Essex County is a beautifully written love letter to the author’s childhood home in rural Essex County, Ontario, Canada. This three part graphic novel interweaves a hundred years of history and family connections into a heartfelt epic about regrets, memories and family roots.
The first story, Tales From The Farm introduces you to a hurting boy, Lester, living with his uncle after his mother’s death from cancer. He derives his strength from always wearing a hero’s cape and mask, despite the derision of his peers. He befriends a simple man in town, Jimmy, who goes along with playacting superhero stories with him. Jimmy has a connection to Lester that is hinted at but not confirmed.
The second longer story, Ghost Stories, shares the decades in the making estrangement of two brothers Lou and Vince LeBeuf. The story is told from Lou’s perspective, as an old man, whose memories merge in and out of the past and current day. The two brothers, both excellent hockey players, move to Toronto as young men to join a minor league hockey team called the Toronto Grizzlies. Vince’s girlfriend Beth is loved by both men, and ultimately the falling out between the brothers is over her. A question of paternity arises, with Vince and Beth leaving the city to move back to Essex County and marry. Lou stays behind, lonely and filed with regret, making a life for himself in Toronto. Twenty five years go by, and only his mother’s funeral brings him back home. It takes yet another family tragedy to keep him there.
The final story, The Country Nurse ties all the connections together. Anne is a widow who is a traveling nurse, and a caretaker to Lou. As a nurse, she is privy to many people’s lives, thus she sometimes has to prod people into making the best decision, and sometimes has to take matters into her own hands. Her loving spirit runs in the family, as a story about her grandmother emerges, showing the final community and family threads. Anne’s care helps heal some rips in some family dynamics and brings the story to a poignant conclusion.
The illustrations are done in black and white, and look deceptively simple. Lemire’s stark lines are reminiscent to me of children’s author/illustrator Bill Peet, known for his work at Disney and books about animals and rural settings. There are signs of connectedness through out the multi-paneled pages, once you know what to look for. Anne is shown sewing a quilt, for her story pieces all of the tales together into a whole just as a quilt does. Before the final family tree is revealed, showing all the links between the families we have met on the preceding pages, you can see family resemblances take shape. The picture on page 10 and then again on page 442, show two young men a hundred years apart in history, in the same pose but for different reasons.
I’ve been reading this book on and off for several weeks now, savoring each story. Themes of what makes a family, living with decisions that can’t be unmade, and the hope of reconciliation run through out the novel and have given me much food for thought. Lessons I came away with after putting the book down: put away your pride and don’t wait until tomorrow to make an effort, for tomorrow is not promised. Now go kiss your mother!