"Nothing ever changes at Wauregan.” That mystique is the tradition of the idyllic island colony off the shore of Long Island, the comforting tradition that its summer dwellers have lived by for over half a century. But in the summer of 1948, after a world war has claimed countless men—even those who came home—the time has come to deal with history’s indelible scars.
Helen Wadsworth’s husband, Arthur, was declared missing in action during an OSS operation in France, but the official explanation was mysteriously nebulous. Now raising a teenage son who longs to know the truth about his father, Helen turns to Frank Hartman—her husband’s best friend and his partner on the mission when he disappeared. Frank, however, seems more intent on filling the void in Helen’s life that Arthur’s absence has left. As Helen’s affection for Frank grows, so does her guilt, especially when Peter Gavin, a handsome Marine who was brutally tortured by the Japanese and has returned with a faithful war dog, unexpectedly stirs new desires. With her heart pulled in multiple directions, Helen doesn’t know whom to trust—especially when a shocking discovery forever alters her perception of both love and war.
Part mystery, part love story, and part insider’s view of a very private world, A Certain Summer resonates in the heart long after the last page is turned.
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A Certain Summer
“WHAT do you mean, you’re worried about Helen?” Sally asked. It wasn’t even July Fourth and the gossip had already started. It was funny, she thought, that when many of the men were away at war, there had been so much less barbed chatter.
Sally Carter and Betty Spencer, who had been known as “Betty Boo-hoo” when she was a little girl, were sitting under Betty’s umbrella on the beach, watching the sandpipers pick and prance in the foam at the edge of the sea. “Of course, it’s awful not knowing if your husband is dead or alive, but that’s been true for years. Why now?”
“She must know he’s dead,” Betty said, with something in her voice. “That’s not what I’m worried about. It’s the men.”
“What men?” Sally asked.
“You can’t be serious. Helen would never go after anyone’s husband.”
“But they might go after her,” Betty said defensively. “My Malcolm, for example.” She lowered her voice. “He was practically a sex fiend before the war. Now, and don’t you dare repeat this”—she paused and, unable to say the words, held out her pointer finger, and bent it, so it looked limp. “He’s lost interest in me. We barely talk, except about the children. And sex? Never.”
“What does that have to do with Helen?”
“She’s beautiful. She’s alone. And maybe she’d welcome a little attention.”
“That’s a lot of C-R-A-P,” Sally snapped. “She’s still waiting for Arthur. You know they grew up together in St. Paul. They were inseparable from the time they were tiny. Arthur’s grandfather was ‘the Grain King’ and Helen’s was ‘the Empire Builder.’ One of them built the railroad, and the other used it to ship his wheat. And with Helen’s mother so sick, I think she spent more time at the Wadsworths’ than she did at home.”
“That’s the thing: she didn’t really have a mother, did she?”
“No. It was pretty awful. Mrs. Gladsome was in and out of institutions. Helen never knew when she’d be at home, and when she’d suddenly be gone. She told me about it when we were in boarding school. She and Arthur were always happiest in each other’s company. When we had a dance with St. Mark’s, he filled in every dance on her card with his name. We all knew those two were meant for each other. They were like brother and sister and best friends and lovers—but not till they were married, of course. Nothing could come between them.
“As for Malcolm and his limp finger, haven’t you noticed how the men who were in combat seem different, muffled or amplified, or something else I can’t quite explain? They try to hide it, whatever ‘it’ is, but these houses are so close to each other, sometimes you can hear the man next door wake up screaming in the night. Who knows what they relive in their dreams?”
“I don’t want to imagine,” Betty said firmly.
“I do,” Sally said. “I want to know what Dan went through while he was away. As for Helen, she isn’t a husband stealer. If anyone made a pass at her, she’d make sure he didn’t do it again.”
“There’s another thing about Helen,” Betty said. “She didn’t grow up here.”
“Neither did you,” Sally said.
“Yes, but I had a strict mother and I always knew right from wrong. I remember hearing that the first sign of Helen’s mother’s illness was when she started sleeping with the gardener, and the chauffeur, and anyone’s husband she could get. That was before she was certifiable. And in the summers, Helen’s father took her to Europe, instead of coming to a place like this. Who’s to say she really cares about the rules?”
“I say so. You’re right that Helen had a horrible childhood,” Sally said. “It makes her want even more to have a stable family life. The last thing she’d do is get involved with a married man.
“As for not growing up here, if I remember right, your mother was a hat model when your father met her and introduced her to the Colony Club and Wauregan. And wasn’t your grandfather an Irish cop? This is America, Betty. You belong here, and so does Helen. She loves the island. Helen would never do anything to make trouble. She calls this her ‘safe place.’ If she could hear you, she might not be so sure.”
