Lois Lowry

A Summer to Die

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A Summer to Die Summary

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A Summer to Die (1973) by American children’s novelist Lois Lowry follows one teenager’s account of her sister’s death from acute leukemia. The novel was Lowry’s first, and received critical acclaim.

Its themes include grief, envy, coming of age, and the acceptance of mortality.

The story is told in the first person from the vantage point of 13-year-old Meg Chalmers. She is very close with her older sister, Molly, whom she acknowledges is prettier than her, but who also isn’t as smart as she is. Meg wants to grow up to be somebody big—exactly how she’ll make her mark is yet to be seen, but her ambition to excel is rock solid. Whereas 15-year-old Molly is content with whatever life doles out, Meg is often anxious and angry when she doesn’t reach her goals fast enough. The two often bicker over inconsequential things, but their relationship for the most part is very strong.

After her father, Charles Chalmers, decides to take a year off from his work as an English professor to write a book at a rented farmhouse, the entire family moves out of New England for one year. Understandably, neither girl is thrilled at being forced out of their house for a full year; they already have friends in the area and they have lived in the New England house for their entire life.

Unlike Meg, the confident Molly easily makes friends in their new community. Meg will often stare at her sister’s flawless blonde hair with envy. Compounding matters is that the two of them have to share a room. On the surface, they also have nothing in common. All Molly wants to do is be married, have at least six kids, and be happy. Meg wants to achieve far more than motherhood; she wants to have a successful career doing something. At one point, Molly is so annoyed with how dirty Meg lets everything get that she draws a line in the middle of the room; Molly says that she is absolutely forbidden from crossing it.

Within a month of the move, Meg has earned the nickname “nutmeg” but no friends. Meanwhile, Molly is dating a popular boy and has been recruited to be a cheerleader.

Meg and Molly both befriend a septuagenarian by the name of Will Banks. Mr. Banks owns the four houses in their immediate vicinity; the family is renting one house from them. Mr. Banks practices the art of photography in retirement and is happy to teach both girls the basics of the craft. Molly encourages Meg to pursue photography, noting that she’s very talented at it.

Just months after the move, Molly keeps getting terrible nosebleeds. The family takes her to the doctor. He claims she just has to get used to the new environment; it’s also nearing winter, and the area is far colder than it usually is. He also says she probably just experienced the flu and needs to sleep it off.

A couple in their mid-20s, Maria and Ben, move into another house on the land. Maria is pregnant, and Molly can’t wait to offer all of her babysitting services to the new family.

One night, Molly wakes up in a bed, soaked with her own blood. She’s rushed to the hospital. She’s eventually diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Charles and Molly’s mother, Linda, decide not to tell Meg exactly what the diagnosis is, or how much time on average leukemia patients may live.

Fortunately, Molly takes pills to slow the progression of the cancer. Unfortunately, all of her beautiful hair falls out. Meg has complicated feelings over this. Where jealously once stood, she’s now feeling an overwhelming compassion and love for her older sister who she doesn’t want to die at such a young age.

Molly is emaciated-looking and very weak. Meg helps her throughout the house. She tries to keep Molly optimistic. Though Molly is in noticeable decline, Meg holds out hope that she will recover and be back to the annoyingly positive older sister she always was.

Then one day, the pills Molly was taking stop working as effectively. As Molly is forced to stay at the hospital, Meg is increasingly distraught that she will lose her sister. Molly never comes back home.

Maria delivers a baby boy. Charles and Meg are there to assist the delivery (Ben is so anxious he forgets everything he taught himself about delivering a child). Meg takes a picture of the newborn. It is a sign that even through tragedy life can continue.

Molly passes. Meg is thrown into anguish, and is initially furious with her parents for never being honest about Molly’s severe situation. After the funeral, the remaining family returns to their home.

Mr. Banks becomes skilled enough with photography to be featured at the local college’s art show. As A Summer to Die concludes, Mr. Banks and Meg walk through the forest. The Chalmers family is preparing to move back to their New England home. Mr. Banks shows Meg a flower that was the very last to bloom this season. It’s a beautiful flower that makes Meg think of how much Molly loved wildflowers.