I received this book for free from NetGalley, St. Martin's Press in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
Published by St. Martin's Press on July 26th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Family Life
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: NetGalley, St. Martin's Press
Buy on Amazon
“You can tell a lot about a man by what he does with a snake.”
Fielding Bliss looks back on the life-altering summer of 1984, when his father invited the devil to their hometown of Breathed, Ohio. The invitation is accepted by Sal, a thirteen-year-old black boy who claims to be the devil. After his arrival, an overbearing heat descends upon Breathed and tragic events begin to occur with frequency. The townspeople fixate on Sal and view him with suspicion. Is Sal actually the devil or just a runaway? Elohim, a neighbor who is friendly with Fielding, immediately dislikes Sal and seizes on the opportunity to focus the town’s rage against him. While the community’s lashes out at Sal, trouble is also brewing inside the Bliss home.
“No one wants to say one word and then realize it means so many more.”
I practically ran to Netgalley the moment I read the summary! The Summer That Melted Everything is such a unique book. The synopsis above barely scratches the surface of what this book is about. It has a whimsical, magical feel, but it’s also very dark. Atmospherically, it reminds me of Big Fish (movie), Beasts of Southern Wild (movie) and The New and Improved Romie Futch. Romie Futch is described as a “Southern Gothic tall tale”; I’m not sure if Ohio counts as the South, but I think that label fits this book too! The writing is impressive. It addresses heavy themes such as racism, homophobia, AIDS hysteria, and domestic violence, but it never felt heavy-handed. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from Paradise Lost by John Milton, which helps sets the mood. Every word and name feels intentionally chosen and the story is well-constructed. The story is told by 84-year-old Fielding Bliss, primarily in flashbacks. He is consumed by guilt and regret, so we know this story probably doesn’t have a happy ending. How did the caring thirteen-year-old we meet in the flashbacks turn into this self-destructive old man? He was so close with his family during the summer of 1984, so why does it seem that he lost all contact with them?
Cowardice is always too late to the fact that bravery has the better chance. Our better chance could’ve been understanding. It could’ve been soaring from that which has too long been believed to be a sin. And yet it’s far too easy to be the coward when it requires nothing more than a lie.
The book is filled with peculiar and interesting characters. Fielding’s father Autopsy Bliss reminded me of Atticus Finch (TKAM). He’s a fair-minded man who welcomes Sal into his home with open arms, despite the growing concerns of the community. Stella Bliss, Fielding’s mother, won’t step out of the house out of fear of the rain. Instead of leaving the house to travel, she decorates each room of her house as a different country. Fielding idolizes his older brother Grand, a high school baseball player whose reputation fits his name. Fedelia Bliss, their aunt, wears ribbons in her hair as a reminder of each of her husband’s betrayals. Sal quickly bonds with the Bliss family and becomes especially close with Fielding. He’s thirteen, but he speaks in parables. He seems much wiser than his years, but he’s also seen more than any child should have to. These are just the people inside the Bliss household. There are so many more memorable major and minor characters.
“What these poor souls were desperate for was a light. But the thing about light is it all looks the same when you’re in the dark, so you can’t tell if what powers that light is good or if it is bad, because the light blinds you to the source of its power. All you know is that it saves you from the darkness … They reached for that brightness, and while the light distracted them, while it comforted them in its false rescue, the dark power behind it did its work, and before any of them knew it, they were not being saved by the light, they were being changed by it.”
This book illustrates mob mentality. A charismatic leader whips people into a frenzy and the townspeople easily rationalize their atrocious behavior. There are hints of the terrible events to come, but it begins with disturbing rhetoric. Over the summer, the situation slowly escalates to horrifying proportions. When the people of Breathed find a “monster” to pin blame on, they become blind to their own monstrous behavior. Many of the strange events attributed to Sal were actually caused by the townspeople. “Sometimes the things we believe we hear are really just our own shifting needs.” The “devils” in Breathed aren’t the ones who you would expect. They are neighbors and friends. There were no visual markers or previous indications of the evil they were capable of. I recently read an interview with a man talking about his professional colleagues. I can’t remember the exact quote or numbers, but it was something like ≈10% were consistently bad, ≈10% were consistently good, and the behavior of the other ≈80% depended on who they worked with that day. Many of the citizens of Breathed reminded me of that 80%. This book makes it clear how easy it is to be led astray by blind certainty or a trusted individual. Even the character with the purest heart had moments where they were certain and proven wrong after it was too late.
“When glass is whole, it’s good. When it’s broken, it’s bad. It’s swept up. It’s thrown away. Sometimes thrown away too soon. Think of a window, Sal said. Imagine a violence breaking that window. All those shards of broken glass fall to the floor. The violence is inside the house now, wrestling you. It could kill you, so you grab one of the shards and stab. The violence dies and you are saved. Saved by the broken glass. Isn’t that a funny thing? To be saved by the bad. Sometimes, not sweeping that bad up and throwing it away will save you in the end. It just might. So to defend the devil means defending the good of the bad. That’s what I was doing, Fielding. Hoping that all those folks are just shards of broken glass and one day in the future, they’ll save someone by being just that.”
The events at the end were so horrifying that it did make it difficult for me to put on my grey-tinted glasses. However, when I go back to “You can tell a lot about a man by what he does with a snake” and the context, I understand why the story went the direction it did. I also have a personal issue where stories with allegorical characters make me hyper-aware that I’m in the middle of a story, so I am not 100% invested in the character’s fates. Even though I didn’t feel as ripped apart by tragedy as I probably should have, I did feel deeply for these characters. It felt like a gut punch when Fielding uttered the one word to his brother that changed their relationship forever. When the Bliss family hit their lowest point, my heart broke. Sal’s stories are so beautifully told that they bring tears to my eyes. (Without giving anything away, the stories about the fall and the rope really stick out in my mind.)
“Isn’t it time we put the shovels down instead of digging more holes? The more holes we dig … the less solid ground any of us will have to stand on.”
I would love to go on and on about my favorite parts, but it’s best to experience it for yourself! This book’s message will always be relevant. Part of what makes it terrifying is that the events are so recognizable. It’s been hard for me to watch the news lately without thinking about Sal and Breathed, Ohio. There is so much in this book that it is impossible to unpack it all in just one read. The first read is really good, but it will definitely reward a reread. The Summer That Melted Everything is a deeply-affecting book that will provoke much discussion. Highly recommended!
Quotes I was reminded of while reading:
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Bruce Wayne: We’re criminals, Alfred. We’ve always been criminals. Nothing’s changed.
Alfred: Oh, yes it has, sir. Everything’s changed. Men fall from the sky, the gods hurl thunderbolts, innocents die. That’s how it starts, sir. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men… cruel.
Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado
Doubt isn’t the enemy of blind justice–blind certainty is.