I have been waiting to read this collection for some time. I won it in an online charity auction last summer, and waited eagerly for my signed edition. I am still waiting, so I borrowed it from my library’s ever expanding collection of graphic novels. I loved this book – it reminds me of David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir and even a bit of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, although I did not really connect Stitches and Persepolis when I reviewed Small’s book last year. I think the similarities are that the stories seem so personal, so sparely drawn in black and white, and able to express so much through the art that dialogue is not necessary.
The Collected Essex County is a collection of three intertwined stories (with a few small one-offs added at the end) set in a rural farming community in Essex County, Ontario. Given that the community is so small, everything and everyone are interrelated, but Lemire’s drawings of the wide open spaces of the land contrast nicely with the way the character’s lives seem so bound and limited. The first story is about a boy going to live with his bachelor uncle on the farm after losing his mother. The two of them struggle with their sadness and fear, and the uncle’s awkward attempts to connect with his young nephew only makes the boy angry and look elsewhere for understanding. The second story is about two brothers pursuing their shared dream to play hockey, but their partnership is severed when dreams change and mistakes are made. The last story is about a home care nurse trying to care for her patients in the community and in a care home. She knows these people and their histories, and tries to nudge them into reconnecting, with some nudges being more subtle than others. Each of them is trapped in grief and secrets and regrets, but they are all trying to reach out in some way.
The characters in these stories seem to be some of the loneliest people I have ever read about; it made me ache a bit to read about them because they seemed like people I would know in real life. The book has a melancholy tone, but is quietly hopeful that the people can connect with a little assistance. When I was in the midst of reading the book, I was thinking that it seemed so quintessentially Canadian, with so many dreams and connections tied up in hockey, but with some some reflection I now think that the book describes rural life in general beautifully. The isolation of a household in a giant landscape, but a place where everyone knows each other and secrets are hard to keep – it can be a hard lifestyle to live in, as I have learned through experience. Lemire rooted the book in his childhood hometown, and the books seems sincere and heartfelt. I loved this book as I did Stitches, and recommend it to all, even those who would normally not read graphic novels.