“And so we stand, proved of our existence by those who see us. And how did I see Grand, how did any of us […] He always had to be what we wanted him to be first. He existed only by proxy to our dreams of him.”
The Summer That Melted Everything, by Tiffany McDaniel, is an exquisitely written tale of the tragedy of prejudice and herd mentality. Set in the town of Breathed, Ohio, during the long, hot summer of 1984, it centres around the Bliss family. Autopsy Bliss is a respected lawyer. His wife, an agoraphobic, is a loving mother to their their two sons. These boys, Grand and Fielding, have, up to this point, enjoyed their small town life. All that is about to change.
Their story is told from Fielding’s point of view, looking back on the summer he was thirteen years old from seventy years in the future. Early on it becomes clear that the events he will recount created a darkness in him. He sets the scene by describing the happy before, acknowledging that memories are coloured by time.
“What I’ve described is the town of my heart, not necessarily the town itself, which had an underbelly”
At the beginning of the summer Autopsy places an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting the devil to come to Breathed. With the start of the heatwave he arrives in the form of a small and ragged coloured boy named Sal. Fielding spots this devil outside the courthouse, although he questions Sal’s claim to his provenance. Fielding takes the boy home, after all it was his dad who extended the invitation. He is intrigued by the young stranger who speaks with a wisdom beyond his years.
“I knew he was old in the soul. A boy whose black crayon would be shortest in his box.”
The Bliss family welcome Sal but the townsfolk are less accepting, especially Grayson Elohim, a neighbour and steeplejack teaching Fielding his trade. Elohim whips up suspicion, blaming Sal for a series of misadventures. As the heat causes crops and tempers to fail, the townspeople’s concerns bubble over into something more sinister.
“People looked at him, listened to what he said. Being the devil made him important. Made him visible. And isn’t that the biggest tragedy of all? When a boy has to be the devil in order to be significant?”
Fielding’s previously close relationship with Grand fractures when he discovers his brother’s secrets. Sal has become his best friend but Fielding struggles with the love his mother offers this family interloper. When Sal falls in love with a local girl, a downward spiral of events gathers pace which will change Fielding forever.
The imagery is stunning, the prose lyrical, but the mood conjured up is overwhelmingly bleak. It feels as though Sal and then Fielding shoulder the weight of the world.
I cannot say that I enjoyed this book. The emotions evoked were too raw, too real. The writing is powerful and unflinching in its depiction of prejudice, intolerance, petty cruelties and casual hate. It is brilliant but harrowing. A literary tour de force that was painful to read.