Sally caught her breath and stopped. Defending Helen had brought out the anger that surfaced when she was confronted with unfairness, and made her feel light-headed and reckless. “I’m warning you,” she said. “If you even hint that Helen is husband bait, I will tell everyone in this place about the night you screwed the captain of the Australian tennis team under a tree at the Merion Cricket Club, and the next morning admitted you never found out his name. So much for ‘knowing right from wrong.’ ”
“Don’t test me,” Sally said. “I’m sorry you’re having problems with Malcolm, but that doesn’t have anything to do with Helen. It’s that damn war the men won’t talk about, as though being back at Wauregan can just erase the past few years.”
When the men were mired in muddy trenches, on bombing runs, and in deadly battles, their dreams of the colony were as vivid as Technicolor movies with big-screen happy endings. It might be unrealistic to hope that a small insular summer place could restore what the war had stolen, but battlefront life and death were so surreal it was hard to recall even an ordinary peacetime day. The warriors’ anticipation of the perfect families waiting for them in an ideal community were like the fantasies people at home shared during rationing. For years, they would discuss the delicacies they would enjoy when they could buy anything they wanted, only to find, after a few postwar feasts, that for the most part, even good food was just food.
Sally stood up and brushed the sand off her legs, while her rickety beach chair folded in on itself. “Dratted things,” she said. “You’d think now the war’s over the club could buy some new ones. I’ve got to go. I’m on my way to Helen’s, as a matter of fact. In case you’re wondering, I won’t tell her what you said. This place is too small to start feuds.”
“I didn’t mean . . .” Betty began, but Sally was out of earshot by the time she could figure out what to say next. She reminded herself of all the times she had thought how wonderful it was that the granddaughter of a Boston policeman could end up listed in the Social Register, with her children in the best schools, and thought that Sally was quite right: “This is America.” Still, Helen was the daughter of a crazy nymphomaniac mother. Didn’t those things run in families?
• • •
Sally and Helen settled on the sea-facing side of Helen’s porch, where a breeze gently combed through their hair, lifting it off their necks in the morning heat. Sally would never have considered discussing her problems with “Betty-boo,” but Helen was her closest friend, and she, too, was having trouble at home. In a voice choked with humiliation, she confided that her husband, Dan, the president of the Wauregan Association, had made an offhand comment about what had happened when Paris was liberated and he went there on leave from the Navy. “ ‘The Parisians went wild,’ he said. ‘It looked like every woman in the city was ready to lift her skirts for an American soldier.’ ”
“Uch,” Helen said. “That’s a little vulgar.”
“So then he said he saw this prostitute who had hair exactly the same red as mine. He told me it was the hair that made him do it.”
Helen snorted. “I hate to laugh, but what a lame excuse! Why did he have to tell you? He didn’t come back with a disease?”
“No, thank goodness,” Sally said. “He came back shut down and angry, and he won’t tell me what happened when he was away. Occasionally, he’ll burp up a little tidbit, but mainly it’s just the bare facts. I know his ship was attacked and sunk, and most of the sailors were lost, but when he told me about it, he said. ‘You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen the sea on fire.’ He was talking about a kind of hell, but his voice was soft, as though he were describing a Turner sunset. He has horrible nightmares, then claims he can’t remember them. He won’t say what it was like to be there—and then he tells me that!” she said. “About some woman.”
Helen gave Sally a sympathetic blue-green look from behind her tortoiseshell glasses. There was so much she, too, wanted to know about the war.
Sally went on to tell her that Dan had followed his confession of casual infidelity by remarking that her hair was like the red light in a brothel window. He said he was sure that while he was away, it had attracted plenty of attention from the soldiers and sailors and airmen she “fed” at the canteen in Times Square, “making those condescending little quotation marks in the air,” Sally said angrily. “He was never like this before.” Her voice dropped, until it was almost a whisper. “What could have happened?”
Helen was not entirely surprised. During the war, she and Jack and Kathleen had moved to New York for the duration. The house in St. Paul was meant for a big family and a complete staff, and with only the three of them in residence it felt hollow and cold. She had always wanted to live in Manhattan, and she used the Wadsworth family apartment, enrolled Jack in the best boys’ school, and volunteered for the Red Cross. After an intensive nursing course, she signed on for night duty, so she would only be gone when Jack was in bed and Kathleen was in the apartment.
