The Natural Habitats of Children and Butterflies

The Summer of the Mourning Cloak, by Kathleen Nelson, (Troubador), 239 pages

In Kathleen Nelson’s The Summer of the Mourning Cloak, we have another children’s/young adult book that also makes for a worthwhile grown-up read. The novel’s chief narrative arc concerns Hyslop, a young girl who is suddenly forced to live with a mother she’s never known after the grandmother who was raising her dies.

Hyslop’s life with her mother is itinerant, unhappy, and—all too often—unkind. Her mother moves about Europe finding one man after another who enables her to live a life of luxury and indulgence at least for a short time. Hyslop is told to refer to these men as “uncles,” and they’re a bad lot: ranging from those who ignore her to those who bully and abuse her.

Hyslop’s life changes when she and her mother go to live with one of her mother’s (female) former classmates. This friend lives in a barn converted to a pottery studio and apartment on a property owned by her aging godfather, “Uncle Northy.” The godfather lives in a smaller house on the estate. His daughter and her husband live in the main house. There are two more homes on the estate: the one that Hyslop and her mother come to occupy and another that houses a married couple.

In each of these buildings, Hyslop—who has managed thus far by learning to draw as little attention to herself as possible—meets an adult who shows genuine interest in her. There are, of course, also the more familiar sort of adults who ignore her as they pay court to Hyslop’s glamorous mother.

Hyslop is a budding entomologist who comes to share Uncle Northy’s fascination with butterflies. Northy is aged, full of tics both verbal and physical. He is committed to maintaining the estate as a butterfly preserve; his son-in-law dreams of mowing the field of native habitat and setting up a hunting lodge.

Watching Hyslop blossom in these new surroundings is one of the great pleasures of this book. Normally self-conscious and deliberative in her behavior, she learns to limit her own defensive self-censorship.

This book is endorsed by the UK organization Butterfly Conservation, which offers a special membership discount for readers in an afterword. One of the book’s great successes is that it works in its conservation message without becoming stilted or didactic. The world surrounding Hyslop is as vivid as she is coming to be herself.

This is a a fine novel to share with any young naturalists you might know. It also provides an ultimately comfortable day’s reading for an adult who could use a book with a happy ending (not really a spoiler—what else would one expect in a book of this sort?).

June 19 2014 06:38 am | Uncategorized

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