff sees as a symbol of his own life.

When he returns to Baltimore at the end of the summer, Jeff becomes completely withdrawn. He thinks of his own head as the “tower room,” a place where no one can reach him. He begins skipping school to spend his days on a ride at the nearby amusement park. Jeff starts to fail academically, and this is what finally persuades the Professor to take action. He and Jeff move from Baltimore to a cabin in Crisfield, near Chesapeake Bay. Jeff spots a blue heron near the cabin, which he interprets as a good omen.

In Crisfield, Jeff successfully repeats the eighth grade, makes two friends, Phil and Andy, and finally learns to play his guitar. Two years pass, and Jeff makes more friends: Wilhemina “Mina” Smiths and Dicey Tillerman (who is attracted to his guitar playing). As he gets to know Dicey’s family—James, Sammy, Maybeth and their grandmother Abigail—Jeff begins to understand more about how families work, and he and the Professor gradually manage to bond.

Gambo leaves some money to Jeff, and shortly afterwards Melody turns up in Crisfield. We suspect from the beginning that she hopes Jeff will give her a share of his inheritance. However, Jeff is no longer emotionally vulnerable to his mother, and he refuses. She goes away, only to return and make another play for Jeff’s money. This time, Jeff is able to feel sorry for her. His healing is complete.

As his thoughts turn to the future, Jeff is able to embrace his mother’s ideals. He decides to study ecology. “No, not saving the world or getting back to the good old prehistoric days, not that,” he tells the Professor. “But responsible management of it, somehow. . . with computers too. . . .”