Essex County, Vol.1: Tales from the Farm
by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf, 2007)

The inner worlds of children are highly complex, and the way they deal with emotional trauma can be very complicated. Their readiness to delve into alternate frames of mind makes the exploration of grief issues very intriguing.

This collusion of fantasy and reality can form the basis of truly excellent writing, such as Katherine Paterson's The Bridge to Terabithia and John Connelly's The Book of Bad Things, to name but a few examples this rich vein of storytelling produces. Jeff Lemire's poignant Tales from the Farm, winner of a 2008 Alex Award, and the first in his Essex County trilogy, has universal echoes that place it in the realm of the best of these stories.

However and whenever it happens, the most difficult thing that any of us must ever face is the pain that death brings. Wrenching as it can be, it is necessary to deal with the fact of death in order to achieve maturity. Death is therefore a "coming of age" for all of us. Lemire's respectful and honest depiction of Lester, a 10-year-old boy orphaned by his mother's cancer, is so real, yet so gentle, that it makes the acceptance of this most arduous reality a life-affirming event.

The friendship that Lester forms with Jimmy Lebeuf, a gas station owner and former pro hockey player whose injury has sidelined him from life, epitomizes the happier moments that childhood offers. Jimmy has confronted the full experience of life, with all its sacrifices and victories, while Lester, an ardent comic book fan and superhero worshipper, wishes only to escape back into the comfort that childhood provides and the strength that being an imaginary invulnerable superhero offers, just to make his sad life a bit more livable. Unable to face his mother's death, Lester wants the happiness he has as a child to continue while simultaneously becoming impervious to all harm as superheroes are. His make-believe adventures consist of wearing a mask and cape every day in order to protect Earth from alien invaders. The opening is a direct homage to Smallville and Superboy: a windmill, a farm in a small town and a boy in a homemade cape learning how to fly.

Lester is sent to live with his uncle Kenny, who tries hard to reach him behind the wall of fantasies. It's obvious Kenny cares deeply for his sister's only child, in spite of not really knowing the first thing about how to raise children. But his gruff, good-hearted concern is what actually pulls Lester through in the end. The entire plot revolves around Lester's gradual acceptance that childhood amenities can't stave off reality. Life without strife is no kind of life at all; ultimately, we must learn to live life on life's terms, or we will never truly grow up.

The unadorned black-and-white drawing style is clear and distinctive, with careful attention to form and proportion. I would call this style "imperfectly perfect" for the way it seems hurriedly scritched out, yet elegantly captures every detail from facial expression to body language, with a masterful use of perspective. Art such as Lemire's is, in my opinion, very reader-friendly because it's more content oriented and not nearly as "loud" as shiny, glossy, web-designed work. Computerized drawing certainly has its place, but hand-drawn work, when used accurately, is the perfect vehicle for such evocative stories-from-the-heart as TftF, which requires an authentic look that creates an immediate intimacy with the reader. Lemire's unique, sparse style delivers that authenticity in spades.

Simple as TftF is, it has great depth. Lemire has a real affinity for outsiders and portrays them without judgment. He is completely in tune with the emotional conflicts at the heart of this story, portraying them with subtlety and insight. He neatly balances the bittersweet pleasure and pain of Lester's life, beautifully conveying the helplessness and confusion of growing up, the fear of being abandoned, and the joyful possibilities of imagination. This is a very moving tale will probably make you cry, but in a good way.

review by
Mary Harvey

28 March 2009

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