She was assigned to the docks where wounded soldiers were unloaded from the hospital ships. The scene had a disturbingly surreal quality. It took place in the blacked-out city, with hooded flashlights illuminating the men who had been laid out in rows of stretchers. The disembarkation began at ten-thirty. The official story was that the soldiers were off-loaded at night to avoid traffic, so they could be transported to the appropriate facilities as quickly as possible, but that was a cover-up. The government didn’t want civilians to see the extent of the damage, for the same reason that at the start of the conflict, newspapers and newsreels were forbidden to show pictures of dead soldiers. The Red Cross nurses were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, swearing that they would not discuss what they were doing.
Each night, when the ships disgorged their human cargo, doctors walked along the lines, assessing each man’s injuries and deciding where he should be sent for treatment. Helen was responsible for making certain that the men in her area were taken to the right ambulances, and recording who went where. Some of the soldiers were so badly injured she found it hard to look at them. The blackened burn victims were the worst. After them, the cases she found most disturbing were the men who had to be strapped into their stretchers because they could suddenly turn violent, or who stared, unblinking and silent, and didn’t answer when she bent over to welcome them and ask their names.
She remembered when her mother had stopped talking and lay in her bed in the sanitarium, never turning her eyes away from the glamorous portrait of her younger self. Helen’s father had brought the picture to be hung opposite her bed, as though to remind her of who she was, or once had been. When that didn’t work, he switched it for a painting of the family and Helen’s mother’s much-loved dog. Helen was so young when the painting was made that she could almost understand that her mother would not recognize her as the child in the white dress, sitting on the floor of their library, holding a little Papillon on her lap. But surely, she thought, she might have had some response to the image of “Blizzard,” with her perked ears and the white butterfly stripe bisecting her forehead. She had brought that dog to her marriage, along with her ladies’ maid. Helen had thought that the maid, always known as “Mam’selle,” had been more important to her mistress than the little girl sitting close to her mother’s satin ball slippers. Even if it was unthinkable to include a servant in a family portrait, Mam’selle was there, a ghostly pentimento, with a protective, possessive hand on her mistress’s shoulder.
After the war, with Arthur still gone, Helen stayed in Manhattan. Jack was happy at his school, and for Helen, as a woman on her own, life was more stimulating than in St. Paul. She continued to work for the Red Cross at a veterans’ hospital that attempted to rehabilitate men who suffered from what had openly been called “shell shock” in the last war, but now was only acknowledged in the most extreme cases. No matter how terrified and confused the veterans she worked with were, they evidently believed it was unmanly to talk about their experiences. Whether they feared that unleashing their emotions would throw them further off balance, or were simply behaving the way they had been brought up to act, in a society where “boys don’t cry,” the results were the same: silence and bravado, until finally, in the soldiers who were most likely to be cured, there came a loss of control, the lightning, and thunder, and hailstones that broke the unbearable heat of memory.
“Listen,” Helen told Sally. “The men we’re trying to help? They’re so traumatized, they’re in a hospital, but it’s hard to get even them to say more than ‘I only did what anyone would do.’ When you find out what they’ve been through—and you have to, or they’ll never get better—you can hardly believe it. I try to be like the doctors, who don’t let it upset them, but I can’t be that detached. Once they start talking, sometimes I want to put my fingers in my ears, and say, ‘Stop! Don’t tell me.’ ”
“How about the heroes?” Sally added. “With medals for bravery? You’d think someone would say, ‘Bart Littlefield won the Distinguished Service Cross for—what is it? ‘gallantly risking his life under the most dangerous circumstances’?—and then tell us what the ‘circumstances’ were. But they act like it would be barroom bragging. The only higher award than the Distinguished Service Cross is the Medal of Honor, usually awarded to the family by the president, because for the most part, you have to die to get it. Remember what Bart said when someone congratulated him? ‘I was just lucky.’ ”
“I don’t think it’s so much that they’re shutting us out, as afraid that speaking about the unspeakable will bring home everything they want to leave behind,” Helen said.
“Still, some of them are really nuts,” Sally said. “Did you know that since the war, John Williams can’t eat anything with bones in it? Marjorie says he won’t tell her why. But bones? What could that be about?”
“Don’t even think about it. Does he eat things that used to have bones, like hamburgers?”
“I don’t know, but Marjorie says even fish bones are taboo. Poor John. Can you imagine what he must have seen?”
“No,” Helen said. “It must have been horrible. How awful to think of Marjorie cooking rice and spaghetti and boning chicken breasts, all the time wondering what made her husband suffer so badly.”
“It’s odd how the war took people differently. Look at Ted and Libby; do you ever remember another man commuting during the week? An hour and a half each way? He’s here almost every night,” Sally said.
