Understanding Kelly Link's "The Summer People"

Some People Never Get a Vacation

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"The Summer People" by award-winning American author Kelly Link was originally published in the journal Tin House in 2011. It was included in the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories and in Link's 2015 collection. You can read the story for free at the Wall Street Journal.

Reading "The Summer People" feels a little bit like reading Dorothy Allison channeling Stephen King.

The short story focuses on Fran, a teenage girl in rural North Carolina whose mother has abandoned her and whose father comes and goes, whether he's finding God or dodging creditors. Fran and her father—when he's home—earn their living by tending the homes of the "summer people" who vacation in their beautiful area.

As the story opens, Fran has come down with the flu. Her father is gone, and she is so ill she bullies a wealthy classmate, Ophelia, into driving her home from school. Increasingly ill and with no other options, Fran sends Ophelia to get help from a mysterious group of fairy-like "summer people" who make magical toys, offer magical cures, and live in a surreal, shifting, vaguely dangerous house.

Ophelia becomes enchanted by what she sees, and in her enchantment, Fran spies an opportunity for her own escape.


Fran and her father both seem wary of being beholden to anyone. He tells her:

"You need to know where you are and what you owe. Unless you can balance that out, here is where y'all stay."

The summer people, too, seem preoccupied with debt. Fran tells Ophelia:

"When you do things for them, they're beholden to you."

Later, she says:

"They don't like it when you thank them. It's poison to them."

The toys and baubles the summer people make seem to be their attempt to erase their debts, but of course, the accounting is all on their terms. They'll provide shiny objects for Fran, but they won't release her.

Ophelia, in contrast, seems motivated by an "innate kindness" rather than by an accounting of debt. She drives Fran home because Fran bullies her, but when they stop by the Roberts' house, she willingly helps clean it, singing while she works and taking a spider outside rather than killing it. 

When she sees Fran's own dirty house, she reacts with sympathy rather than disgust, saying that someone ought to be taking care of her. Ophelia takes it upon herself to check on Fran the next day, bringing breakfast and ultimately running the errand to ask the summer people for help.

On some level, Ophelia seems to be hoping for friendship, though certainly not as payment. So she seems truly surprised when, as Fran recovers, she tells Ophelia:

"You were a brave and true friend, and I'll have to think how I can pay you back."

Beholden and Held

Perhaps it is Ophelia's generosity that keeps her from realizing she's headed for servitude. Her kindness makes her want to help Fran, not replace Fran. Fran's statement that she already "owes" Ophelia for helping with the Roberts' house and for helping Fran when she was ill doesn't calculate with Ophelia.

Ophelia is looking for friendship, a human connection because she knows "what it's like when you're all alone." She seems to think that "helping" could be a social, mutually supportive arrangement, like when she and Fran cleaned the Roberts' house together.

She doesn't understand the logic of debt that governs the relationship between Fran's family and the summer people. So when Fran double-checks by asking, "Did you mean it when you said you wanted to help?" it almost seems like a trick.

Almost as soon as Fran escapes, she sells the fancy guitar, ridding herself of a reminder of Ophelia's beautiful voice and also a gift that perhaps makes her indebted to the summer people. She seems to want to make a clean break.

Nevertheless, at the end of the story, the narrator says that Fran "tells herself that one day soon she will go home again."

The phrase "tells herself" suggests that she's fooling herself. Perhaps the lie helps assuage her guilt over having left Ophelia, especially after Ophelia was so kind to her.

In a way, then, she must feel perpetually indebted to Ophelia, even though she has tried to frame her actions as a favor to repay Ophelia for her kindness. Perhaps this debt is what makes Fran keep the tent. But it might never be enough to get her to climb back through the window.

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Sustana, Catherine. "Understanding Kelly Link's "The Summer People"." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/understanding-kelly-links-the-summer-people-2990510. Sustana, Catherine. (2023, April 5). Understanding Kelly Link's "The Summer People". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-kelly-links-the-summer-people-2990510 Sustana, Catherine. "Understanding Kelly Link's "The Summer People"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-kelly-links-the-summer-people-2990510 (accessed June 7, 2023).