Have you ever had a vacation that you never wanted to end? Days that went on forever, full of exploration, excitement and friends? Real connections with brothers and sisters, cousins or new friends?
That’s the kind of summer that Portia, Julian and Foster experience in Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright.
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Portia Blake and her younger brother Foster have always spent the summers with her cousin Julian, Uncle Jake and Aunt Hilda Jarman. Julian is an only child, and he looks forward to the summer months with other kids in the house. This will be the first summer for Portia and Foster without their parents along though…they’re going to Europe from June until August. Portia and Foster are even traveling by train alone. The story starts when the kids are on the train, visiting the dining car and anticipating the long summer months with all the freedom to spend doing whatever they want.
Things will be even more exciting this summer for all three kids, including Julian, because Uncle Jake and Aunt Hilda have just bought a new house, deep in the country, with woods out back, a brook running through the property, and even a tree swing for Foster. There are new puppies, a room for Portia with a canopy bed, bunk beds for Foster and a deck for everyone to share. Portia falls asleep that night to the sounds of running water, owls and whippoorwills.
The next day, Julian and his cousins set out with a picnic lunch, determined to explore the woods. They’re having a great time finding insects, bird-watching and even spying a fox. The best thing, however, is when they’re eating their picnic lunch and they find the slightest hint of an inscription engraved on the old mossy rock they’re leaning against. Julian scrapes off the moss, and they find:
TARQUIN ET PINDAR
15 JULY 1891
They have no idea what it means, but it certainly makes them curious! Julian, Portia and Foster move on, looking for something, anything that might explain what Lapis or Philosophorum, Tarquin or Pindar mean. Trudging through tall grass and mud, with clouds of mosquitoes and gnats swarming around them isn’t easy, but a bit of further exploration leads to a swamp, then a ghost town of abandoned homes, which had to have been quite elegant in their day. Exploring the abandoned cottages leads them to a mysterious noise, which then brings them to an elderly couple living by themselves, in the middle of this abandoned resort, on the banks of a vanished lake.
Portia and Julian are suddenly in the middle of a mystery, a riddle and even some treasure hunting as they return time after time to the gone-away lake. Between their explorations and the stories from their new friends, this summer is shaping up to be one that neither of them (or Foster, who doesn’t share all their adventures) will ever forget!
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Originally written in 1957, Portia and Julian are probably older than the parents (and maybe even the grandparents?) of today’s readers. Minnie Cheever and Pin Payton (the elderly couple) are in their 70s/80s, and remember 1891…so it might be stretch for kids of today to understand some of their references to crank cars, petticoats, driving bonnets and buttonhooks. (They’re not referred to as historical, just something kind of old-fashioned.) But if you’re looking for a nostalgic read about kids having the best vacation ever, Gone-Away Lake (and the sequel, Return to Gone-Away) would be perfect.
I’ve heard people refer to these books as “that great story where nothing happens”. It’s true that there’s not a lot of action, but the descriptions and sense of place are wonderful, and the friendship that develops between the two sets of relatives, 70 or so years apart in age, is both eye-opening and intriguing.
Gone-Away Lake won a 1958 Newbery Honor Medal. It’s a great story to listen to on CD or read aloud, especially if you’re camping or in a vacation cottage by a lake with no electricity.
It’s a terrific book, full of surprises for readers of all ages. Recommended for fourth through sixth grade. For listening to, you can go a little younger. The vocabulary is wonderful, so even older middle school readers might enjoy the rich language.