The Sum­mer We Found the Baby

  • Review
By – April 4, 2021

Amy Hest’s The Sum­mer We Found the Baby immers­es read­ers in the World War II era, with the emo­tion­al inten­si­ty of child­hood and the authen­tic expe­ri­ence of the war on the Amer­i­can home­front. Alter­nat­ing chap­ters are nar­rat­ed from the points of view of three dif­fer­ent chil­dren, each strug­gling with a past loss or a poten­tial future one. Julie and Martha Sweet’s moth­er died short­ly after Martha’s birth. Their father is an author whose “…name is on three dif­fer­ent books. All three are in the New York Pub­lic Library!” He brings them from New York City to spend the sum­mer on Long Island where they meet twelve-year old Bruno Ben-Eli, a local boy whose beloved old­er broth­er is serv­ing in the US Army. When a baby mys­te­ri­ous­ly turns up on the steps of the local library, the children’s respons­es to this unusu­al event become the back­ground for their attempts to under­stand their own indi­vid­ual prob­lems in the con­text of a dif­fi­cult time. Hest’s sen­si­tiv­i­ty and unob­tru­sive nar­ra­tive skills cre­ate a sto­ry which is acces­si­ble to young read­ers and fos­ters a rich dis­cus­sion of fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty, and the resilience of children.

Hest seam­less­ly weaves togeth­er the mys­tery of the aban­doned baby with her char­ac­ters’ per­son­al strug­gles. The book is divid­ed into sec­tions, each with intrigu­ing titles that are both lit­er­al plot points and key to the char­ac­ters’ inner lives. Leav­ing the Scene” presents the dra­ma of find­ing the baby, as well as the emo­tion­al needs of girls who have them­selves been deprived of moth­er­ing. The sec­tion titled Binoc­u­lars” alludes to Bruno’s fierce pos­ses­sive­ness of this item, loaned to him by his absent broth­er, but also to Martha’s fan­tasies of the aching gap in her life. To her, the binoc­u­lars are mag­i­cal, able to con­jure up the phan­tom fig­ure she has nev­er known: And then one day you’ll see her! And she’ll be perfect!”

The Ben-Eli fam­i­ly has sev­er­al impor­tant dimen­sions. Bruno’s devot­ed father is the own­er of the local deli and vari­ety store and respect­ed by the local res­i­dents, while also remain­ing a strong fig­ure, sup­port­ive of his fam­i­ly. Bruno’s moth­er, con­cerned about her old­er son, involves her­self in both her domes­tic role and her fre­net­ic activ­i­ty pro­mot­ing the town’s library and its ser­vices to chil­dren. Bruno is some­times frus­trat­ed by her seem­ing­ly omnipresent role in his life but also proud of her sta­tus in the com­mu­ni­ty. But to Martha, Bruno’s moth­er becomes the moth­er she has nev­er known. Hest’s under­stat­ed tone ensures that Bruno’s moth­er is not over­ly ide­al­ized. She lets the Sweet sis­ters know that she is always avail­able but does not over­whelm them with intru­sive attempts to cat­e­go­rize their loss. When she writes a let­ter to Eleanor Roo­sevelt, thank­ing the first lady for her ded­i­ca­tion to the troops, her for­mal lan­guage is a con­trolled way of artic­u­lat­ing her sad­ness and fear. Her enlist­ed son’s name itself, Ben­jamin Ben-Eli, rein­forces the solid­i­ty of the fam­i­ly bond. Mrs. Roosevelt’s appear­ance in the sto­ry is not a mere cameo. This tall, mater­nal fig­ure in clunky brown shoes and long blue dress,” is anoth­er sta­bi­liz­ing mother-figure.

The chap­ters roll by like a movie about the war, but with a sub­tle under­tone replac­ing overt hero­ism. The romance between Ben­jamin Ben-Eli and Tess, a young nurse in train­ing, takes place in ice cream par­lors and on the beach, but their love for one anoth­er is refract­ed through the lens of the young nar­ra­tors. Ulti­mate­ly, the rela­tion­ship is less about ardor and more about fam­i­ly, the sta­bil­i­ty of par­ents, grand­par­ents, and their sur­ro­gates in mend­ing a bro­ken com­mu­ni­ty where many res­i­dents have lost sons, fathers, and broth­ers. Julie and Martha’s father is work­ing on a book about wartime sac­ri­fice called Every One a Hero. The title refers not only to the grave­ly wound­ed sol­diers receiv­ing treat­ment at the near­by base and hos­pi­tal, but to all Hest’s char­ac­ters — extend­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers sup­port­ing one anoth­er through loss and joy.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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