As in many of Lowry’s later works, A Summer to Die deals with the joys and pains that come from memories and treats characters who are initiated into a world in which they experience grief and loss. While the novel deals with a serious subject, a family coping with the death of one of its members, the book is not depressing. The book’s hopeful tone is attributable to Meg’s close relationship with her parents, her friendships with kind and nurturing adults outside her immediate family, and her own personal growth. In addition, Meg’s feelings and her family are portrayed in a believable way, probably because parts of the novel, especially Meg and Molly’s relationship, are autobiographical.
Lowry introduces one of the novel’s important topics, memory, through a patchwork quilt that Meg’s mother is making from pieces taken from the family’s old clothes. For Meg and Molly, the quilt reminds them of some unpleasant memories that Meg suggests are better off forgotten because enough time has not elapsed. Her parents share a similar attitude when they refuse to consider renting the same house the next summer because it reminds them of Molly’s illness and death. As time passes, however, Molly is able to keep her sister alive through the memories that are prompted, in part, by the photographs that she and Will have been taking. At the end of the novel, Meg is able to “see” her sister standing in the grass with her arms full of flowers...
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A Summer to Die, Lois Lowry’s first attempt at writing for children, was a success with both critics and young readers and looked forward to many of Lowry’s other award-winning books. It was named to the Horn Book Honor List and received the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award and state book awards from California and Massachusetts, and it was translated into nine languages. It anticipates Lowry’s autobiographical Autumn Street (1980), whose young protagonist encounters both birth and death among her family and friends, and Anastasia Krupnik (1979) and The Giver (1993), which deal with the both the pain and value of memory. While the plot of A Summer to Die recalls other juvenile books about death published in the early 1970’s—such as Doris Buchanan Smith’s A Taste of Blackberries (1973), Constance C. Greene’s Beat the Turtle Drum (1976), and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia (1977)—its focus on terminal illness and a close, loving family is distinctive. Much of the continued popularity of A Summer to Die comes from its spare and simple style, its likable and believable protagonist, and its honest treatment of sibling rivalry, grief, and friendship.