May 2022

The Summer of Bitter and Sweet

By Jen Ferguson
Review by
Jen Ferguson’s The Summer of Bitter and Sweet is a moving, inspiring portrait of one teenager’s tenacious desire to understand what family and identity truly mean.
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For Lou, the months before college are full of change and uncertainty. She just broke up with her too-pushy boyfriend, and she thinks she might be asexual. Her mother, Louisa, is away selling beadwork on the powwow circuit, and her former best friend, King, is back in town for the first time in three years. And her family’s ice cream business is going under.

Then a letter arrives from Lou’s father, a dangerous, manipulative white man who has recently been released from prison and demands to be involved in her life. Lou was conceived when he sexually assaulted her mother, and the pair spent years running from that history and their own Métis heritage before finally settling down with Lou’s uncles. If anyone in Lou’s family learns that her father is out of prison, Lou fears that Louisa will want the two of them to disappear again, and Lou will lose every ounce of stability she’s managed to find. With support and tough love from King and other friends, Lou spends a pivotal summer learning to finally embrace who she is, who she loves and what she stands for.

In The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, Jen Ferguson (Border Markers) portrays one weighty subject after another, including Lou’s exploration of her sexuality, her relationship to her Métis heritage, her quest to save her family’s ice cream shack, her father’s threats and her burgeoning relationship with King. Each of these storylines could easily fill a whole novel, but Ferguson impressively blends them all together in a complex depiction of one teenager’s struggle to find her center when every aspect of her life seems on the verge of collapse.

Lou is wonderfully multidimensional, and so is everyone around her. As Lou comes to a new appreciation of her community and its power, Ferguson paints the novel’s ancillary characters with vivid strokes, creating detailed and dynamic portraits of Louisa, King, Lou’s uncles and even her ex-boyfriend.

Readers will appreciate that Lou’s journey toward strength and self-acceptance is not neat or linear; instead, it’s messy and filled with as many stumbles as steps forward. They’ll empathize with her when she reaches for King and when she pushes him away. It’s moving and inspiring to witness Lou’s tenacious drive to understand, on her own terms, what family and identity truly mean.

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