“Caterpillar Summer,” a debut novel by Gillian McDunn, is a perfect summer read, in large part because of the setting. The reader is transported to a small island in North Carolina and a lovely house built high near the dunes and the beach.
But when the main character, Cat, and her little brother, Chicken, first land there, they are deeply disappointed. That’s because they had expected to spend the summer in Atlanta with their best friend, Rishi, whose family had moved there from their hometown of San Francisco.
Cat and Chicken’s mother, a picture book author/illustrator (a plot detail I adored), had been hired to teach for the summer in Atlanta. It was all going to be perfect.
But when Cat and her family land in Atlanta, they discover that Rishi and his parents have had to take an emergency trip to India because his grandmother got very sick. Because it’s such a long trip, they’ll spend several weeks there.
Suddenly Cat’s perfect summer has evaporated and her mother has to scramble for other childcare options.
Cat’s mom’s emergency backup plan involves taking the kids to North Carolina to stay with her own parents, grandparents who Cat and Chicken didn’t even know existed.
Cat is, not surprisingly, deeply resentful at this situation but also intrigued: Why have they never even met these people before? How could their mom keep this kind of secret? There is clearly conflict between Cat’s mom and her grandparents, but why?
Much of the story focuses on Cat’s efforts to find her footing with her new relatives, but she also deals with some bullies and finds some friends. The setting is idyllic, but there is conflict and strife, family secrets, missed opportunities, competition and hurt feelings.
The summer also marks a moment in Cat’s life where she reassesses her need to take care of her brother versus her desire to be a kid herself.
Since her father died, Cat has been the glue for her family. Her mother is swamped with work (and perhaps uses it as an escape as well), while Cat keeps an eagle eye on Chicken, who is apt to disappear or have a screaming tantrum if overstimulated. Cat has taken the time to understand Chicken, and she is fiercely protective of him.
I enjoyed seeing how McDunn used examples from the mom’s picture books (she writes a series with the characters Caterpillar and Chicken) to show not just the mom’s talents, but also the nature of Cat and Chicken’s relationship. The books-within-a-book also give Cat something to reflect on as she figures out how to get more balance in her life.
I loved watching Cat and Chicken’s relationship and also how each of them got to know their grandparents.
One of my favorite lines is when Macon, Cat’s grandfather, acknowledges his own failings as a father. “Being a parent is a kind of promise. A promise to stand by someone even if you think they’re making a mistake. To love who you get, not who you think you’re going to get.”
The idea that all the characters would finally have this relationship and their mom could make peace with her parents made “Caterpillar Summer” a joy to read.
I just learned that McDunn has another book coming out next year called “The Queen Bee and Me.” I’ll be watching for it.