28 December 2009

Stitches and Scars

David Small’s Stitches may or may not be “Young People’s Literature,” the category of National Book Award for which it was a finalist. But it certainly deserves that level of critical accolade.

Stitches is an emotionally powerful memoir in comics form of growing up in a difficult family. As many reviews have reported, as an adolescent Small developed a cancer in his neck, quite possibly caused by his radiologist-father’s overly optimistic X-ray treatments for sinus troubles. Removing the cancer cost Small half his vocal cords. More importantly, his parents didn’t tell him about his illness or the extent of the operation beforehand.

But that’s not the more emotionally wrenching part of this memoir. Small’s parents withheld a great deal more. The book starts with the family landscape, and the first chapters are memories from early childhood, seemingly disconnected and almost inconsequential. Gradually the narrative builds into a portrait of a troubled teenager, with scenes from family lore, dreams, cartoons, and real life that seems more baffling than the rest.

The story has several dramatic turning points that coincide gracefully with when the reader turns a page: the discovery of the “growth” on Small’s neck, his discovery of family secrets. But Small works with the graphic form on a more subtle level as well.

For instance, one of those page turns reveals Small’s scar after an operation, a long line of stitches stuck to his neck like a millipede. As dramatic as that full-page image is, I was struck just as hard by the panels on the spreads that follow.

As shown here, suddenly the whole setting is full of arrays of parallel line, mirroring those stitches—his home has become one big scar. The preceding pages, in contrast, were full of misty gray washes, reflecting Small’s post-operative fog.

My mother, who like Small grew up in postwar Detroit, reports that Stitches gets that culture right as well: the giant cars, the cocktail parties, the auto show in the Ford Rotunda. She’s also been sharing the book’s emotional moments with friends who don’t read comics. (That surprised me so much that when Mom reported how one friend had “cried after hearing about Stitches,” I thought she meant the intense knitting marketplace.)

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