Archive for the ‘Jeff Lemire’ Category

I adored Essex County by Jeff Lemire.  Honestly, that is not something I ever anticipated being able to say about a graphic novel but here you have it.  Set in the rural Southwestern Ontario farming community of Essex County, the book is a compilation of three inter-connected volumes, dealing with the personal stories of three of its residents.  They are not cheerful stories but they are beautifully, if somberly, told.    

Volume 1, Tales from the Farm, centers on young Lester Papineau.  Lester, sent to live with his Uncle Ken on the farm after his mother’s death from cancer, spends most of his time escaping into his super hero fantasies and reading (and attempting to draw his own) comic books.  The awkwardness between Lester and Ken is both sad and very realistic, neither one comfortable with the other, both still grieving for Claire, Lester’s mother, but unwilling or unable to share their pain with the other.  Their silent meals around the dining room table broke my heart.  The story follows Lester’s friendship with Jimmy, a former hockey player who, after a severe head injury, now works at the local gas station where Lester buys his comic books.  Jimmy spends time with Lester and encourages his artistic efforts and imaginative play.  But when Ken finds out about their friendship, Lester realises there is something he does not know about his family’s history with Jimmy.         

Volume 2, Ghost Stories, made me cry more often than I like to admit.  All three volumes are sad to varying extents but I found this one the most powerful.  Lou Lebeuf is living in his memories, remembering his happy childhood and then the split that tore him and his brother apart, as deafness and dementia set in and he is moved from his farm house to a nursing home.  I loved the image of the two brothers skating on the river together as boys, leaning into one another, the affection and camaraderie of it.  And both boys achieve that great dream of all boys who grow up playing hockey on rural ponds and lakes: they move to the city and get to play professionally.  And they get to do it together.  But then there is a betrayal between the brothers, one that cannot be overcome, and while Vince returns toEssexCountyLou stays in the city, though he hates it and longs for the farm.  The isolating images of the middle-aged Lou, going deaf and driving streetcars in Toronto when he wants nothing more than to be back on the farm with a brother he can’t even bring himself to talk to, were gut wrenching. 

Finally, volume 3, The Country Nurse, is devoted to Anne Quenneville and her grandmother Margaret. The story follows Anne as she flits about the county in her capacity as a nurse, visiting and caring for others, all the time struggling with her own family situation, while Margaret, more than a hundred years old and living in the nursing home, remembers the circumstances that first brought her to Essex County ninety years before.  This is as close to cheery as Essex County gets, as the indefatigable Anne encounters the characters from the earlier volumes and we see how their stories are resolved.

The art is wonderful and used to powerful effect, especially in capturing the stillness and emptiness of the rural community.  The panels without text, generally used in sequence, were a wonderful way to evoke the mood of a moment – whether it be Uncle Ken sitting alone at the dinner table or the elderly Lou wandering alone and confusing down to the river.  There are many flashbacks and Lemire does a particularly impressive job of making characters both recognizable and realistic at all ages.  His drawings of elderly characters were especially excellent. 

More than anything, I was impressed by Lemire’s skill in capturing such a true-to-life portrait of rural life.  The stories and experiences of the characters seemed very real, just the kind of things I might encounter or at least hear about if I went back to the rural Southwestern Ontario farming community where my own family is from (the farmers are all like Uncle Ken and my great aunt was a nurse like Anne and visits the elderly and afflicted even more often now that she is retired).  There was no suspension of disbelief here.  Each depressing detail, each tragedy, each family rift felt very human and very genuine.

If all graphic novels were this thoughtful, well-plotted, and emotionally honest, I’d certainly read more.

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