Gary Soto

A Summer Life

  • This summary of A Summer Life includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Summer Life Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Summer Life by Gary Soto.

A Summer Life (1990) is a collection of 39 short essays by Mexican-American author Gary Soto. Comprising a mosaic of observations Soto made as a child growing up in Fresno, California, the stories transmit the cultural memory and poetic possibility of Fresno’s sights and sounds from the perspective of a boy slowly becoming self-aware. A city built in large part by Latino and East Asian immigrants, Fresno is described as hopeful and creative. Soto’s essays reveal its industriousness and hope, often indirectly, by focusing on the “small things” making up the young Soto’s world; that is, the fleeting occurrences that only a child would notice. The book has been praised for illuminating the rich texture of boyhood in a thriving immigrant community through references to everyday life.

A Summer Life is split into three parts, covering Soto’s earliest memories, childhood, and the last few years of adolescence. The first section takes place entirely within a few blocks surrounding where he grew up in Fresno. Essays such as “The Hand Brake” capture the young Soto’s delight in exploring his suburban home. “The Hand Brake” recalls a single afternoon in the middle of summer, when Soto “invented” a brake after repurposing an old bicycle hand brake he found in an alley. As he describes the “sunbaked rubber bands,” “rain-swollen magazines,” and other detritus of the alleys, he shows that Fresno’s heaps of trash were valuable for what they could say about the lives of the people there.

Soto frequently refers back to his Chicano heritage while describing his childhood. For example, he vividly describes his mother’s resourceful Mexican cooking, showing how she could turn ordinary steak scraps into delicious carne asada and beans into refritos. The essays are full of both matriarchal and patriarchal impressions. He recalls his stern but kind grandfather whose most representative possession was a heavy leather wallet stamped “MEXICO.” These impressions taught Soto gradually about the histories and values he inherited as a Chicano boy. Some of them were difficult; for example, his first encounter with death was when he saw three abandoned dogs, recently born from a litter, shivering in the cold. The next morning, he saw that they did not make it through the night, having rolled over into “leaf-padded graves.”

The closing story of A Summer Life, “The River,” occurs when Soto is seventeen. He and his best friend, Scott, drive to Los Angeles to stay with one of his uncles and explore the city. In Los Angeles, they find a bustling, diverse, and precarious counterculture. Soto describes the “mobs of young people in leather vests, bell-bottoms, beads, Jesus thongs, tie-dyed shirts, and crowns of flowers” that characterized Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s. Their first night in Los Angeles, as they get settled at Soto’s uncle’s house, Soto suddenly feels that he is at a crossroads between childhood and adulthood. He recalls thinking “of Braley Street and family, some of whom were now dead,” and of his uncle’s traumatic experience in the Korean War. He starts to see his place in the scheme of things, remarking that those his age “had yet to go and come back from our war and find ourselves a life other than the one we were losing.” This conclusion to the work imagines the moment of one’s coming-of-age as a moment in which one becomes accountable for his individual life and starts to understand the magnitude of the sacrifices that people make for the sake of their families and cultures.