“I know. I love watching them. Libby told me that all during the war Ted believed if he could get back to her and the kids, and Wauregan was still the same, he’d know he had been fighting for the right reasons. Not just to stop evil, but to preserve good.”
Sally nodded. “I saw them one afternoon when I was walking along the beach. They were in the surf and he was holding her like a baby and swinging her in the waves. They looked about eighteen years old.”
Helen smiled. Ted was shaped like a fireplug and Libby was tiny and so light that she ran like a deer.
“It’s not an accident that Dan’s the head of the Wauregan Association,” Sally said. “I think he wanted the job because he thought this place had a magic that would cure him.”
“It does,” Helen said. “It just takes longer for some people than others.”
She wondered, as she often had, whether, if Arthur came home, he would be so wounded that he would shut her out when she asked what it had been like in France. She was certain he would not have turned mean like Dan.
Despite their private struggles, Wauregan couples remained coupled, and tried to keep up appearances. Stories seeped out about men who seemed like troubled strangers to their wives and stumbled as they tried to reestablish relationships with their children, but most of the husbands and wives cared enough about each other that they were determined to regain their footing. Others thrashed along, some because they believed divorce was a disgrace; others because the men couldn’t afford to support two households. And there were the Wauregan Rules. If a family split up, and their house was sold, neither parent would be allowed to rent a place there. Losing the island summers would be another kind of divorce. A man or a woman might find another spouse, but nothing could replace Wauregan.
• • •
Whatever went on behind closed doors, in the ways that showed, the colony’s treasured sense of continuity prevailed. The children, especially, went about their summer lives as they always had.
For those who were old enough, the most engrossing activity was sailing on the gusty bay. The community had its own fleet of fat-bellied Beetle Cats, the same boats their fathers and mothers had sailed when the vessels were brought onto the island in 1921, the year they were first made. They were small and sturdy and rarely tipped over, although, as one member of the Yacht Club Committee remarked, “I don’t know why we don’t lose at least one child every year.” Often enough, a boy or girl forgot to duck when the boat went about, and got whacked on the head; or tumbled overboard if the vessel heeled in a strong wind.
That summer, on the day they arrived, Jack told Helen he wanted to get his father’s old boat, Red Wing, into the water again. Helen and Kathleen were in the kitchen when he announced his intentions, then wheeled around and left. They heard the stairs squeak as he loped back up to his room, as though he had gotten something off his chest.
“Do you think he wants the boat to be ready to sail when Arthur returns, or he’s given up, and he’s fixing it for himself?” Helen asked Kathleen. “Arthur told him it would be his when he turned fourteen.”
“Ah, Mrs. W, who knows what the boy is thinking? I’ll start worrying when he doesn’t eat everything on his plate and ask for seconds.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Helen said. “Sometimes not knowing makes me want to act like Jack. Just mad. When a woman whose husband came back from the war complains that she feels like she’s married to a stranger, I’m tempted to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t even know if I have a husband.’ ”
Kathleen pursed her lips, trying to keep the words in, then her habitual self-containment cracked. “Don’t you think I want to know what happened to Mr. Arthur?” she said. “Didn’t I bring that boy up? I know him. If he was alive, he would have done anything—killed and stolen if he had to—to get back to you and Jack. Mr. Arthur is gone for good. It’s time for you to stop fooling yourself, and letting Jack believe his father will step off that ferry one fine day.”
“No,” Helen said. “Arthur was working with a Resistance group. Even if Frank doesn’t know what happened, someone must.”
“What if they do? It seems like no one’s telling. Maybe you should find a new man,” Kathleen said.
“I don’t want another man. I want Arthur,” Helen said crankily. Then she strode out of the kitchen and let the door swing shut behind her. She was sick of being soaked with sorrow, and ashamed of being angry at her absent husband, who almost certainly had no control over what had happened, or had been done to him.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for A Certain Summer includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Patricia Beard. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
It is the summer of 1948. Although World War II has been over for three years, for Helen Wadsworth, whose husband, Arthur, was declared mysteriously missing after an OSS operation in France in 1944, there can be no closure. Returning with her son to their beloved summer spot, the old-fashioned island community of Wauregan, she is haunted by memories of Arthur and the life they might have had, unable to move on because of the persistent hope that he might, somehow, still be alive.
But then Arthur’s best friend, Frank—the man who was on the mission with him in France, and perhaps the only one who may know the truth about what happened and Peter, a younger man who has been deeply scarred by his experiences in the war and who is trying to piece his life back together with the help of a German shepherd war dog named Max, both appear in her life, and she can’t help but feel torn by her feelings for both men.
