Most of the book's events take place during a summer in the 1930s in Esau Valley, Wisconsin, where Garnet lives on her family's farm. The valley contains a river, marshland, and woods. Local farmers raise com and oats, as well as cattle, pigs, and chickens. Some of the action takes place in New Conniston, a small town that, for a country girl like Garnet, glitters "like Bagdad and Zanzibar and Constantinople." New Conniston has a dime store, furniture stores, restaurants, and movie theaters. For Garnet, it is a place full of Interesting people, city luxuries, and prospects for adventure. New Conniston is also the location of the Southwestern Wisconsin Fair, held in early September. Complete with carnival sideshows and rides, the fair offers new sights and sounds.
At the beginning of Thimble Summer, southwestern Wisconsin is in the middle of a terrible drought. The 1930s brought hard economic times to America with the Great Depression, a problem that was compounded when much of the Midwest suffered from a disastrous drought that dried up farm crops. The soil, without plants to hold it together with their roots, blew away in great clouds of dust. In Enright's novel, the lack of rain leaves Garnet's father's crops withering, and for a while he stays up late every night worrying about paying his bills. Garnet and Jay sympathize with their father, and Jay vows never to be a farmer. Rain brings relief early in the novel, and with it comes the freedom for...
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Thimble Summer features clear, unadorned prose. With descriptive power Enright creates moods and images that reflect Garnet's feelings, as in this passage that depicts Garnet's twinges of fear as she and Jay walk along the wooded riverbank at night:
All along the wooded banks owls hooted with a velvety, lost sound; and there was one that screamed, from time to time, in a high, terrifying voice. Garnet knew that they were only owls, but still, in the hot darkness with no light but the solemn winking of the fireflies, she felt that they might be anything.
Although Garnet's growth and personality are the primary unifying factors of the novel, symbols also help pull together the episodes. One significant but simply presented symbol is the silver thimble Garnet finds beside the river: " 'it's solid silver!' she shouted triumphantly, 'and I think it must be magic too!'" Garnet keeps this thimble with her throughout her adventures, and by the end of the novel she declares, "Everything has happened since I found it, and all nice things! As long as I live I'm always going to call this summer the thimble summer." Throughout the novel, the thimble is a symbol of home, a reminder that special events are about to happen.
Garnet's symbolic name refers to both a dark red color and a gemstone. Jewels and jewelry figure often in the images of Thimble Summer. For instance, in her story of youth,...
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Thimble Summer is set in the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression and the drought that afflicted many midwestern states. Eric is Enright's vehicle for introducing some of the horrors of the era. Readers may be interested to know that many people rode railroad boxcars the way Eric does and that hawking goods on the street was common. The drought made the tough times even worse for farmers, and many families lost everything they owned. Thus, the opening chapter of Thimble Summer presented to readers in 1938 a dark and fearful reality. Thimble Summer may help generate discussions of what life in the 1930s Midwest was like.
An issue that parents and teachers will want to discuss with readers of Thimble Summer is Garnet's hitchhiking. Although the story of Mrs. Eberhardt's girlhood adventure creates some suspense by suggesting that running away may have serious consequences—the young Mrs. Eberhardt is robbed—Garnet meets only nice people and has an interesting adventure. Readers should know that even in the 1930s it was unwise to hitchhike, and that in the modern world, a young person alone and hitchhiking is in very real danger of being harmed.
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Topics for Discussion
1. What does Garnet learn from running away to New Conniston? Is it safe for her to hitchhike?
2. How did midwestern farms in 1938 differ from farms today?
3. How do the illustrations contribute to the story?
4. Garnet wants to be a farmer like her father but Jay does not. What do we learn about each character from their attitudes about farming?
5. How do Eric's experiences help Garnet understand her life?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the Great Depression of the 1930s. Compare the conditions you learn about with Enright's portrayal of those hard times.
2. Eric travels in railroad boxcars, as did many people during the Depression. Research other sources and explain what the life of a "hobo" was like in the 1930s.
3. Read another book set about life on a farm, such as Robert N. Peck's A Day No Pigs Would Die, and compare it to Thimble Summer.
4. Make a list of the symbols in Thimble Summer and explain how they contribute to the story.
5. Mrs. Eberhardt tells of a childhood adventure that is similar to the one Garnet has when she goes to New Conniston. How are the young Mrs. Eberhardt and Garnet similar and different?
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Enright's other works include four books about the Melendy children, three of which make up The Melendy Family trilogy: The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, and Then There Were Five. In The Saturdays, the young people pool their allowances so that each one, in turn, can enjoy a special day with enough money to do what he or she wants. This first novel in the trilogy takes place in New York, but the others take place in the country, emphasizing the adventures and pleasures to be found there. These books feature good characterizations and a fine understanding of what it is like to be a young person. The other book about the Melendy Family is Spiderwebfor Two: A Melendy Maze.
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For Further Reference
Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale, 1976. Contains a brief outline of Enright's career and achievements.
Enright, Elizabeth. Doublejields: Memories and Stories. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966. Includes autobiographical essays.
"Realism in Children's Literature." Horn Book 43 (April 1967): 165- 170. A presentation of Enright's views on writing for young people.
Kirkpatrick, D. L. ed. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. New York: St. Martin's, 1978. Includes a listing of Enright's books and a brief critical summary of her work.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. The Junior Book of Authors. 2d ed. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1951. Contains an autobiographical sketch explaining how Enright developed from an illustrator to an author. Includes a photograph of her.
Sutherland, Zena, and May Hill Arbuthnot, eds. Children and Books. 7th ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1986. A summary of Enright's books.
Townsend, John Rowe. Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children's Literature. 2d. ed. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1983. Briefly places Thimble Summer in the context of other 1930s writings for young people.
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