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Victor Stabin
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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Cormier, Robert Frenchtown Summer. Delacorte, 1999. 113p
ISBN 0-385-32704-8   $16.95    Gr. 6-10

November generally finds the Bulletin cover graced with a seasonal image evoking the Thanksgiving holiday or preparing readers for the shivers of lengthening nights, so a book set in the "Sahara afternoons" and "lingering evenings" of summer vacation seems to be a bit of an aberration. Readers, though, who have accompanied Cormier on previous tours of the Frenchtown section of fictional Monument, Massachusetts (featured in Heroes, Fade, and others) know that dark secrets lurk behind its tenement walls. On this literary visit, narrator Eugene recalls the summer of his twelfth birthday, with its grim legends of suicide and murder and muffled rattling of family skeletons in their closets-themes sure to augment the chill of late autumn nights.

Lonely, sensitive, and bookish, Eugene generally hovers at the fringe of boyish activities, content to ponder his place within the universe that is Frenchtown and the unsolved mysteries and half-understood bits of family lore that whirl around him. His musing takes the form of first-rate free verse, rich in imagery, concrete and accessible to all but the most adamant poetry resisters. Many of the entries stand alone, specific to their fictional locale yet universal in their emotional and situational appeal. "The Eyes Have It" finds Eugene reveling in his first hours of clear vision through steel-rimmed glasses: "I knelt down to watch/ a glistening ant/ at the curb's rim,/ and in my glorious generosity,/ my state of grace,/ did not squash it underfoot." In "Forbidden Territory" Eugene frightens himself at night by imagining that the perpetrator of an unsolved murder still stalks the town, "[k]neeling in St. Jude's Church on Sundays,/ buying hamburg steak at Founier's Meat Market,/ . . . and, maybe,/ maybe looking right into my eyes/ as he passed unidentified/ on Third Street."

These seemingly discrete memoirs harbor deftly placed clues to "unanswered questions and mysteries" that unify the freestanding verses into a cohesive novel. A particularly intriguing plot strand revolves around Marielle Le Moyne, victim of the unidentified assailant who, according to whispered legend, strangled her with a necktie. It is clear in "White Shirts" that Eugene has never regarded bachelor Uncle Med's long-standing habit of wearing his dress shirts without a tie as anything more than a mild eccentricity. When Uncle Med commits suicide (in "The Disappearance"), Eugene finds an inexplicable box of ornate tie pins in Med's dresser and this innocent idiosyncrasy takes on nefarious significance. Whether or not such circumstantial "evidence" is proof of Med's guilt, Eugene's nightmares cause him to bury the tie pins in the backyard and his suspicions deep in his heart (in "Mysteries").

The most perplexing of Eugene's summer conundrums, though, is whether his father loves him. Throughout the poems Eugene notes his father's open affection for his "movie star" beautiful, lilac-scented mother, and he never doubts that brother Raymond secures the affection of all with his easygoing, sociable ways. But Eugene stays at arm's length from his father, feeling that he "was closer to me waving from the street/ than nearby in the tenement." The opportunity for rapprochement comes when Eugene spots an orange airplane in the backyard of a tenement and eagerly reports it to skeptical friends; when they arrive at the site, the plane is nowhere to be found and Eugene is again a pitiable and foolish figure among his peers. His father, with breathtaking tact and grace, rescues Eugene from social embarrassment, and the bond between father and son is forged and revealed with near-magical clarity.

If some mysteries linger unsolved past the summer, at least Eugene realizes that his father's love is uniquely packaged and subtly offered just for him. Although Frenchtown may go down in the YA gazetteer as a place of shadows and sin, at least Cormier's closing benediction-"And we walked home together/ in the tender sunlight/ of a Frenchtown summer"-dispels many of its grimmer memories.

-- Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Big Picture Image
November's Bulletin cover illustration
by Victor Stabin from
Frenchtown Summer,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Delacorte Press.



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