Collected Essex County by Jeff Lemire. Top Shelf Productions 2009.
Collected Essex County is the first graphic novel I have read. I picked it up because it is on the Canada Reads 2011 list. Essex County will be defended by panelist Sara Quin. I had heard positive reports of the book before now, but I was a bit dubious. How could art work replace the richness of detail that can be evoked with the written word? Still, reviews have called Essex County “a quiet, somber, haunting masterpiece” (The Oregonian) and a “minimalistic though intensely emotional trilogy” (CBC). Now that I have read it myself, I have to agree. They’re right.
The Collected Essex County brings together three linked stories. The first is “Tales From the Farm”. Young Lester has recently lost his mother to cancer. He never knew his father. His Mom’s death-bed request to her bachelor brother Ken was that he take care of her son. Lester must reluctantly leave his mother’s house and move to his Uncle Ken’s farm, where he and his uncle begin an uneasy relationship. Lester’s comic book superhero fantasies help him cope with life. And then one day he meets Jimmy.
In “Ghost Stories”, brothers Lou and Vince grow up together, play hockey on the frozen creek and finally achieve their dream of playing in Toronto for a semi-professional team. But then something happens that drives a wedge between the two brothers forever.
In “The Country Nurse”, widow Anne struggles to cope with her distant son and her own lonely life while doing her best to heal her patients in Essex County.
The three rather melancholy tales are well-suited to the stark, bold black and white illustrations. The emotions of the characters are succinctly captured in gestures and expressions and the rural landscape is evocatively rendered. The art work complements the simple but touching storylines and brings Lester and Ken, Anne and Lou and Vince and a supporting cast to life. The cover illustration, literally rooting the protagonists to the soil of Essex County, is typical of the powerful visual imagery of Essex County.
Collected Essex County is about 500 pages long, but the limited text doesn’t take long to read and you can finish the book quickly. You’ll want to spend additional time rereading the book a second time though, to fully appreciate all the nuances of the art work and stories. Below is a double page from “Tales From the Farm”.