The Great Good Summer by Liz Garton Scanlon begins with God and ends with wonder, which may or may not be the same thing, I suppose, depending on how you decide to read this story. In the middle, though, is a story of family, faith, and questions that will pull you in no matter where you stand on the God/not-God continuum. At least it did for me.
For some people, religion means having answers and Truth with a capital T. For others, that’s what science is for. Most, I’d venture to say, are somewhere in the middle of those two poles. I have long held that it’s the questions that are the interesting part, but everyone is different. For Ivy and the rest of her community in Loomer, Texas, church is a way of life. Ivy has never thought of it any differently or questioned her faith at all until this summer. Her mother has left with a preacher named Hallelujah Dave.
Her mother was as constant in Ivy’s life as God was, and her absence calls everything into question. As Ivy starts looking at the world with questions rather than answers, she finds that not everything is as she thought. Her favorite teacher, Mrs. Murray, has statues of Buddha in her home. Ivy wonders as she looks at the statue, “Is there something holy or magic here that might help me find my mama, or even help me know if what I’m about to do is right or wrong?” And she makes a new friend. Paul Dobbs is the local “science kid,” and he makes it clear that he doesn’t believe in God. At first he and Ivy butt heads over their differences, but he turns out to be one of the few people who will really listen to Ivy and try to help her.
One thing leads to another, and Ivy and Paul are off to find her mom and bring her back. They are on the same side through thick and thin (despite some squabbles along the way). When they set their sights on what was ahead, it didn’t seem to matter that they believed different things. It wasn’t about that.
You might think that a book that begins with God and spends so much time talking about faith would be preachy, and with most books, I would say you’d be right. But there’s something about Ivy that keeps the preachiness at bay in this story. Maybe it’s her questions. Or maybe it’s her sincerity. I don’t really know. Whatever the case, the story didn’t feel, to me, like it was trying to change my mind, and I appreciated that.
This story is not about changing minds. It’s more about considering why people believe the things they do, why they sometimes question long-held beliefs, and what it means to listen to yourself.
In the end, Ivy seems to find a place where it’s okay if truth doesn’t have a capital T. At one point she says, “My fingers find the little cross I wear on a chain around my neck. It was Mama’s when she was a little girl, and it’s been mine since Daddy got her a new one. I love it, even though the gold has worn off in places and you can see a sort of unshiny silver underneath. Which I guess means it’s fake, but that doesn’t really matter much to me.”
I spent most of my life with a capital T Truth, so I related to a lot of Ivy’s experience of faith and questioning. These days I identify as a Unitarian-Universalist, a religion in which truth is never capitalized and sometimes it’s in quotation marks. So I appreciated Ivy’s feeling that it was what you do with ideas that mattered more so than what one believes or doesn’t. That resonated with me a lot.
I could quibble with parts of the the story that I didn’t agree with, but I will leave those things be. We won’t always agree with everyone or everything around us, and that’s okay.
When Ivy finally finds her mom and speaks her piece about feeling like her mother abandoned her, they are in a car. Ivy listened to her mother’s explanation and apology. “I still don’t turn to look at her, but I listen. I think Paul’s listening too. I mean, really, what choice do we have?”
We’re all in this together. If I can teach my daughter any one value, it is that. We are all in this together. We have to learn to listen to one another, to connect, and to move past our differences. What choice do we have?