52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work. Today continues our glimpse at the work of our first featured Canadian writer, Jeff Lemire.
When speaking about popular Canadians authors in the comic industry, one doesn’t have to wait long to hear Jeff Lemire’s name pop up into the conversation. Lemire, born and raised in a farming town in Essex County, comes off as being so Canadian that it wouldn’t surprise me if the man bled maple syrup. An accomplished comic writer as well as an illustrator, Jeff Lemire has found a multitude of success across several different comic publishers ranging from the big guns like DC Comics to self-publishing under his own Ashtray Press imprint. As a proud Canadian it is always just a joy to see another proud Canadian who pours their heritage into every ounce of their work. Today’s book, Essex County, is a defining example of Lemire’s love for his heritage as he writes and illustrates the entire affair in such a way that you might be singing the national anthem by the time you’re done your first reading of it.
Essex County is a Goliath sized collection of the Essex County trilogy, created by Jeff Lemire in 2008 and 2009. As the story is a trilogy, it is broken down into three separate books that follow a different character’s story every time. Tales From the Farm, Ghost Stories, and The Country Nurse all tell the stories of three different individuals as well as the people who surround them while they remained tied to Essex County. Tales From the Farm follows a ten year old boy named Lester, a superhero obsessed, comic loving kid whose head remains in the clouds. Lester lives with his uncle Ken following the tragic loss of his mother. In need of a friend, Lester befriends Jimmy LeBeuf, a slow and brutish looking man with a tender heart. Ghost Stories touches on the lives of the LeBeuf brothers, Vincent and Lou, who both had dreams of making it to the NHL as they played their way together through the lower levels together. The Country Nurse follows Anne Byrne as she travels around Essex County as a nurse, helping those in need and revealing the ties that bind much of Essex County together.
All that really needs to be said about Essex County is that it is a beautiful book. I could stop my analysis of it with this current sentence and feel content with trying to get my point across. There’s a beautiful simplicity yet still an overarching sense of complexity that my words just won’t do justice to for this book. I’ll try my damnedest though. The true beauty of Essex County lies in the roots of the story, Jeff Lemire’s roots, as he gives you a breathtaking display of what makes Essex County so amazing through these characters. It feels wrong to say “these characters” though because, in reality, the setting of Essex County is just as much a character in this book as anyone else is. With every page Lemire illustrates the nature of Essex County, as there is barely a page set in that locale that doesn’t look like a rural farming city. It’s a stationary location yet you can still see it breath and become emotive just like the other functioning characters on the page. The setting is the key to the entire story as it is what ultimately serves as the tie that keeps every character connected to each other.
The characters here will likely all tug on your heart strings but none so more than three of the main characters in Lester and the LeBeuf brothers. Lester faces tragedy at such a young age in this story and the way Lemire presents these events just tears away at you, choosing to set the story in the present but still cut away to the past to show us what Lester has lost. He’s lonely and hollow in ways that no ten year old boy should be, as evidenced by his stoic nature and lack of words. Lester’s silence is such a powerful thing in this story as, although he speaks plenty, it’s Lemire choice of when allowing Lester to speak that truly speaks volumes. His choice of making the character really only pipe up when necessary gives great weight to Lester’s every spoken word. To see how this lonely boy’s shell cracks when given a true and unexpected friend is the best part of the entire first book, as we watch the strength of the reluctant relationship formed between Lester and Jimmy LeBeuf.
With the LeBeuf brothers you get a story that seems to not be connected to Lester’s at all for the first two chapters or so. Their story feels a little random because of how far into the past it reaches but that doesn’t take away from everything being told. Instead it builds a broad sense of history that you can’t look away from. Lou LeBeuf serves as the primary narrator for the second book of the trilogy, as we see the relationship he dearly holds with his brother Vincent or “Vinnie” for short. In the present day we see a miserable and disgruntled old Lou who is constantly reminiscing about the days gone bye. He misses the time he shared with his young, mammoth of a brother. He misses his dreams of making it to the NHL. Lou’s story is just another instance of how tragic the tales in Essex County can be as you see a (for lack of a better current term) “pathetic” old man who desperately clings to his lost years as his best days are behind him. Cutting between the earlier years of Lou’s life and then transitioning back to the present day only twists the knife more as the flipping narratives show you the slow decline of Lou’s life and all he holds precious. If “Tales From the Farm” was the choked up feeling you get in your throat before you cry, then “Ghost Stories” is the uncontrollable sobbing that follows shortly after.
The story feels like it is told in all kinds of weird manners as the norm for telling stories is to do so in chronological order. Essex County does nothing like that, telling the story in whatever manner it feels will deliver the most impact to the reader. Rest assured that Lemire guides the story in the perfect direction to elicit all different types of feelings from you. At no point will you feel confused or lost in what’s going on. Actually I should correct that last sentence because you do get lost at points but in a positive way. You get lost in a tragically heartwarming story about the importance of community and family. The true downside to Lemire’s Essex County isn’t a flaw with a character or story, it is that it ends when it feels like it’s a story that could go on forever.
Collects: The Essex County Trilogy (Book One: Tales From The Farm, Book Two: Ghost Stories, Book Three: The Country Nurse), The Essex County Boxing Club, The Sad and Lonely Life of Eddie-Elephant Ears, Barnyard Scraps: Bonus Materials
Best Character: Lou LeBeuf
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “It’s sort of like drifting in and out of a nap…moments of clarity still come…My mind will snap to attention and I’ll know who I am, and where I am, just as clear as I ever did.” – Lou LeBeuf
Best Scene/Moment: The moment where it all ties together – Book Three: The Country Nurse
Best Issue: Book Two – Ghost Stories. Ghost Stories makes up over half of the Essex County Trilogy and features the heaviest hitting moments of the entire story as you watch a senile old man try to grasp at the life he’d already lost long ago. He’s afraid of ending up alone yet that’s the very place he ends up because of his own actions. Part of you wants to hate the man but another part of you just feels sorry for him because of how pathetic he comes off at times. The entirety of Book Two breaks your heart and puts it back together time and time again, emotionally exhausting you as you claw to the end of a tale about bonds and betrayal. When you’re done reading this volume, there’s a strong chance that you’re going to go hug your nearest loved one or pick up the phone just so you can hear the voice of someone you care about.
Why You Should Read It: There’s a reason this book is considered an important piece of Canadian literature. If you read it, I’m sure you’ll come up with your own reason why. For me, it all has to do with the fact that the setting is a character itself and how Lemire handles all of these characters. These are all personal stories that feel like they’re true stories and that might be because they are. Maybe they didn’t happen this way exactly or to these people with these names but there’s no way that other people on this planet haven’t felt or experienced the things that these characters go through in Essex County. You should read this because it’s a book that as honest as it is heartbreaking and beautiful. In many regards I believe it isn’t meant to be a tragedy and instead it’s meant to instill a sense of hope as well as remind us why family is so important. The book isn’t sad when you read it but then when you stop and think about it, there are plenty of parts that just hit you in the right way if you relate to what some of these characters have been through.