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A story of people becoming real

“Only connect.”

Though that line from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End refers to human love and passion, his words also seem to describe the vital link between author and reader. “Only connect” is the goal of any novelist seeking an audience.

And in Summer Hours at the Robbers Library (Harper Perennial, 2018, 370 pages), Sue Halpern connects.

Katherine “Kit” Jarvis has come to Riverton, New Hampshire, to work in the public library, where she soon rises to the post of head librarian. She leads a secluded life, keeping to herself and holding tight to the tragedy that has wrecked her life. She never shares her past with her co-workers or with The Four, a quartet of older men who gather every morning at the library to drink their coffee, read the papers, reminisce, gossip, and flirt with Kit.

Then 15-year-old Solstice “Sunny” Arkinsky enters Kit’s life. Sentenced to work a volunteer in the library for the summer — she was caught shoplifting a dictionary in a bookstore in the local mall, and the judge believes in the punishment fitting the crime — Sunny carries her own cargo of secrets. Her parents live off the grid, moving from place to place, homeschooling Sunny, and avoiding any contact with the government. They eschew all technology, all adulterated foods, and all contact with other people except for a few close friends.

Sunny is a bright, inquisitive girl who soon slips into Kit’s life, becomes a favorite of The Four, and is beloved by the children who come to her story hours. As she breaks the walls of reserve surrounding Kit, Sunny begins to realize that her parents have secrets as well, a dangerous past that could put both her mother and father in jeopardy.

Enter Cyrus “Rusty” Allen, a former broker whose rising star has crashed and burned. Jobless, desperate for cash, Rusty has come to Riverton in hopes of tracking down a savings account opened years earlier by his mother. Though the bank has long since closed its doors, Rusty visits the library day after day, looking for information about the bank, about his mother as a girl, and about the secret behind the money in her bank account. Soon he becomes a friend with The Four, with Sunny, and after a time, with Kit.

As these three people rummage through their past and the lives of those they love, we discover along with them some of the terrible events haunting them: the truth behind Kit’s failed marriage, the real reason why Sunny’s parents live on the outskirts of society, the history behind the bank deposit by Rusty’s mother. 

It is here where this novel “connects,” at least with me. All human beings are mysteries, to others and even to themselves. That teller at the bank may be a saint or a sinner. That man buying coffee at the 7-Eleven may have a $10 million portfolio or be poor as a church mouse. 

And yet we rush to judgment when people we know fall on their faces. The man busted for drugs in the trunk of his car is rightly sentenced to a stint in prison. He has broken the law. But to condemn him beyond that point, to regard him as evil or loathesome, is wrong unless we know why the drugs were in his car. Did he intend to sell them purely for monetary gain? Or was his wife diagnosed with cancer and he couldn’t come up with the money for her treatment? Was he carrying the drugs willingly or under threat? 

Kit, Sunny, and Rusty initially judge one another by stereotypes: Kit the guarded old-maid librarian, Sunny the hippie kid, Rusty the highflying New Yorker. As they come to know one another better, drawn together by their loneliness and their pain, the stereotypes drop away, and they become more real to one another. Friendship and love blossom from that reality.

Near the beginning of Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sunny, who has just started working in the library, reads Kit a passage from one of her favorite books of childhood, The Velveteen Rabbit. The passage — like Sunny, I have long treasured it as well —  reminds us what it is become real and to love.

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library tells us the story of three people becoming Real.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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