When I was in middle school, we read a story in Language Arts class about a cat that got hit by a car. It lived, don’t worry. But the first part of the story was about it getting hit by a car, told in pretty gruesome detail. Several girls in class cried, which was unsettling. My family didn’t have any pets growing up, so I didn’t fully understand that kind of bond and I didn’t cry.
A few weeks or maybe months later, we read a story called “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury. This story made me cry. Alphabetical assigned seating had luckily placed me in the back row in the class, by the window, so the other kids couldn’t see me that well. I tried not to collapse into loud, ugly sobbing. I was mortified because no one else cried at that one.
I’ve hated the story ever since, thinking about it from time to time and getting as furious with the characters as I was then. I’ve never read any other works by Bradbury out of lingering resentment.
“All Summer in a Day” is about a class of children on the planet Venus, where it rains nonstop for seven years at a time until it stops for just a few brief hours. These children, at nine years old, were almost all born on Venus and are too young to remember the last time the sun came out. But one of the girls in class, Margot, had moved to Venus from Earth five years before. She remembered sunshine and loved it and other kids made fun of her for it. On the day that the rain was to stop, they began bullying her as usual and this time decided to lock her in a closet. Then the sun came out and they all got so distracted by it that they forgot about her until the rain came back a few hours later and they realized that they had to let Margot back out to suffer seven more years of rain.
The other day it was warm and sunny out, so I went to the park and sat on a bench in the sun. I thought of Margot again, Margot who could remember freedom but who had been inside for five years.
I re-read the story, now inoculated to its ending, and was struck this time by the description of Margot:
She was a very frail girl who looked as if she had been lost in the rain for years and the rain had washed out the blue from her eyes and the red from her mouth and the yellow from her hair. She was an old photograph dusted from an album, whitened away, and if she spoke at all her voice would be a ghost.
I’d remembered that the children didn’t like Margot, but I’d forgotten that it was not just because they didn’t believe her when she talked about life on Earth. It was also because she’d grown strange and disconnected by the trauma of the adjustment that had been forced on her.
And once, a month ago, she had refused to shower in the school shower rooms, had clutched her hands to her ears and over her head, screaming the water mustn’t touch her head. So after that, dimly, dimly, she sensed it, she was different and they knew her difference and kept away.
I’d been so upset by the ending when I first read it because I couldn’t bear that the chance of happiness had been taken from Margot, with no way to get it back for seven long years. This time, I read it and was just as saddened by what had already been taken from her. The only descriptions of her personality involve her fixation on the sun. She tries to describe it to other children, but they don’t believe that she knows what she’s talking about. But when prompted to talk about the sun by her teacher, she writes a poem: The sun is like a flower / That blooms for just one hour. How creative would Margot be if she hadn’t been inside for the past five years?
Obviously the story is effective, as it’s stayed with me all this time. But as a piece of speculative fiction, I question the worldbuilding. (It was written in 1954, so I’ll overlook the quaint idea that a photo in a dusty album could be a point of comparison in a world where technology allows for colonizing Venus.)
Also during my middle school years, I’d read the first book in the Remnants series by Animorphs author K.A. Applegate. In that world, Earth was going to be destroyed in an asteroid collision, so a group of 80 people are selected to board a spaceship and go repopulate humanity elsewhere. I hadn’t realized or had forgotten that in “All Summer in a Day,” there was no such reason to go to Venus, no breakdown on Earth that led the settlers to flee to another planet. The only explanation given was that “… this was the schoolroom of the children of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization and live out their lives.” Why would they choose to live out their lives there if Earth was an option? In fact, it was possible to return to Earth — the only obstacle was money.
There was talk that her father and mother were taking her back to Earth next year; it seemed vital to her that they do so, though it would mean the loss of thousands of dollars to her family. And so, the children hated her for all these reasons of big and little consequence. They hated her pale snow face, her waiting silence, her thinness, and her possible future.
When the shelter-in-place order first came through for my state, one of the first blessings I was able to acknowledge was the timing. Here in the Northeast, we were finally starting to get longer daylight hours and my apartment has enough natural light for that to make a difference. I couldn’t imagine having to stay in isolation during the winter months. But that’s just my experience. There are parts of Alaska that experience 24/7 darkness for two months at a time. I would hate to move there, but I’d be used to it if I were born there. I’m now realizing that there is a chance that we will have to isolate inside during the winter months, depending on how the waves of this virus pan out. By then, maybe I will be used to it.
Of course what made me cry when we read the story in class was the pointless, stupid cruelty of it all. Everyone would have had just as much fun in the sun if they let Margot out too, instead of keeping her trapped and hopeless in a small, dark closet. Stupid cruelty has felt like the defining feature of the current administration, its relentless barrage an ongoing trauma even before the plague arrived to shove us all inside and lock the door.
For now, walks are still allowed and parks are still open. I’m glad I can still go outside and feel the sun on my skin.