The Summer of Bitter and Sweet
The Summer of Bitter and Sweet
I set the kettle to brew. This time, I’ll drink something hot and sweet and hope it drowns out the bitter. At school, my friends, especially King, bought my lies: I tan well. My mom travels for work. I can’t have anyone over. I don’t have a culture. Laugh-laugh. And I kept lying. Even when King told me all these really hard things, how everyone in town, his friends, his teachers, would comment on how much darker he was than his dad—like there’s acceptable Black and too Black—how he missed his mom, how he worried about her and her sobriety, working it alone in Toronto. How he was sure his writing would never be good enough.
Eventually, I traded the choker for a silver cross on a long chain, and people stopped asking where I was from, really. I had friends like King. No one treated me badly—or at least worse than any other girl. Even if my Native classmates looked at me funny, even if they knew my uncles and were among the few who could make a direct connection between my uncles and me, they weren’t going to out me. They might have wanted to be white sometimes too. Or maybe they were ashamed of me.
My positionality as a reviewer is a white settler, living on the Treaty 7 territory and the traditional, unceded territory of the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), Nakoda (Stoney), and Tsuut'ina. It is imperative that reviews of The Summer of Bitter and Sweet that are done by people outside of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community and non-Indigenous reviewers are outweighed by reviews from both of these communities.
Jen Ferguson starts this novel with a letter to readers and a list of “things” about the book. These serve as beautiful content warnings for readers who are about to embark on a difficult and challenging read about sexual assault, racism, and more. Ferguson lets the reader know that “[I]f you’re not ready now, that’s okay. This book will always be here. If you’re never ready, that’s okay as well.” Readers begin the novel surrounded with grace and vulnerability, in a move that I think would benefit many books that tackle tough subjects for teenagers. Books are meant to be healing, but there is beauty in relieving the pressure teens may have to complete a text that may cause them any kind of pain. Ferguson clearly respects this dynamic.
Louisa is a Métis girl on the brink of adulthood and all of the changes and challenges that come with finishing high school and choosing what steps are next. For the summer, she is going to work at her uncles’ ice cream shack with her best friend Florence, and her boyfriend Wyatt. Things change fast—Wyatt is now Louisa’s ex after not respecting her boundaries, but he is still working at the ice cream shack, and her former friend King is suddenly back in town and also employed at the ice cream shack. While this premise alone could have filled the pages of the book, the story is much, much deeper: Louisa’s mom is travelling for the summer to sell her custom beaded earrings, and Louisa’s white biological father (who raped her mother) is out of prison and sending her threatening letters. Suddenly, Louisa has to focus on a million things at once: her water polo future, missing her mother, the rekindling of friendships, and the loss of the ice cream shack at the hands of her newly-released-from-jail biological father, just to name a few.
All of this is set in the Western provinces of Canada on the Prairies—readers who are familiar with this landscape will undoubtedly recognize the many cities and monuments noted in the text as well as the instances of racism that Louisa and her friends face. The Summer of Bitter and Sweet explores the dichotomy of celebrating and finding joy in the beauty of the setting while also feeling the anguish that comes from multiple instances of racism, creating a reflective space to listen, learn, and do better.
The supporting cast was complex and lovable and contributed greatly to my enjoyment of this novel. King truly represents the best of teenagers—he is understanding, intelligent, and loyal. Tyler’s steadfast support and depth made me wish she was on more pages. Florence is a realistic representation of the trepidatious nature of mental health, and Louisa’s tangled emotions towards how to best support her friend read in a genuine manner. Louisa interacts with all of these characters, and more, in different ways, and her self-exploration over the course of the summer is tied closely to her relationships with others.
Some of the plot was lost in the secrets and lies of Louisa which made the overarching storyline difficult to comprehend. I had moments where I wasn’t sure if this specific instance was the big lie, or the big secret, because there were multiple big plot events tied to secrecy. While teenagers keep secrets, the number of secrets being kept from the reader sometimes contorted the plot, and I had to pause to re-read sections or flip back in the book to try to sleuth out whether there was some kind of connection between this lie and the lack of information being given to the reader from a different situation. Eventually, I stopped caring so much about whether I was going to be spoon-fed information and focused on the growth of characters and their relationships, and doing so made the read more enjoyable. This novel should be in the hands of teenagers who are prepared to tackle difficult subject matter, and so it is likely that they would be able to take a similar approach as well.
Overall, The Summer of Bitter and Sweet is a valuable read with characters that you will think about long after you finish reading the book. Again, because the content is mature (but realistic, not gratuitous), I would recommend it for older readers in the YA sphere, but I think many, many teenagers will benefit from learning Louisa’s story.
Lindsey Baird is a high school English teacher in Lethbridge, Alberta, and a member of the Rocky Mountain Book Award committee.