As Helen and the other inhabitants of the island struggle to come to terms with their pasts, and to figure out what they want for the future, Helen realizes that what happened to Arthur might be more complicated than it seems, and sets out to uncover the truth, so that, once and for all, she can be free.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the novel’s title, A Certain Summer. Why do you think the author selected this title?
2. The novel is rich with detailed descriptions of the ocean, the sky, and the landscape of Wauregan. Is there a passage or scene involving nature that stood out for you? What role does the natural world, particularly in summer, play in the lives of the characters?
3. It could be argued that, in some ways, Wauregan is as much a character in the book as its inhabitants. Do you agree? What sort of setting does the island create for the novel? What emotions and impulses are being acted upon or repressed by its inhabitants because they are on Wauregan, away from the “outside” world?
4. What are the myths about the idyllic island summer the author refers to in the opening passage of the book? How about the “mystique” and the magic?
5. On page 16, the author writes: “When the men were mired in muddy trenches, on bombing runs, and in deadly battles, their dreams of the colony were as vivid as Technicolor movies with big-screen happy endings. It might be unrealistic to hope that a small insular summer place could restore what the war had stolen, but [war] was so surreal it was hard to recall even an ordinary peacetime day. The warriors’ anticipation of the perfect families waiting for them in an ideal community were like the fantasies people at home shared during rationing. . . [describing] the delicacies they would enjoy when they could buy anything they wanted, only to find, after a few postwar feasts, that for the most part, even good food was just food.” Do you agree that, when we are deprived of something, whether it is food, the comforts of home life, or the love of another person, it takes on an almost fantastic magnitude in our minds, one that real life cannot match? Do you think this is true for memories, as well—for example, Helen’s recollections of her relationship with Arthur? Discuss this idea as it relates to various characters in the novel.
6. Throughout the novel, memories of Arthur haunt Helen, and Wauregan is a tether to a part of the past that no longer exists for her. At the end, after finally learning the truth about what happened to Arthur, and with Frank dead and her house on Wauregan gone, she feels that she is finally free. Did you interpret that to mean free of the past, of her ambivalence about Frank and Peter, or of the limbo in which she has been living while she waited for definitive news about Arthur? Do you agree that she is “free,” or do you think the novel suggests that the past can never be escaped?
7. After Frank has been killed, Helen reflects on page 312: “She could only feel pity for the innocent scholarship boy who had come to Yale, and been tempted to pretend he was someone else, until he no longer knew who he was— only what he wanted.” Discuss the role of identity throughout the book. How does wartime change the way we define our identities, and the ways others define us?
8. There are various examples of marriage, romance, and sexual relationships in this novel. Based on your reading, what do you make of the attitudes about marriage during this time? What about attitudes toward fidelity, sex, or love? What role do you think the war had in the way relationships were formed and carried out in this novel? Provide examples.
9. Which characters won your sympathy and why? Did this change over the course of the novel? Did your notion of what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?
10. On page 292, Pauline takes Helen to the room the German soldiers have defaced and tells her, “Louis-Arnaud said this place had seen many things in five hundred years, and this is part of its history. If we restored it, we would be pretending that these horrible things hadn’t happened. We keep this room to remember the filth people can stoop to, and act before evil prevails.” Do you agree with Louis-Arnaud that it is important to keep reminders of the lowest points in human history, as a warning for the future? Or do you think that preserving such markers are roadblocks to moving forward?
11. The book opens with the line “Nothing ever changed at Wauregan.” Do you think, ultimately, this proves true? Do you think it’s possible for a place not to change, at its core? Why do you think people find comfort in the idea of a place that “never changes”? In 1948, at Wauregan, what elements of the colony’s traditions have been successfully maintained? What has been disrupted? Are the disruptions permanent, or are they particular to the postwar period?
12. O n page 221, the minister, Dr. Waters says: “‘Don’t pass along stories that can hurt others. As my mother used to warn me, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.’ Let’s attempt to find something good to say about each other, or hold our tongues.’” And Pauline notes on page 292: “In even the most beautiful garden, a poisonous snake can crawl out from under a rock and bite you . . . .You may recover, but the next time, you will be careful where you step.” How do you think each of these statements applies to the events in the novel?
13. World War II was a catalyst for enormous social and cultural change, and although the Wauregan colonists try to shield themselves, no character in A Certain Summer is left untouched. Discuss some examples. How does Helen’s life exemplify these changes? Whose life do you think was most altered by the war?
14. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? Did it turn out as you expected? Would you have ended it differently? If so, how?
