This One Summer
Created by: Jillian Tamaki, Mariko Tamaki
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1626720940 (Amazon)
Nostalgia is an incredible force that recapitulates actual experiences into tidy, reframed devices for managing personal histories. We don’t just remember the good times or the bad times. We remember more-and-less the fair, the middlin’, the awkward, and the painful. Nostalgia reorders the priority and timelines and circumstances and focal points of these historical events so that moral lessons emerge. We’re a practical people, and memories that cannot be made useful for the forwarding of one story are either discarded or repurposed to buttress other stories. Our memories get built into useful evidences for any number of propositions. Sometimes these are the straightforward fabrication of value judgments such as Why I Love Parents Of Handicapped Adult Children or The Reason I Know Gay People Are Sinister. Sometimes they play into simple historical repurposements such as Why I Know My Childhood Was A Good One. Nostalgia colours things that happened in such ways, making them both very true and very not true simultaneously. We create and recreate and recreate our pasts, and because we so thoroughly believe in the worlds we craft for ourselves, those worlds, in a very real sense, become more true than the truth of actual happenstance.11At least until my true experience comes into conflict with your true experience. Then, all bets are off and these recalcitrant experiences will threaten to reforge our true histories into new, truer histories. After all, the histories that are fabricated from the threads of actual experience exert real force in directing our lives in the present—while the actual things as they actually happened mean nothing to us, having been lost to unobserved time.
This One Summer is exactly the type of book we might threaten to describe as a distillation of nostalgia. It contains all the proper nostalgic elements—including among other things the recollection of the sort of coming-of-age events that drive maturation and spur consciousness expansion in the entirely non-spiritual sense of transitioning from child to near-adult. The title is even a bit of a gimme. This one summer. We’re hearing about what was. And we’re going to hear about it in a way that will prove at least somewhat consequential. There will be an end, a result, a lesson of some sort. You don’t begin a story by saying, “So, this one summer ” and then present merely a series of unrelated recollections. You’re telling a story about your past and therefore there will be a point. There has to be. You’re breathing life into your nostalgia and setting your creation free for others to love, judge, and interact with. Any story that begins with “This one summer” has to reframe history with a teleological scope—it has to indulge nostalgia.
The trick is that the blatant nostalgia-story isn’t really any different from the regular story. Every story we write, even future-fi, is a rebuilding of our pasts, our circumstances, and the stuff that made us. Gattaca drips as much nostalgia as Brighton Beach Memoirs, and The Matrix as much as Cinema Paradiso. It’s because the nature of storytelling is distillation. Whether you begin your yarn with “This one summer ” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ” you’re performing the same concatenating action, collapsing an entire world of histories into a single pericope. You’re making the big small. All to the end that you might celebrate a particular thing—a moment, a feeling, a person, a sense of being—whether that thing was present in the original happenstance or not. It doesn’t matter. You’re forging a new true thing out of your desire to make that thing known.22I know I’m using the amorphous term thing a lot here, but bear with me. We’re talking about both generalities and abstracts, and the two aren’t exactly poster boys for accuracy. The important thing, then, is not to recognize a story as being nostalgic (they all are) but to look for what makes this story, the one you’re reading right now, unique.
We didn’t vacation. Not really. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family—though I did grow up in a wealthy community. Laguna Beach was a strange combination of Haves and Have Nots: doctors, lawyers, architects, actors on the one hand and artists on the other. Laguna Beach is an artist’s community, hosting three major concurrent art festivals that last the duration of the summer. Laguna Beach is also a Southern Californian beach community, which means wealthy people want to live there. And what wealthy people want, wealthy people get. So I grew up in the midst of friends who vacationed in Park City, Europe, Indonesia. In my family, we tent-camped for a few days at the end of every summer after the Sawdust festival closed (the Sawdust was my family’s major source of income for the year). We’d go to Buckeye Flats in Sequioa National Park. It was pretty sweet but we never stayed long enough to really feel at home. I mean, we weren’t rich or anything.
Still, even though we weren’t vacationers in the sense that many of my friends were, we didn’t have it very bad at all. We lived at the beach. Not on the beach, but on a bluff overlooking the beach. It was a community of mobile homes mostly owned by wealthy people as a fourth or fifth property, something they could rent out during the summers and make pretty pennies. People came to my neighbourhood to vacation. They paid through the nose to spend weeks of their summers in the place where my not-remotely-well-to-do family lived every day.33A couple years back, my mother expressed some regrets at how difficult it must have been for us (my brother and I) to grow up poor in the midst of such wealth. Our clothes were not stylish. Our cars were old and used. We didn’t have the awesome toys our friends did. Though I read computer magazines religiously as a kid, I didn’t get my first computer until I was twenty-three. And we didn’t travel.
