“The rest of the world is spinning” – Trauma Theory in “Summer Bird Blue”

Summer Bird Blue

Akemi Dawn Bowman’s novel Summer Bird Blue follows the young girl Rumi who deals with the aftermath of a car accident in which she lost her younger sister Lea. Therefore, a large part of the novel deals with trauma and how to move on, which is especially showcased for Rumi’s character. 

Rumi’s Various Traumas

There are different traumas that play a part for Rumi, a childhood trauma, the trauma of losing her sister and her mother’s abandonment. Her memories which she describes throughout the novel, force her to think about her childhood and past issues with her family (cp. 20). I would argue that her childhood trauma is one of the reasons for her behavior after Lea’s death and her mother abandoning her. Rumi and Lea’s father left the family when Lea was still very young, because he did not want to be tied down by a family since he was not sure what he wanted from life (cp. 182). Rumi’s memory of the day her father decided to leave and the conversation between her parents is incredibly detailed considering she was very young herself. She was very upset when her father said that he would have maybe stayed if not for Lea (cp. 183 ff). After their father’s abandonment, Rumi had to be and act more like a parent than a child, since she had to take care of Lea while their mother worked. Rumi is rather unsure about what to do with her life after graduation, while Lea and most of their friends already know what to do. Which is why she is often afraid she will turn out like her father (cp. 276) or is already too similar to him. Therefore, Rumi always thinks her mom liked Lea better because of Lea’s very different personality. While she does not want to die after losing her sister, she repeatedly thinks she should have died instead of Lea, because she was nice, likable, confident and knew what she wanted to do with her life (cp. 106).

The Death of Lea

At the beginning of the novel, Rumi refuses to acknowledge her sister’s death (cp. 12) and describes a feeling of emptiness. She does not cry after the accident but shows other physical reactions, such as throwing up, shaking, panic, a pounding heart and a racing mind. One of her biggest issues, however, is her anger towards the situation. Rumi gets angry very fast, she screams at people, makes ruder comment than usual and destroys things (cp. 79). I would argue that her frustration and the resulting outbursts all stem from the same problem: Rumi prefers to ignore her trauma instead of speaking about it (cp. 116), which is one of the main points in Pederson’s trauma theory. He suggests that a way to overcome and heal after having experienced trauma is to speak about it (cp. Pederson 338). Therefore, Rumi’s constant refusal to talk to anybody is, in my opinion, the source of her behavior and the reason she cannot look forward. In turn her bottled up emotions show themselves in angry outbursts, where she often hurts the people around her, be it with words or actions. She also does not believe in therapy (cp. 122) and is trying to cope by herself (cp. 126) rather than seek out help. 

Rumi lost her ground without her sister and her mother (cp. 13) and she even lost the joy music once brought her. Right before the accident happened Rumi and Lea were working on one of their songs but after the crash Rumi cannot remember the song and their music notebook is gone. She thinks of a situation when they were kids, Rumi promising Lea to fulfill three wishes. After the accident Rumi is thinking about what her sister would have wanted her to do as her last wish and decides to finish the song ‘Summer Bird Blue’. But the music always reminds her of the loss (cp. 31) and she describes it as haunting (cp. 33). She calls herself selfish many times throughout the novel. She thinks she deserves that she has been abandoned by her mom, because she can’t fulfill Lea’s last wish (cp. 108) and thinks she let Lea down for not being able to finish the song (cp. 82). However, when she does start to play music again, she sees her sister’s ghost whenever she tries to play or sing (cp. 133) and Rumi comes to the realization that the music keeps her sister alive (cp. 221). She does not want to let go of Lea, because most of her life revolved around her sister (cp. 141) and she feels like she does not know how to be herself without Lea. 

Rumi’s Road Towards Healing

Eventually, Rumi starts talking about Lea consciously and realizes it helps (cp. 259), prior to this she told people her sister died but without really taking it in. Yet she is still in conflict with herself: she wants to stop feeling so empty but feels selfish for trying to move on (cp. 85, 212) and she is still not ready to say good-bye even after she starts talking (cp. 274). However, after Rumi starts talking about her sister, she admits that she remembers the accident (cp. 282) and is aware of her repression as her coping mechanism (cp. 283). McNally, a renowned trauma theorist himself and also Pederson’s basis for his own theory, says that “traumatic amnesia is a myth, and while victims may choose not to speak of their traumas, there is little evidence that they cannot.” (McNally 334). This is why Pederson also proposes that new trauma theorists should, different to their predecessors, focus on “both the accessibility of traumatic memory and the possibility that victims may construct reliable narrative accounts of it.” (Pederson 338). He continues that “a victim’s understandable desire not to dwell on a painful event” (Pederson 337) should not be mistaken for amnesia (cp. Pederson 337). This fits Rumi’s situation quite well: She does remember but chooses not to in order to protect herself. 

When she finally realizes that her sister is really gone she cries (cp. 347). Her emotions return, she talks about the trauma with her mother and also agrees to therapy. Finally letting go of her repression of the memories surrounding the accident, Rumi realizes that Lea’s last words were actually her mom calling out to her after the car crash (cp. 359). Which is consistent with what both Pederson and McNally suggest in their trauma theories as Pederson talks about McNally’s suggestion that memories of traumatic events can appear distorted or warped (cp. Pederson 339-340). A trauma victim may remember everything but sometimes these memories are muddled. So, in Rumi’s case she remembers someone calling out to her after the crash, but only later when she explores her trauma it becomes apparent to her that it had been her mother and not Lea. 

Ready to Live

In terms of further research, one could take a look at trauma connected to other characters. For example, one could look at the novel’s trauma from the perspective of Rumi’s mother, who was left by her husband to be a single mother and then lost one of her daughters. Similarly, I would say Mr. Watanabe would be an interesting character to look at in terms of trauma as well because he lost his wife and his son. Rumi, in the end, learns that she can cope with her trauma but admits it will take time (cp. 354). “I think I’m ready to live” (cp. 368) is, in my opinion, Rumi’s most important realization and closes the novel well.

Works Cited

McNally, Richard J.: Remembering Trauma. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003.

Pederson, Joshua. “Speak, Trauma: Toward a Revised Understanding of Literary Trauma Theory.” Narrative 22.3 (2014): 333–353.