15. On page 4, one Wauregan resident tells Arthur: “In certain summer places, we try to leave all that behind and just be good neighbors.” When do the inhabitants of Wauregan succeed in being good neighbors to each other, when do they fail, and why?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In the novel, Helen mentions two books that were very popular at the time: The Egg and I and Forever Amber. Pick a book published in 1948 to read for your next meeting. Among those that hold up well are Dinner at Antoine’s by Frances Parkinson Keyes, a murder mystery in which, as in A Certain Summer, “place” (in this case, New Orleans) is a major element of the book—in addition, one of the characters is a World War II soldier, mistakenly declared dead. Another choice is Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead, which chronicles his experiences during the Philippines Campaign in World War II.
2. Have a retro film night: rent the movie versions of The Egg and I, Forever Amber, or the classic 1948 film Key Largo, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, in which a storm—also as in A Certain Summer—plays a significant part in the story. The romantic comedy A Foreign Affair, starring Greta Garbo, and set in occupied Berlin just after the war, was also released in 1948, and deals with aftershocks from the war.
3. Helen’s mother-in-law’s special iced tea, steeped with fresh mint, sugar, and mixed with orange juice; the judge’s favorite coconut cake with lemon curd filling; tomato aspic with cucumbers; and coleslaw with bacon are among the delectable summer treats mentioned in the book. Make and bring your favorite summer foods to your book club meeting and have a Wauregan-style feast, whatever the season.
4. The loveable Max is an important character in the novel. Do some research on war dogs and present your findings to the group. Consider checking out some of the sources the author used in her research, including War Dogs of the Pacific, a film by Harris Done (www.wardogsmovie.com), the book War Dogs: A History of Loyalty and Heroism by Michael G. Lemish, published by Brassey’s, Washington, D.C., 1996; and Hero Dogs: Secret Missions and Selfless Service by Lance M. Bacon, published by White Star Publishers (www.whitestar.it).
A Conversation with Patricia Beard
Q: What inspired you to write A Certain Summer?
A: I have wanted to write about the American tradition of the family summer community for a long time. It has a special resonance for me, as when I was a little girl, my family spent summers in a small summer place in Maine; and when my children were young, we summered in a community similar to Wauregan. For many people, the memories of childhood are most vivid when they take place in summer. I wanted to explore that, and celebrate it.
Q: You are known as an author of nonfiction books. What made you decide to write a novel?
A: In nonfiction, I am restricted to what I can know, and that often limits the use of dialogue; fiction freed me to use more of my creative energy. A crossover is that while A Certain Summer is not autobiographical, as so many first novels are, it is set in a world I know well.
Q: How has your experience writing nonfiction influenced A Certain Summer?
A: Throughout the book, I had opportunities to research subjects that interested me: among them were the emotional and social influences in the aftermath of a “good war”; the historic role of war dogs; and the way the OSS and French Resistance operated.
Q: Are your characters based on real people?
A: No, with one exception: Kathleen is based on a woman who helped me bring up my children and who was such an important part of our lives that my daughter named her first child after her. But “Kathleen’s” stories from Ireland come from research and my imagination.
Q: Why did you set your novel in 1948?
A: Partly nostalgia. There were many similarities to the 1950s, when I grew up. And partly because I’m interested in transition. In 1948 society was on the cusp of change, yet at Wauregan, the members of the community tried to keep the past alive. I think the traditional structure of Wauregan provided a needed balance.
Q: In what ways is Helen a modern character? Are you like Helen?
A: Helen is more independent than many of the women in the story, because she has been on her own since her husband left to serve in the OSS. Am I like her? Since I invented her, she does have some of my qualities. And like Helen, I am tall and thin, wear glasses, and am a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. However, I grew up in Manhattan, not in the Midwest, and my grandfather was not a railroad baron—although I’ve taken the liberty of borrowing the nickname of James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railway, who is the great-grandfather of my children on their father’s side.
Q: What are some of the myths you refer to at the beginning of the book?
A: The most important is the idea of the “family summer place.” Until women entered the workforce in large numbers, summer colonies were nearly entirely inhabited by mothers and children during the week. Fathers came on weekends, and for short vacations. On Sunday nights, when the men returned to their jobs in the cities, life returned to the world of women and children.
Q: Is Wauregan exceptional, or is it similar to other summer places?
A: Except for the geography, it could be transposed to most regions of the United States, and many different social and economic groups.
Q: In those colonies is it true that “nothing has changed” in the past two generations?
