Caught by the River

The Summer Book

5th May 2022

This week, in celebration of its 50th Anniversary, Sort of Books republish Tove Jansson’s ‘Summer Book’ with a brand new afterword by Tove’s niece Sophia (on whom the character ‘Sophia’ in the book is based). In the following extract from the essay, Sophia recounts a lone trip to the island, just after the sea ice melts. It is the start of the pandemic, and in order to greet her first and newborn grandchild, she must self-isolate.

Our cottage is right by the shore, facing the open sea to the south. It is just one big room, with a sauna and a washroom at the back. We sleep on lofts above the sauna and the kitchen alcove. Three old-fashioned windows with small panes face the sea to the south and one faces west, adorning the otherwise grey and weather-beaten walls.The room is always bathed in sunshine and the prevailing winds from the southwest sweep around the house so that the only sheltered spot is by the entrance facing the woods.The key turns awkwardly, and the door needs a little shove to open, but inside the cottage everything is as we left it and the months that have passed since our last visit seem to dissolve as if by magic. It smells a bit stale after winter, of course, but it is nothing that some airing and a couple of fires won’t chase away. 

First, I check the gas bottles for the stove and the fridge. A bottle is empty and a new one needs to be put in place. I keep my fingers crossed the fridge is going to cooperate this year. The stove works perfectly. Some years the fridge has just given up, and I am quietly praying it will not be the case now. Alas, there is no sign of activity. The flame doesn’t want to ignite even though I keep the gas button down and press the lighting switch over and over. Patience, patience. A gas fridge is always a little slow to get going, as it takes a while for gas to make its way through the rubber hose. 

When I was a child, it was naturally my father, Lars, who coaxed all the machines into life each year. He was a gentle person and usually very patient, but when a problem arose with an unruly appliance, I could almost see the smoke of a hundred suppressed swear words pouring from his ears. I knew it was time to get out of his way. So did my grandmother, who would disappear into her little backroom for a nap. 

After many trips back and forth to the jetty, I eventually have everything I need at the cottage. Now there is no rush, so I make myself a cup of tea. The fridge has decided to work, but I realise it would have been no catastrophe if it hadn’t.The air outside is cold enough for the fresh food to last a few days, and even in the cottage it is just five degrees. I get some dry wood from the basket in the sauna and light a fire. 

One year, when Tove and Tooti came out to their own summer island – which was further out, at the end of the archipelago – someone had broken into their cottage and used up all the dry firewood by the stove. The most shocking thing was the lack of concern for the next person arriving, who would surely need to make a fire, possibly to survive. After that, they hung the key outside the cottage door, so as not to have to fix any more broken windows, and left clear instructions, asking any visitor to replenish the firewood before leaving. 

Having made sure the fire has taken, I store the food and unpack my belongings. It already feels a little warmer, at least next to the stove. I fetch in some more wood and stack it so that it might dry a bit. Outside, there is plenty to do, and I get on with the most pressing tasks, like taking out the water barrels and placing them under the gutter spouts to catch the rain that will fall soon, according to the weather forecast. There is no running water on the island, but we have always used rainwater for washing dishes and ourselves after the sauna. Seawater is too saline for that. As soon as I heat the sauna, though, I will try to take a dip in the freezing Baltic. 

Drinking water is another matter. That must be brought here. My father and Tove, in fact the whole family, used to simply filter the rainwater. All through my childhood, my father used a gauze to get rid of pine needles, insects and whatever else was in it. Much later, when I was a teenager, I decided to refuse the green-tinged rainwater. Only then would he ferry in proper drinking water from a local well. 

This year, winter storms have been kind to the cottage and nothing of importance needs to be repaired. A good omen. In the autumn, we carefully put away our treasures that decorate the outside walls.They are priceless, but only to us. It is mostly the things we have found on the shores – different-sized floats, beautiful pieces of wood, the bones or skulls of dead birds or fish. Hanging them back on their pegs is one of the more enjoyable rituals of taking possession of the house again. 

The room is heating up nicely, and I hang sheets to air over a couple of chairs in front of the fireplace.They will warm up by the time I go to bed. I leave the first walk around the island for later and instead prepare dinner.The sea beyond the kitchen window is calm and I spot the first eider ducks of the season. They glide by effortlessly, seemingly unaware of the huge local sea eagle that roams the area. I think of their furry little chicks and remember I have a grandchild now, and that I must check up on her and the rest of the family. I call them as soon as I finish eating. 

As evening descends on the island, I take one last trip down to the jetty to check I haven’t forgotten anything by the boat. The evening is cold, but inside it is cosy. I settle in on the sofa in front of the fire with my book, content in my chosen solitude, and marvel at the feeling of belonging. I hear the seagulls giving their evening fanfare. 

The next day, the wind has picked up a bit and the sounds of air sweeping through trees and waves hitting the cliffs greet me at the door. I take my first walk of reconnaissance around the island, through the forest along the beaches and cliffs. When I was a child, it was a cut-throat race to be the first to find whatever the sea had swept ashore over the winter months. At the highest spot of the island, I stop and enjoy the horizon, in almost 360 degrees. I am sure the sky is higher here, and it seems wider than I remembered. All this space! And the light! 

The atmosphere seems full of new life. There are still odd patches of snow in the shaded areas, but the ground is moist, dark and teeming with insects.The trees are bare, but filled with the buds of leaves about to burst open. 

It suddenly becomes obvious to me why my father was always drawn here so early in the year. This is a very special time. Over the next few days, I have a sense of watching nature change before my eyes, as if in fast forward. The intensity of the short Nordic summers is at its strongest right now, I realise. This feeling of rapid transformation energises me. I become swept along by the rhythm of it. 


An extract from the afterword © Sophia Jansson 2022, in the new edition of ‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson (Sort of Books, £9.99), available here.