In the first volume, Tales from the Farm, young Lester (perpetually dressed in his mask and cape) has gone to live on the farm with his maternal uncle Ken following the death of Lester’s mother. As his well-meaning uncle worries over how to connect with his new charge, the boy retreats to his room and the comfort of his comic books. He also starts spending a lot of time avoiding reality in the company of Jimmy, a former hockey player and local eccentric who works at the gas station and whose increasing influence begins to put pressure on Lester and Ken’s already fragile relationship.
The second volume, Ghost Stories, focuses on the life of Jimmy’s great-uncle Lou. Deaf, cranky, and sneaking shots of whiskey when his home-visit caretaker isn’t looking, Lou is gradually losing the fight against dementia. As he’s moved from his silently crumbling farmhouse to a nursing home, he falls more frequently into reliving the early joys and later sorrows of his long life, dwelling particularly on his passion for hockey and his complicated relationship with his younger brother Vince.
The third volume, The Country Nurse, tells two tales. One follows a day in the life of Anne, the nurse who cares for Lou and looks in on Jimmy, Ken and Lester, and anyone else she feels needs a little “meddling.” The other presents a revealing snippet of family history through the age-bound eyes of her grandmother. As Anne tries to piece together the lives of those around her, she holds tightly to the frayed threads of her own small existence, finding comfort in talking to those who no longer answer (but whom she believes still listen) and in patiently working on a quilt while the rest of the world sleeps.
Lemire’s wobbly-lined, ink-sprinkled artwork perfectly complements his plain-spoken dialogue (and thrives in the latter’s absence), giving his already vulnerable characters an emotional rawness that breaks the reader’s heart. While his story is largely realistic, a hint of the fabulous peeks out here and there as Lester appears to take off into the air to fight aliens, Lou wanders about in the snow without leaving his bed, and an increasingly familiar crow develops a reassuring significance. Whether there’s actually anything supernatural going on or if it’s all attributable to active imaginations, including the reader’s, doesn’t seem to matter. It belongs.
The author further plays with the fuzzy line between real and unreal by including reproductions of what look to be actual sports pages with his own headlines and images in place of the originals. Similarly, an iconic game photo serves as the model for a panel depicting a character’s moment of triumph on the ice. Most striking is Lemire’s incorporation of pages of his nine-year-old self’s homemade comics as examples of Lester’s cathartic creativity, blurring the distinction between artist and art and legitimizing the guileless innocence of its pencil-drawn, superhero-worshipping panels.
With repeated imagery (such as posters, hockey games, chicken coops, needlework, empty roads, and tractors), Lemire links and contrasts characters, situations, and settings across miles and generations, gradually pulling his separate stories together into one, just as nurturer Anne stitches together her comfort-bringing quilt, and just as the winged observer’s retreating perspective shows the individual farmsteads to be part of a larger community and not as alone as their inhabitants may sometimes feel.
Written for adults, Essex County nevertheless has strong appeal for young adults, particularly with its ALA Alex Award-winning first volume’s young protagonist. A few instances of strong language and one brief implied sex scene (the latter in volume two) may best suit slightly older teens. In addition to the Alex, the series and its individual volumes have been nominated for Eisner and Harvey Awards and have won an Ignatz Award in the U.S. as well as Doug Wright and Joe Shuster Awards in Canada. The series, listed as one of the Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade in 2010, is also available in an omnibus edition from the publisher.
Essex County, vols. 1-3
by Jeff Lemire
Volume 1: Tales from the Farm ISBN: 9781891830884
Volume 2: Ghost Stories ISBN: 9781891830945
Volume 3: The Country Nurse ISBN: 9781891830952
Top Shelf, 2007-2008
The Collected Essex County (omnibus edition)
Top Shelf, 2009