Book review: “A Solitary Blue” by Cynthia Voigt

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This 1984 Newbery Honor Book, from the acclaimed seven-book Tillerman cycle, fills in the back story of a character introduced in Dicey’s Song. And let me tell you, it’s one moving story.

Jeff Greene is seven years old when his mother, Melody, leaves him and his tight-lipped, emotionless father, the Professor. Jeff spends the next five years driven by a need to stay out of his father’s way, afraid that if he disrupts the Professor’s routine, he will go away too. It’s heartbreaking to see the effect on a boy of never feeling loved. Then one summer, Melody gets in touch and says she wants Jeff to stay with her and her great-grandmother in their mansion in Charleston. After a summer of basking in her love, the memory of that feeling keeps him going through another year—and the hope of another summer in Charleston.

But the second summer in Gambo’s house isn’t the same. Not by a long shot. In fact, it is a summer of such bitter disillusionment, such shattering betrayal, that it profoundly screws up Jeff’s young life. Out of the experience Jeff learns to understand both his parents better…and to judge better between being loved and being used. And as the Professor struggles to be the father Jeff needs, and as Jeff struggles to pick up the pieces of his life, they settle in the little Maryland town of Crisfield. And a certain family named Tillerman becomes instrumental in teaching Jeff about family ties, inner strength, and trust.

This story delves deep into the emotions of growing up, love and hate, friendship and family, agony and terror. The emotional experience of reading it is, suitably, agonizing and terrible, but at the same time lovely. In this story, there is no magic to solve Jeff’s problems. The answers—to the extent that there are any—are as real as the problems themselves. And the compassion and understanding of this novel are a strong index of what to look for in the rest of the series.