By Evan Griffith
Quill Tree Books — 28th June 2022
ISBN: 9780063094918 — Hardcover — 288 pp.
In their last summer before graduating into middle school, best friends Peter and Tommy are determined to complete their Discovery Journal: a catalog of one hundred unique species of wild animal found within and around their native Florida town. They’ve reached the nineties, their goal near their reach. But, Peter can’t imagine the remaining discoveries topping what they’ve just come upon within a canal – a manatee.
Manatees hold special, almost mythical place in Peter’s heart. His beloved grandfather loves telling a story of how he once came upon upon a herd of manatee when out on his boat, and had the chance to swim among them. Grandfather’s story becomes more embellished and seemingly exaggerated with each telling, but the core message of the peaceful, transformative encounter remains constant. The experience bared a deep human connection with the environment beyond anything he had felt before.
Now, Peter feels as though he has had the chance to share in that, an experience all the more poignant in light of his grandfather’s current mental deterioration from Alzheimer’s Disease. When not out discovering animals with Tommy, Peter has to devote himself to the growing responsibilities at home, helping his single, working mother care for her father.
The boys see the manatee again in the canal, but are horrified to see it dying, a large Z-shaped propeller wound cut into its back. Peter springs into action and calls a nonprofit manatee advocacy and rescue group who take the manatee back to their facilities to save and attempt rehabilitation of the female, who Peter names Zoe. Traumatized over how this could be allowed to happen, Peter decides to help the group fight for the manatees, particularly against the mean Mr. Reilly, the president of the town boating club.
But many hurdles stand in Peter’s way beyond the hostility of Mr. Reilly. Peter discovers that his best friend Tommy has been hiding a devastating secret: Tommy’s family is moving far away. Meanwhile, Peter’s mother tries to dissuade her young song from getting involved in local politics, particularly considering the powerful Mr. Reilly could sabotage her real estate career. As the figurative storm clouds gather over the Florida community, literal ones appear in the form of a hurricane about to bear down.
Manatee Summer is a phenomenal book for young readers and adults alike. The plot is compelling and wonderfully paced, the characters are all richly detailed, relatable, and explored, and the themes of ecological and personal resilience shine strongly.
The novel drew my interest because of its fantastic cover and the description, both grabbing ahold of my appreciation for manatees. I wasn’t surprised to find the novel contain a good deal of content on conservation and ecology, but was surprised to see that is only half of the engaging story, and positive messages, that the novel provides.
As much as it’s driven by the manatee conservation plot, Manatee Summer is equally propelled by its character development, Peter maturing through his relationship with family, friends, and his antagonist Mr. Reilly. Taking things even deeper, Griffith also succeeds in having Peter’s relationships with others lead to significant developments in all of those secondary characters as well.
First we have Peter’s relationship with his mother and grandfather. Peter loves his Papa, dearly, and he’s appreciative of all his mother gives of herself for the family. But still, Peter also cannot help but feel upset over the sacrifices now expected of him, a young boy who should be enjoying a carefree childhood. This causes him to feel guilt, and he feels further guilt over the discomfort and embarrassment he feels over his grandfather’s condition. Alzheimer’s takes a respected adult who Peter looks up to and breaks that man down into a childlike distortion, stealing a dignity that forces the confused Peter to face aging and mortality.
With his mother too tired and too depleted to have any more energy to give Peter, Peter’s main source of support and relief comes through his friendship with Tommy. And what a brilliant, beautiful friendship it is. Griffith captures the Philia love between two young friends absolutely perfectly here.
Tommy succeeds as a fantastic contrast to Peter, a reserved, nerdy boy who loves facts, statistics, and vocabulary, but is leery of taking chances or putting himself into potential harm’s way. He’s a great balance to Peter’s daring and passioned rush to action. Moreover, the character of Tommy provides Griffith away to introduce complex ideas into a novel for young readers in a way that provides explanation alongside: an education.
Both Tommy and Peter have a certain pure innocence of childhood, good hearts and a curiosity to learn about the world, and make a difference. The strength of their friendship makes it all the more empathetically painful when we learn (with Peter) that Tommy and his family will be moving away, forcing the friendship to break. Though Tommy has known for a long time, his fear of facing discomfort and risk has put him into a state of denial and avoidance, unable to tell Peter the bad news. Which, of course makes it all the worse for Peter. Griffith handles this common painful experience in the lives of young friends remarkably well. As Peter pushes Tommy to change a bit more and take some calculated risks in this uncertain life, so too does Tommy bring Peter to new realizations.
With the unfortunate news regarding Tommy and his family coming to light, Peter begins to pursue a new, more unconventional friendship, with the college student who works with the nonprofit manatee protection organization. As she introduces Peter to a world of environmental advocacy and politics, he helps her communicate with a crush she has at the manatee rehab facility.
Just as Griffith handles the complexities of family and friendships with aplomb, focusing on the simple truths appreciated by children, so too does he tackle the complexities of enemies with Mr. Reilly. Mr. Reilly begins as somewhat of cartoonish caricature of a villain. He’s an angry bully, yelling at the kids on his lawn and flaunting his power around town to get whatever he selfishly desires. With little to no concern for others. His power comes from his money. And his money comes from pure chance, not his own initiative or toil. He simply won the lottery.
However, Griffith doesn’t just leave the antagonist as one dimensional here. As the novel progresses Peter (and the reader) begin to learn new things about Mr. Reilly. And despite his bitter fight against Peter, Peter’s mom, and the manatee advocates, Mr. Reilly begins to learn a little about other possibilities for life himself. Griffith shows that even enemies are human. Despite urges to characterize them as evil or irredeemable, childhood humility and optimism begin to crack that facade.
The struggles for Peter, his family, and his friends don’t simply vanish or all get solved in blithe happiness. Manatee Summer is profoundly optimistic and good hearted, showing the possibilities of resilience and passionate advocacy across realms of life. But it also shows that pain will still be there amid that – disappointments and inconveniences that need to be faced and worked through, or among.
My only critique with Manatee Summer would be that I thought it could have used an appendix or supplementary nonfiction material on manatees and manatee (and related) conservation. There’s a fair amount within the text of the story itself, but curious children and adults looking for more would likely appreciate something more concise and all-inclusive to turn to.
Manatee Summer is a book that young readers could enjoy on their own, or alongside adults. And it has a complexity and realism that would make it just as appealing to any adult on their own as well.
For any reading this upon its original posting, Manatee Summer is currently available through the Goodreads Giveaway program!