Essex County Collected has been voted out of Canada Reads, but don’t let that stop you from reading Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel
– review by Heather Welsh
Jeff Lemire’s acclaimed Essex County (Top Shelf Productions, 510 pps, trade, $29.95) has been getting a lot of attention lately. Winner of Doug Wright and Joe Shuster awards and recently selected (by Sara Quin of Canadian rock band Tegan & Sara) for CBC’s Canada Reads program, the book actually compiles three previously published graphic novels.
Set in Essex County, Ontario, the stories at first seem to be unconnected in narrative, and related instead by their setting and the emotional loneliness the characters share. However, as the narrative moves forward the characters’ family links and the chronological importance of events take on more importance.
Book one, “Tales From The Farm” introduces Lester Papineau, an isolated orphan who, following his mother’s death, is forced to live out in the sticks with his uncle. Ontario’s sparse landscapes and the cold loneliness in which the story is set serve well as a catalyst stimulating empathy for both characters.
“Ghost Stories”, the second book, follows the lives of brothers Lou and Vincent Leubeuf. Events are seen from the point of view of Lou as an old man living in a nursing home, flashbacks of key events in his life are intertwined with the mundane everyday of his life in the home.
Conversations and surroundings constantly trigger Lou’s memory and transport him back to another time. To others in the home he is just another grumpy old man, but to the reader he is something special. Like Lester and his uncle in book one, the brothers are in love with hockey (and play together professionally in the story). Thus, there are many references to games and their team The Toronto Maple Leafs. This is a key element that ties all three of the stories together.
“The Country Nurse”, the last of the three books, re-introduces Nurse Anne, Lou Lebeuf’s caregiver in “Ghost Stories”. We follow her day-to-day life and learn more about the characters from books one and two. She is lonely after losing her husband and takes it upon herself to care for the Essex County community. There are more flashbacks within her story that link the tales together. Lemire provides a family tree to help with the narrative structure.
Also included in Essex County Collected are other related works drawn for separate publications sold at conventions or online. This includes unpublished promotional artwork, deleted scenes, and a trading card sketch of the graphic novel by cartoonist Jeffrey Brown.
Although a vast deal of the book deals with death, despair and loneliness, it is also highlighted with uplifting elements such as newfound friendship and love. The story unravels slowly but surely, the books are dotted with a great attention to detail and Lemire’s drawings perfectly capture the vast open fields, the sky, and the emptiness of being alone. As Lou says “there are only two ways to be completely alone in this world, lost in a crowd, or in total isolation”.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough for the Canada Reads jury; Essex County was the first to be knocked out of the running of the competition.