A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
A few words and phrases in Michif, most with context clues. Chapter headings describe ingredients for ice cream, especially plants and herbs native to the Canadian prairie. Asexuality and demisexuality are briefly explained. The author's note at the end addresses the importance of representation. It also provides hashtags for further learning and exploration of violence toward Indigenous women.
Lies are more than just words, and eventually they destroy everyone they touch. Who and where you come from are big parts of your identity, but so is deciding for yourself what defines you and what actions you take. Racism against Indigenous and native people of Canada is still a huge problem, and the government still has many systemic means of oppression and suppression.
Positive Role Models
Narrator Lou models compassion, perseverance, and teamwork. She's an academic achiever who wants to major in paleontology and play competitive water polo in college. She has a very strong work ethic and is loyally devoted to her family and friends, willing to do anything she can to help. She's surrounded by a loving and supportive community, although the larger community of the town where she lives has its share of problematic role models. There's a villain whose motives are ultimately revealed.
Lou's mother is Michif/Metis; her father is White. She's discovering that she's somewhere on the asexual spectrum. One of her best friends is White, bisexual in a same-sex relationship, and has bipolar disorder. The other is Black with parents from the Caribbean and is attracted to both men and women. One of Lou's uncles is gay.
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Violence & Scariness
An important backdrop to the story is the beating and rape of Lou's mother when she was 16. It's mentioned a lot and described vaguely once. A fight involves pulling by the hair until the scalp tears and kicking with steel-toed boots that ruptures the victim's spleen. Lou picks her cuticles, once until they bleed. A couple of incidents of verbal sexual harassment are described. A villain uses threats and intimidation.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Brief description of 18-year-olds kissing and making out, once with both participants topless. Vague description of manipulating a partner's penis, and Lou is frequently pressured to give her boyfriend "hand jobs" and "blow jobs." "Tented" jeans are mentioned once. Lou thinks about and tries masturbating a couple of times; described without specific body parts mentioned.
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"D--k," "f--k," "bulls--t," "ass," "shite," "BJ, "a--hole," and "damn." Some racial slurs like "dirty f--king Indian," and verbal sexual harassment.
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Products & Purchases
A few car models, food and beverage outlets, consumer products, and musicians mentioned to establish location or character.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Teens of legal age in Canada drink rye and beer with some drunken behavior shown. One instance has negative consequences from a fight, the other happens at home (being hungover is the only consequence). Several characters smoke cigarettes. A teen takes two of her mother's pain pills after a serious injury. A veterinarian gives a teen codeine after treating her injuries. A character's mother is receiving methadone treatment in a distant city. Mention of past underage teen drinking and hanging out in a vape shop. Mention that medical system deliberately underprescribes opioids to Native people.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Summer of Bitter and Sweet is about Lou, an 18-year-old indigenous Canadian woman's discoveries about herself, her family, and her identity over the summer before she goes off to college. A beating and rape in the past is a core part of the story, and it's vaguely described once. There's a fight with kicking, pulling hair to tear the scalp, and serious injuries but no gore. There's also verbal sexual harassment, verbal aggression, and a few racial slurs. The narrator picks at her cuticles, once until they bleed and there's a passing reference to self-harm. Sexual content includes kissing and making out, once with tops and bra off. Trying to masturbate is described vaguely. Lou's boyfriend pressures her to perform sexual activity she doesn't enjoy and isn't comfortable doing. Older teens of legal age drink a few times, once leading to the fight with negative consequences for the victims and none for the perpetrators, and once safely at home with hangovers as the only consequence. Lou takes her mother's pain pills once, and takes codeine given to her by a veterinarian for pain. Several characters smoke cigarettes. Strong language includes "d--k," "f--king," "bulls--t," and "dirty f--king Indian."
Is It Any Good?
This first novel is beautifully written and brings the landscape and people of the Canadian prairie vividly to life with warmth and humor. There are also a lot of staunch cries for social justice and change that explore issues of identity, sexuality, racism, family, friendship, and so much more. But these big issues in The Summer of Bitter and Sweet provide important food for thought, and when they're raised they advance the story instead of bogging it down.
Lou's voice as the narrator is solid, and all the characters are well developed. Her struggles with her identity and sexuality make her easy to relate to. An introduction by the author offers some trigger warnings, and an author's note at the end offers further discussion about violence toward indigenous women and the importance of representation in books and other media.
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