Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428
A Summer Life, by Chicano author Gary Soto, is a collection of thirty-nine short vignettes based on Soto’s life and chronicling coming-of-age in California. The book is arranged in three sections covering Soto’s early childhood, preadolescence, and the time prior to adulthood. Soto is the writer of the everyday. In the first section, his world is bounded by his neighborhood and his eyes see this world in the sharp, concrete images of childhood. In “The Hand Brake,” for example, he writes, “One afternoon in July, I invented a brake for a child’s running legs. It was an old bicycle hand brake. I found it in the alley that ran alongside our house, among the rain-swollen magazines, pencils, a gutted clock and sun-baked rubber bands that cracked when I bunched them around my fingers.”
Soto’s Latino heritage forms the background. Soto identifies himself with this community in the descriptions he chooses for the everyday realities: his grandfather’s wallet is “machine tooled with MEXICO’ and a campesino and donkey climbing a hill”; his mother pounds “a round steak into carne asada” and crushes “a heap of beans into refritos.”
Soto’s experiences include the sounds of Spanish and the objects of the barrio, but they seem universal. At heart, the book is a child’s movement toward self-awareness. Through A Summer Life, Soto paints his growing self-consciousness and increasing awareness of life and of death. “I was four and already at night thinking of the past,” he writes, “The cat with a sliver in his eye came and went. . . . the three sick pups shivered and blinked twilight in their eyes . . . the next day they rolled over into their leaf-padded graves.”
In the last story in A Summer Life, “The River,” Soto is seventeen. He and his friend Scott have traveled to Los Angeles to find themselves amid the “mobs of young people in leather vests, bell-bottoms, beads, Jesus thongs, tied-dyed shirts, and crowns of flowers.” As the two of them bed down that night in an uncle’s house, Soto seems to find that instant between childhood and adulthood, between the past and the present: “I thought of Braley Street and family, some of whom were now dead, and how when Uncle returned from the Korean War, he slept on a cot on the sunporch. . . . We had yet to go and come back from our war and find ourselves a life other than the one we were losing.” In this moment, Soto speaks for all readers who recall that thin edge between yesterday and today.
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