It’s a mistake to call Invincible Summers a ‘coming-of-age story,’ even though that’s what the publishers say on the back cover blurb. Following Claudia Goodwin through eleven (not always consecutive) summers from the time she was six years old, I never got the sense that this was a character in search of herself, looking to grow into some kind of womanhood that was waiting for her—the womanhood defined by the 1960s – 1970s. Nor was she running away, breaking away, struggling to be or become. There was none of that. Instead, what I experienced reading Invincible Summers was a zen-steady character whose ever-changing and unpredictable world was nothing out of the ordinary from what millions of lives look like, if only we could read the lives of those millions of people who surround us. Claudia is a girl, and then young woman, who lives by responding to events, who makes choices which determine the route she takes as she ages, and who explores and comes to better understand the life she has lived.
Choosing summers on which to focus the story line is a brilliant rhetorical choice. First, it simplifies things. There’s no talk of school and teachers and cliques and classes and homework—just summer activities and minimal family and friend relationships. This simplification also allows readers to hone in on the main character, Claudia, and mark the impact of the events through the course of her young life. School years are important and things happen as they should by grade level, but summers—these are recalled by life altering events, some big, some small—but all notable for the way they shape who a person is.
Claudia’s Summer of ’63, is when, by accident, she “caused Mommy to scream and fall to the kitchen floor, holding the sides of her face as if it were a beach ball about to fly out of her hands.” Claudia had turned the stove burner under the pressure cooker up instead of off, and furthermore, the argument between her parents and her grandmother that distracted them from the stove, Claudia also felt to blame for. When her visiting grandmother tells Claudia to get her rosary so they can pray together, Claudia lies and says she doesn’t have a rosary, and then:
I did a mean thing and told her how Mommy didn’t like church or the nuns at my school, or the rosary, even though I never heard her say any of this.
Grandma said Mommy’s parents were got less, so she never learned to see the beauty in the word of the Lord. I told her Mommy didn’t care about the words of the Lord, so how could she know the difference.
It’s this kind of brash fortitude that makes me adore Claudia. She’s six and has the chutzpah to talk to her grandmother this way. She is well beyond her age, and it’s clear this sensibility is fostered by her parents, who treat Claudia and her brother Burke in very adult ways, being honest with them about social issues of their time—the war, racism, sexism.
[The italicized phrases occur in relation to how it seems Claudia hears her grandmother’s speech, “got less” for Godless, and later “dead mean her” for demeanor and “blast phony” for blasphemy. It’s unclear whether Claudia doesn’t know what her grandmother is saying, or if this is meant to mock an accent.]
The summers continue, each with its own thematic title, such as “The Model Family, Summer 1967” and “Among the Missing, Summer 1971,” spanning from 1963 to 1980. In that time, Claudia’s father passes away unexpectedly when she is only ten. Claudia is with him as he lay dying, but she doesn’t know he’s dying, so then is found with him when her mother discovers he’s dead. That’s some pretty heavy stuff for a ten-year-old, and it’s something that follows her throughout her summers.
With her husband gone, and now a single parent of two in the 60s, Claudia’s mother has her brother move in, something Claudia’s father never would have allowed:
Dad had hated Uncle Wade, my mom’s brother. I never knew why. The reasons were explained in angry whispered conversations that led to Mom slamming the bedroom door after Dad would say, “He’s not welcome in our home.” Mom had to wait until Dad died before she could invite her brother back into her life, and then she had to wait another year until Uncle Wade could visit once he got out of prison.
Later, we learn that “Uncle Wade never says he was guilty of burning his house down while Aunt Joanna and his kids slept.” And that’s as much as we need to know about him. Claudia utterly distrusts him, watching him spend his days drinking and flirting with neighborhood wives. She barricades her door with her dresser at night to feel safe, and I don’t blame her. “Why can’t it just be the three of us again? You, me, and Burke, and no one else?” she asks her mother one day.
“Convenience matters to me very much,” she says . . . “It’s a couple’s world out there, Claudia. It’s hard to be a single woman. Someday you might understand this. With a man around, it feels safer.”
“Not to me,” I say.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Uncle Wade doesn’t physically hurt Claudia, although I was expecting it. With the prevalence of sexual abuse perpetrators within the family, and because there is more inclusion of these abuses in contemporary literature, I was predicting that Claudia would be victimized by this drunken, shiftless uncle—whom eventually her mother does throw out. As her mother begins dating and then remarries, as Claudia grows older and experiments with drugs and flirting with the popular boy, I seriously just kept waiting for some victimization to occur. Again, not to be a spoiler, but maybe to relieve the concern of some readers (like me), Claudia is a reminder that when we hear statistics of abuse, there are those who are not abused, who have manageable childhoods, who perhaps narrowly escape situations that could have tipped, who had adults looking out for them just enough to avoid that as well.
Some of what I read of Claudia’s exploits as she grows older, I’m shocked to imagine she could do without getting hurt—or killed. Hitchhiking. Buying a used Karmamn Ghia to drive from Michigan to Florida in search of her brother Burke, who disappears: “He didn’t bother to leave a note. Just like the last time when he ran away . . . ” (p 107) Going skydiving with her two best friends in an act of defiant revenge against her “no strings” boyfriend who walked out on her. In some ways, I think that’s what made me see Claudia’s as not some coming-of-age story, but something much more idyllic. She seems in control of her life at all times, though not necessarily controlling everything that happens. It’s more that she responds in ways that seem exactly what needs to happen—whether coolly and collectively or even a bit dangerously wild.
The novel closes on chapters of her wandering through Europe, living out of hostels and a single backpack, sleeping on the beaches in Greece, spending much of her time alone, then later with a friend who joins her, and a very short period of time with a lover, Elliot, who is her kindred spirit in his own life’s journey. She returns to the states, not at the urging of her family who have asked her, but when the season’s change, and the Greek tavern owner at the beach where Claudia has been camping simply tells her: “‘Go home,’ she says, stepping toward me, hugging me to her chest. ‘Go home.’”
The novel ends with Claudia’s return home to her accepting and loving family. She comes to some understandings with her mother and brother through very brief conversations and interactions, setting right some memories that had long haunted her. Still, it’s not a tidy ending. There remain unanswerables, but that’s to be expected. Claudia is in her early 20s with so much more life to live. And she will. Her character has proven itself to be steadfastly defiant, certain of every step, even if later she decides to change direction. It’s not the summers that were invincible, but Claudia’s having lived them with invincibility that makes them so. It’s a life readers might wistfully envy in some ways, and in others, realize they have their own summer stories to tell.