A: In the ones I have known, the basic values remain the same, although the tradition of multigenerational families is somewhat diluted, as it’s much less common for young men and women to marry their childhood friends, “newcomers” enter, who might not have been as welcome a couple of generations ago, but who often refresh a place that can become ingrown. It works well as long as they share the community’s essential values. Working mothers, the higher incidence of divorce, and increased informality have also shifted the dynamics of traditional summer places, often for the better, but in those like Wauregan, the essence remains.
Q: There are a number of instances of trust and betrayal in the story. Why?
A: Those are among the universal questions: Who can I trust? Who can’t I trust? How can I know?
Q: Why did you include a German shepherd?
A: I love just about any kind of dog. I’ve never lived with a German shepherd, but I have known some, and they have a special quality of loyalty, gentleness, and the potential to be fiercely protective. Those are qualities I like in men, too.
Q: Some of the men at Wauregan suffer from what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. The war dog, Max, was “deprogrammed” before he was returned to civilian life. Do you think it would have helped men returning from the war if there had been a required readjustment period, even if it was brief, before they were flung back into civilian life?
A: It would have been hard to establish, as the men who had been in combat and their families were eager to be reunited. But, with knowledgeable counseling, it might have helped, and would be helpful now for returning veterans.
Q: Were you rooting for Helen to end up with Peter, Frank, or for her husband, Arthur, who was missing in action, to return?
A: See what you think when you read the book! Then tell me who you were rooting for, and whether it changed as you read along.
Q: How did you come up with some of the episodes in the story?
A: I made up most of them, but some came bubbling to the surface from stories I’d heard. For example, my mother told me about a woman who went off with her lover in a seaplane during the week, while her husband was away. Mother said the other women in the community knew about it, but didn’t tell their husbands because they were afraid the men would become suspicious about what was going on when they weren’t there. I admit that it’s also true that my son was kicked out of sports group one summer. I can’t remember why, he was only about eight years old, and he was readmitted after he apologized for whatever transgression started the problem.
Q: What are the elements of summer in a small colony that most appeal to you?
A: I love knowing the parents of my friends, my children’s friends, and the next generation—the grandchildren. And I love the peacefulness of island life. I write during the summer, but it feels different to be working on an island than in my office at home.
Q: Do you still spend summers at the community on which Wauregan is based?
A: No. I haven’t been there since the late 1970s.
Q: When you write nonfiction, you haven’t had to describe sex scenes. There is quite a bit of romance in A Certain Summer. How did you deal with sex?
A: Delicately. Some things should remain private, even in fiction. And there’s always the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
Q: You have a significant sailing scene in A Certain Summer. Are you a sailor?
A: I enjoy sailing—as a passenger. I counted on my husband and some friends, including a fourteen-year-old boy, to advise me.
Q: For a summer place, you don’t place much emphasis on sports, except sailing. Why not?
A: Helen and Peter are both avid swimmers, of course, as was Arthur, but except for tennis and sailing, the emphasis at Wauregan is not on competitive sports. For example, there is no golf course. As for me, my favorite “sport” is reading under an umbrella on the beach.
Q: Do you plan to write more novels?
A: Absolutely. I have an idea for the next one, which will also be set in the World War II period, but before the war, rather than after it. The story will include a complicated romance, espionage and danger, and authentic historical detail. I’m thinking about how to include a dog and I expect I’ll find a way.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
REVIEW 3 out of 5 stars for this reader folks A Certain Summer by Patricia Beard is classified as historical fiction with a lump of romance. The setting is 1948 on a small town beach tourist island that draws the same crowd each and every summer. The beach houses are beautiful, the festivals are crowd pleasers and life is generally good when you are there despite the typical small town gossipers and expectations of how one is to live. We are also set post WWII where men have come home to a life that they are expected to adapt right back into after living their own personal hell overseas. Helen Wadworth is our leading lady who has to live with the fact that her husband Arthur was lost overseas for years. Not knowing for sure what on earth happened or if he is in fact deceased, she is in constant limbo, torn between having to remain faithful to her husband, raising her teenage son (Jack) alone, wondering if love will ever find her again and finding out once and for all what happened on that fateful mission her husband was engaged in. Arthur's best friend Frank (who just so happened to serve overseas with Arthur and on that fateful mission) comes to visit Helen and begins to woo her, and in many ways takes on the husband role. Helen is attracted to Frank and I think she relishes the familiarity that he brings to the summer beach home. He is comfortable. Another important character is Peter Gavin. Peter is a young marine that lives next door to Helen and is nursing a damaged body and mind from the war he fought in. He was captured and tortured at enemy hands and is currently trying to move on with his life. Max, his war dog, is a tremendous