Jeff Lemire’s Essex County (Collected)
Top Shelf Productions, 2010

Here’s what I scribbled in my notebook when I finished reading Tales From the Farm in 2008: The first in Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy feels in some ways like the antithesis to [Craig Thompson’s] Blankets – a very slim volume, with relatively little text – but it captures the same feelings of isolation and a frustrated yearning to connect on a lasting way, with a distinctly rural southwestern Ontario feel.

Now, having re-read that first volume, and launched immediately into the follow-ups (Ghost Stories and The Country Nurse), I am more struck by the connections than the sense of disconnect. The interweaving of the multiple storylines in the collected Essex County is particularly satisfying and that swells to eclipse some of the loneliness of individual characters as the work develops.

But it’s true that Lester’s story in the opening volume is characterized by a sense of disconnect. Whether he is sitting on the floor of the shed with only the chickens for company, pecking feed out of his hand, or whether he’s peering out of the frames in the company of another person (his Uncle Ken, perhaps), Lester seems completely alone and lonely.

Which makes sense. Lester has lost his mother to cancer recently and moved in with his Uncle Ken, who doesn’t have children and seems at a loss himself, not only mourning his sister’s death, but also having a solitary existence, accustomed to days filled with farming and his evenings shared with the hockey game on the TV.

Many of the frames are filled with silhouettes. A small figure (usually Lester’s), silhouetted on a bridge or against a backdrop of snow (and this is Canadian country snow, where the flakes are like bits of gravel, not granules of sugar snow) or the outlines of a grain elevator. People are slight against the landscape.

But many of the frames are filled completely with the face of a single figure. And the diverse cast of characters is definitely at the heart of the Essex County tales.

As the first volume ends, readers seem to be leaving Lester behind. And although there is some resolution with his story, it’s a stark difference to move from the tale of a young boy adjusting to life without his mother to Ghost Stories, the tale of an elderly man who is adjusting to life without, well, nearly everybody.

So, okay, perhaps not so different after all. And that sensation strengthens as Vince’s story moves forward: forward and back, and sideways and around again. Vince travels back and forth through time, slipping from memory to reality and back again, as smoothly as Lester slipped from his comic-book-adventure stories into his everyday reality.

In one second, Lester is flying through the air, cape swooshing behind him, and, in the next, he’s crashing hard into a field of farm chores. In one frame, Vince is opening a door into another room in the small, rundown home that he lives in alone as an elderly man, and, in the next, he’s walking into a bar filled with guys who played on the same hockey team when Vince was a young man. He is still in his old-man body, but his mind is travelling across the years as quickly as the puck across the ice.

Time moves quickly in these tales, from the first volume’s overtly seasonal structure, and echoes of these shifts haunt the volumes. Jeff Lemire does this skillfully and poignantly and the overlap between the volumes adds to the sense of a rush of years, the emphasis on shared human experiences over time.

By the time readers move into the story of The Country Nurse, they have seen the door creak open when Lester stands at the top of the basement stairs in Tales from the Farm. He is preparing to go down there alone to watch the hockey game, even though his Uncle Ken has asked him to join him upstairs after dinner.

Lester’s small silhouette at the top of the stairs is echoed in Vince’s silhouette at the top of the stairs in Vince’s house. Vince he has turned his back on the nurse who seems to invade his house daily, personally affronting Vince’s desire for independence, despite his fleeting awareness that he is too frail to manage on his own.

And there, in the final volume, is the Country Nurse, standing at the top of the stairs, the door creaking open, her silhouette as slight and dark as that of the others. Her loneliness is distinctly her own, but aspects of it are shared with the other characters in the trilogy.

And that’s not all that’s shared amongst the cast. The interconnections are drawn loosely at the beginning of the volume but, as readers move through the tales, the threads are drawn more tautly. The emotional pull is stronger than you would guess. Soon readers will find themselves, standing at the top of the stairs, preparing to climb down into the book for a re-read of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County.

My Canada Reads Responses (please see CBC Canada Reads for the event’s details):
Terry Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans (above) JAN29 (CBC pitch is here)
Carol Shields’ Unless JAN31 (CBC pitch is here)
Ami McKay’s The Birth House FEB2 (CBC pitch is here)
Jeff Lemire’s Essex County (above) (CBC pitch is here)
Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage FEB6 (CBC pitch is here)

And I go on, some more, about Essex County, here.