The Summer People is the Perfect Story for the Age of Amazon-style Worker Exploitation
Though it was about five years before the pandemic, Kelly Link’s highly acclaimed short story The Summer People bears an uncomfortable resemblance to working conditions of essential workers. In fact, the story could just as easily be called “Alice in Wonderland for Essential Workers” and it would make complete sense.
In an effort to avoid spoilers, I’ll comment on this fantastic work of capitalist critique in vague terms. The first in a series of short stories featured in her book Get in Trouble, reading The Summer People is like eating a fork full of delicious butter cream frosting. It feels good, in a subtle and delicious way that is both satisfying and, in time, may just ruin your appetite for other things.
The story begins with protagonist Fran trying her best to kick a prolonged fever. At first it appears she is an adult, but before long, the reader realizes she’s a high school student with very adult responsibilities. She’s tasked with helping her father with tending to the needs of the Summer People.
Without betraying the books many subtle secrets, let’s just pause here. Reading this story now, having spent a year following the plight of essential workers in meatpacking, Amazon, retail and grocery stores not to mention healthcare, the imagery of a child with a fever who is too sick to complete a day in school but must nevertheless find a way to run errands for her employer, the Summer People, is especially treacherous.
I have no doubt that reading this story prior to 2020 was just as exciting an adventure, but having seen this plot playing out in real time adds something especially rich and disturbing to the whole experience.
It isn’t even a thought in Fran’s mind to put her health before the needs of the Summer People. Fran doesn’t even contemplate how she will recover from her fever and likely case of pneumonia. She grabs whatever she can over the counter and just continues to fulfill her obligations to her employer.
Link also explores the link between capitalism and addiction in a brilliant and even more subtle way which I won’t go into in detail here so as to avoid any spoilers. Suffice it to say part of the reason Fran is left alone to deal with both her illness and the obligations to the Summer People has to do with her father’s addictions to both alcohol and extremist religion.