Elderly Louise is rough on the outside but as tenderhearted as a person can be underneath. She lives alone in Cape Cod, caring for small colony of beachfront cottages. Within a few months, she makes a few radical changes to her quiet lifestyle. When her niece once again abandons her daughter, Stella, Louise believes that it is her responsibility to assume care of her grandniece because the child has no other relatives. Louise also decides to become a foster parent to a girl almost the same age as Stella, Angel. Louise may have hoped the two girls would become friends, but as Stella acknowledges, they are like oil and water. They completely avoid each other. That is, until the girls find Louise dead in the living room and then decide that instead of calling 911, they will bury their foster parent in the garden. Didn't see that one coming, did you?
Pennypacker's novel is a combination character study and survival novel. Stella and Angel want to avoid being sent back into the child services system. Both girls need a little time; Angel is waiting for her aunt to come to the US from Portugal and establish the residence and employment necessary to assume her care. Stella is hoping that a few months will be enough time for her mother to get her act to together and come back for her. The girls must depend on each other to keep Louise's death a secret and continue living in the colony. They clean and care for cottages as new families arrive each week for summer rentals. Of course Stella and Angel must constantly fend off questions about Louise, and they barely have enough food in the house to survive.
What I enjoy about this novel is what many people have criticized. The story is farfetched, but it's also fascinating. I didn't want to put the book down because I had to know the consequences of Angel and Stella's decision. It is true that the plot and the tone are mismatched: a sweet, friendship story about two girls who bury their caregiver? Yet, somehow I think it works. The novel is a more hopeful version of Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks. Finally, I read complaints that the characters are not believable. Yes, I have never meet an 11 year-old girl who is obsessed with Heloise or Fado music; however, I felt myself wanting to know more and more about the girls. I wanted Stella to tell Angel the touching things that she learned about Louise because I wanted to see how Angel would react. I loved the tension between the girls and their eventual friendship.
Summer of the Gypsy Moths gives us a wild story with unique characters and delivers a satisfying conclusion. As I was giving library orientation to 6th graders on Friday, I noticed a student had her own copy. She was on page 105 and she told me she loved it thus far. I can't wait to hear her reaction to the book on Monday!
Four out of five stars
For grades 5-8