I was a bit surprised at her worry. Thinking about it, I could see how material envy could easily have been a thing for us, but neither my brother or I really felt the lack. I could work, save my money, and get the comics and NES games I wanted, sure. But better than that, I lived at the beach. I could boogie board and skimboard every day after school if I liked. And I did. Despite the occasional reminder that I didn’t have a computer and couldn’t afford snowboarding, I wanted for nothing. I was one of the locals, one of the jaded observers of the vacationing masses. I had my place in the narrative of the Tamakis’ This One Summer—just not the place of its protagonists.
The Tamaki cousin’s book here sings in a kind of mundane-slash-spectacular way. It’s YA. Young Adult. Young in that its two principals are young enough to wonder whether they’ll grow boobs or not. Young adult in that such a question is a concern. And adult in that the book concerns troubles that are far beyond the everyday anxieties of the average preteen44Or newly minted teen? I had trouble parsing the exact age of the girls. The cover makes them look ten but the inner content makes them a bit older. I suppose I’d guess Rose at about thirteen and Windy at nearbouts of twelve.—since most girls with barely a decade to their names aren’t super concerned with such pregnancy-related woes as an unwilling progenitor55I hesitate to say father as that feels more a vocation than mere seed contributor does. or miscarriage and the depressive weight that comes along with it. I suppose in the most realistic sense, This One Summer should be termed family-friendly. Yes, it’s got sexual situations and vulgar language, but it’s intimately concerned with family (and mostly women of several ages). The Tamakis here have focused on what makes a family—those that are, those that are to be, and those that will never come about. And there’s a maturity here that I don’t think was necessarily present in their earlier work.
I learned today that I never really thought about some of the more confounding issues percolating in the hearts of adopted children.
Years ago, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki produced a lauded work that I wasn’t able to appreciate. Skim was beautifully illustrated but was hampered by too great a reliance on celebrating the youthful indiscretion, absence of perspective, and deep sense of self-involvement common to the North American teenager in her native environment. My review of Skim is not a great review. It’s about four years old and I hadn’t yet found the confidence to write about books without slipping into the needlessly volatile. I’m not proud of my writing there, but I will crib from that review to illustrate principally where my issue with Skim lay.
There is one singular obstacle facing any author who hopes to present a story featuring realistically portrayed teenagers: teens are uninteresting. Their problems are generally overblown trivialities.66Note please that I say generally here. Of course there are those teenagers who deal with more deeply grave obstacles in their lives. They witnessed one parent kill another. They are homeless and caring for siblings. They have had viable threats to their lives. Those teens exist, of course. But those aren’t “teen problems”—those are life problems, things that would devastate even the best of us. Their insights are comically common, with the depth of a drying brook. Their social perception is little better than that of gradeschoolers—and what growth exists is generally diminished by an acute absence of wisdom. It’s good then that most authors diminish the realism of their teenage protagonists for the sake of their story, substituting instead younger versions of their adult selves.
Skim's problem for me, then, was that it portrayed a protagonist whom I could actually believe was a teenager. She was a little bit obnoxious, a little bit too self-concerned, a little bit too much like every other teenager you might know. We put up with the awkward teen years because we know full well that they are in the midst of a journey. Teens are mid-range prototypes for the actual people they will one day be. We view children in that range of development with an eye to the end they will one day reach. When we read of Alexander Graham Bell or Jimi Hendrix or Queen Elizabeth or Isaac Newton or Genghis Khan or Harriet Tubman, it’s not their thirteen-year-old selves that we think of, that are important. That would be like focusing on the cocoon instead of the butterfly.
This panel is pricelessly cool.
And that’s the tremendous difficulty with books that are about teens and aim for some level of veracity in their depictions. Teenagers in real life have an adult form into which they are evolving (and we keep that in mind while dealing with them). Teenagers in books have no adult state. They only exist for the space of their novel’s page count. Their final form is what we see on the final page of their story. They will not have evolved. They may have had a guiding experience or some coming-of-age moment, but they won’t ever reach the mature end of that shift. We’re stuck with characters locked in an eternal state of immaturity. And so authors that use realistic teens as their primary figures to connect to readers have a huge and daunting task before them—they need to find a way to invest the reader without driving them away.
Skim was a young work and the Tamakis didn’t quite succeed in negotiating their protagonist’s repellant nature. With This One Summer, we see ample evidence of narrative growth in the creative team. The book is filled with children in various stages of pubescence and yet never strikes a single false note. There’s too much interesting stuff going on to wallow in the woes of a single character, even if she’s the protagonist. There are times when Rose shows herself a true blue adolescent, but those moments work well against the other characters’ troubles, hopes, and bafflements.
