Hope Larson’s Mercury
Simon & Schuster, 2010

I read Hope Larson’s Chiggers in 2008; I’d seen it on a list somewhere (Graphic Novels You Can’t Miss, that kind of thing) and I think I was expecting a combination of Little Darlings with an Enid Blyton summer adventure story, and the poignancy of Craig Thompson’s Blankets.

At first I was a little disappointed (well, you had to know it’d fall short, what with my loaded childhood nostalgia for a rather-bad summer-camp movie in combination with more likely misplaced nostalgia for Enid Blyton’s serial sameness) but more than halfway through I found myself unexpectedly affected by the characters’ struggles with identity and relationships.

I ended by wanting to buy Chiggers, although not so much because it was a tremendously powerful read for me, but because I thought it was something that girls coming-of-age would find easy to relate to, charming and entertaining without overlooking the awkwardness, uncertainty and angsty-ness of that life stage.

My reaction to her most recent graphic novel, Mercury, was remarkably similar and, having spent a lovely porch-sit with it, I now want a copy of this one too.

Mercury operates in two timeframes, one in which the page panels have a black background and consider the historical story of Josie Fraser in 1859 Nova Scotia, one in which the page panels have a white background and depict Tara’s contemporary story, as she too comes-of-age, in the same landscape.

Josie’s struggle is mainly with the restrictions on her role as a girl and her mother’s worries (rooted in sixth-sense premonitions) that the arrival of a stranger will have a devastating impact on her family; Tara is struggling with her mother’s absence (she has moved out West to work after their family home burned down) and the economic and social reality of having suffered that loss in a small community wherein everybody knows everybody else’s business.

The dialogue is realistic and the humour is quiet; the appeal of the characters takes root gradually against the backdrop of tumultuous times. Both families struggle for financial security, both girls struggle to be known on their own terms, to make decisions that they realize run contrary to others’ expectations. The details vary, but thematically Josie and Tara face many of the same challenges, which is mirrored in the drawings as the girls look the same except for the details (the clothing, the hairstyles, the accessories).

The text in dialogue is sometimes altered to suit the circumstances (for instance, made smaller for words that are spoken in a whisper, which actually had me leaning towards the book as though I couldn’t quite hear) and sometimes text is added to the image (for instance, swirly letters come off a hot object, spelling s-w-e-l-t-e-r in little slips and wisps that almost don’t look like letters, meshing with the image itself) to intensify a scene. It really does feel as though the story is of equal importance to the illustrations.

And, speaking of the illustrations, you can view and read excerpts from each of the time periods on Hope Larson’s website although some of my favourites don’t appear there. I especially like the panels in which Tara has left the scene on the left page and we see her back as she goes and then she emerges into the next page, front-first, meeting another character. It’s like she’s literally walking on and off the set. I also like the scenes where she’s running and we see her full figure at a distance but the image grows increasingly closer, zooming in on the intensity of the physical effort of running, until I’m practically hyperventilating as we’re right up at her face, all sweaty and strained.

After I’d finished reading this, I just sat for a bit on the porch, the way you sometimes do after you finish a book somewhere other than your usual reading places. You don’t have another book immediately at hand to pick up, you don’t even have another book immediately in mind: you’re just a little book-dazed, sitting and staring, musing at where you’ve just been.

I was wandering over the idea of the cover of the book: partly thinking that I didn’t find the colours eye-catching and that, if I hadn’t already been familiar with her work, it might not have piqued my interest, but partly I was thinking that Hope Larson had chosen a good title.

Mercury is a chemical element used to refine gold, a transformative element and one used somewhat magically in Hope Larson’s novel (but not in an over-the-top Harry-Potter-ish way), and it seemed a solid choice of title not only because the substance appears in both timelines, but also because adolescence itself is such a transformative time. But while I was sitting there, staring at the summer evening, something else, something from my own adolescence came rushing back, those lists of mythological figures, and I recalled that Mercury was also the winged runner, reflected in Tara’s endurance runs.

I mention this not so that you can shake your head at me (I likely should have caught that mythic reference much sooner) but because it sums up the sort of subtle, creeping satisfaction that I’ve found in these stories.

They don’t thrill me (not the way that Hiromi Goto’s Half World or Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s The Shadow Speaker did) — although younger readers might very well be thrilled — but I have found a quiet, reflective satisfaction there; Chiggers and Mercury are solidly satisfying reads that I would wholeheartedly recommend to younger readers who have been charmed by the graphic novel medium.

Have you had a reading experience like this recently, a slow satisfaction rather than a sudden thrill? Do you enjoy graphic novels? Have you read this one? Do you have a favourite?

PS More kidlit and YA bookchat next Saturday.