help in this process. Before Helen realizes it, she is engaged in a love triangle with Frank and Peter. Helen also begins to actively investigate the details of her husbands disappearance and before you know it, you are reading a story about mystery, love, betrayal, history acceptance and understanding. Okay so here is the nitty gritty. I didn't LOVE this book. I didn't HATE it either! It was a good solid read but I have to admit I had a hard time remaining engaged. The first half of the book I had to read in many sittings as it was so detailed in description and flashbacks that it took away from the flow of the story and I found myself wanting to scream "get on with it already". It has a slow pace which begins to pick up half way through and that is where to story redeems itself for me. I really liked the second half of this book as the relationships begin to develop, Helen gets off her fine rear end and begins to really question what happened to her husband. We even get some travel off the island and overseas. My fave ... that's easy! Max and Peter (especially Max the dog ..lol) Reading how these two bonded was so endearing and if you are an animal lover you'll appreciate this part of the book too. It amazes me how soldiers bonded with certain animals during war time and what pivotal roles dogs had to play. I think Max is Peter's salvation and once Helen was added you begin to see the wounds knit together. If you are looking for a beach read this summer and you enjoy love triangles with some history, then check out this book. I did enjoy beautiful scenic pictures in my mind, but keep in mind the story is a little sad with some happy. HAPPY READING! :)
A CERTAIN SUMMER by Patricia Beard This is a great time for this book to come out. The nostalgia of the end of World War 2 has made it hard for people today to realize the cost in emotion, and spirit because of the ravages of war. I think that this book truly shows in its fictional characters and places, the true human cost of war. I would recommend this book to all family, friends and relations of our modern soldiers so that they can begin to comprehend the devastation and difficulty that our modern soldiers are facing. I think that this book encompasses the dramatic scope of life after war. The cost of the individuals of the family is not done when they return home, or are declared lost. The young family has been torn asunder by the war. Helen is alone, lost while she is waiting for the official declaration of her husband’s death. He has been missing for four years, and she has adapted to life without him. But the only place she can breathe is the remote island town, Wauregan a summer colony that has a protective and supportive atmosphere. Jack her young son is on the cusp of manhood, fourteen years old and about to go to boarding school at the end of summer. He misses his father, and the house in Wauregan is where he can remember his father the most. He has many lessons to learn this summer; most of them are letting someone go from his short life. Peter is a war hero, who has PTSD, and many ghosts in his closet. This summer he needs to find a new path in life.
In A Certain Summer by Patricia Beard, Helen Wadsworth and her son Jack are spending the summer of 1948 at their family home on the island of Wauregan. She is still waiting in the hope that her husband Arthur, who has been MIA for a few years, will return to their lives. But with each passing summer, as she watches her son grow and forget memories of his father, she feels her hope dwindling. She is stuck in limbo it seems and she can't move forward with her life until she gets an answer. Helen asks her husband's good friend Frank Hartman to use his resources at the CIA to find out what happened to Arthur after he was captured by the Gestapo. Frank was on the mission with him at the time so he knew the location he was taken from. He is also Jack's godfather so he tries to keep in contact with them both and make sure they are safe. Helen appreciates his consideration but begins to notice when he visits that he pays closer attention to her than a friend generally would. Her friends also notice this and she wonders if she could see herself in a relationship with Frank if and when it is time to move on. The Wadsworth's next door neighbor on the island is an elderly man everyone calls Judge. His nephew Peter Gavin is spending the summer with him upon returning from his rehabilitation after serving in the war. Helen had met Peter over the years but never to spend any time with him other than at basic social gatherings. She can't help but notice how handsome he is and sees that he seems to be struggling with some internal emotions. Peter's ever present german shepherd Max becomes the catalyst for Jack to come out of his shell and it pulls him into their lives. It's obvious that there is a strong connection between Helen and Peter but she thinks due to him being several years younger, he would be better off with someone closer to his own age. Helen finds herself in more emotional turmoil once more details start to emerge about Arthur's capture. Not sure who to believe in, she struggles to come to terms with her husband's possible death, her son maturing and going away to boarding school, and her confusing emotions regarding Frank and Peter. This novel by Patricia Beard is part history lesson, part romance...and chock full of emotions. There were so many changes taking place in the world in the mid to late 40s once the war ended and people had to try to go back to their "normal" lives. She captures the situation perfectly and shows the hardships the wives dealt with at home along with the horror their husbands faced at war only to struggle with their personal lives once back stateside. Helen's personal struggle is heart-wrenching to read yet at the same time is so intriguing that it was hard to put the book down. I would definitely recommend this if you're a fan of romance with a lot of emotions and history involved.