I haven’t seen any of the writer’s work between Skim and the present novel, but Mariko Tamaki has here proved herself an able storyteller,77It may not be fair for me to here presume Mariko Tamaki as the writer and Jillian Tamaki as the artist. The rear flyleaf divides them by occupation in that way, but this book is a collaboration and it’s impossible to know where one contributor’s input begins and the other’s ends—no way to gauge the push-and-pull as the two came to finalize their story. The cover and title page do nothing to give one a position.
In any case, fair or not, I’m counting writing tasks as the work of Mariko Tamaki and the artistic bits as the work of Jillian Tamaki. If it helps, just consider this shorthand for the mystery of the book’s genesis. weaving narrative threads together and proposing silence in moments where it’s appropriate. Her characters feel believable in a way unrealized in Skim—here there are plausible, evident motives for any given reaction or interaction. The dialogue works as well. Conversation, especially between Rose and Windy, maintains the kind of cracked-whip rhythm that one could hear in any vacation spot. These young women speak in ways that are engaging and enjoyable to read, but never stray into the kind of overheated false notes that make up the patter of, say, A Fault in Our Stars.
Jillian Tamaki continues to draw excellent comics. The almost-saving grace of Skim was Tamaki’s phenomenal artwork. She creates lush environments to play setpiece for her wonderful character designs. The same holds true here in This One Summer, only her talents have been seemingly honed and magnified in the years between works.88I’ve had the pleasure of reading her Super Mutant Academy recently, but that work is strictly lo-fi in its charms. Here, she’s going all out creating Art. Her layouts are magnificent. Her characters are unique and always identifiable. Her sense of place is beautifully wrought in backgrounds that veer wildly between negative space and abundantly detailed snapshots of the Awago Beach environs. I love love love her art.99If I must lodge one caveat that is auxiliary to the story’s content, it’s the cover. For whichever reason, Tamaki draws Rose in a way that makes her look like a nine- or ten-year-old.
Because Rose is probably actually around thirteen or so, I found this discordant.
This One Summer contains masterful writing and masterful illustration certainly, but what does it convey? If, as I suspect, all stories are nostalgic, then what makes this particular story unique? If this is not to be read as some basking in the golden glow of our long-forgotten and longer-remembered youths, then what are the Tamakis circling here? Why do they wish to remind us of what happened this one summer?
While their answer might be (and probably would be) far different from my own, I think it essential to recognize This One Summer as an exploration of family, especially through the several women of varying ages who fill the story’s corners. At the center, of course, is Rose—a woman at the cusp, so to speak, of womanhood. She’s about thirteen and is that kind of bundled nerves, ideas, and curiosities that seem to almost universally mark the early teenage experience. She’s ignorant of a lot and wonders about sex, feeling some of the stomach-churning pull that physical attraction can hold for the uninitiated. Simultaneously, she’s protected by that kind of uncompassionate sociopathy that allows one human to hold no empathy for the concerns of others. When a local girl becomes accidentally pregnant by her local boyfriend who does his level best to abandon her via passive aggression, Rose cannot sympathize. The girl, to Rose, is simply a “slut”—and whatever that actually means, she is therefore unworthy of compassion. Rose’s mother is plagued by some acute tragedy, driven into depression and a colourless fatigue. And Rose’s reaction is to feel affronted and personally embittered. And yet there is a hope for Rose1010And the reader too! because by This One Summer's insistence in portraying women at all ages, we are driven to see that Rose is on a path rather than a fixed point. This One Summer is not her story. It is, instead, one of her stories. It is the smallest part of her story. It’s simply something that happened this one summer when she was not yet an adult and not quite any longer a kid.
It’s true Windy. It’s all true.
I was always a local growing up, never the vacationer. But by creating this very good book, the Tamakis have given me the chance to be a tourist, experiencing two things outside my realm of personal context. I have never stayed for weeks at a cottage on a great lake1111My wife remarked that it was amusing that until it was finally made explicit I believed Awago Beach was on the ocean—whereas she, correctly, believed it to be a lakeside property. An interesting note on cultural presuppositions and how our contexts govern us. I lived for twenty-seven years on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. She grew up across the American Midwest. One more reminder that we all see different things when looking at the same things. and I have never been a thirteen-year-old woman. I was pleased to spend time with these characters and their disfunctions and their dreams. Enough so that I wouldn’t mind reading Rose’s recollecting, “And the next summer .”
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