The legendary nineteenth century Agnes McVee: madam, serial killer, and inn owner of 108 Mile House, may not have really existed; but author and illustrator Sarah Levitt has brought her to astoundingly vivid life in Agnes, Murderess. Levitt introduces the folkloric Agnes to the reader through the backstory of Agnes’s childhood in Scotland through to her immigration to the Cariboo Region of British Columbia, accompanied by the grim ghost of her witchy grandmother Gormul. She also introduces the reader to early British Columbia gold rush geographical naming. The Cariboo Wagon road was started in 1862 from Mile 0 at Lillooet, a major town in the 1860s, where miners prepared to head north to the gold fields near Barkerville. As each mile was completed, a post was planted to accommodate the road crews. Several developed into well known “Mile Houses” when these places developed as stopping places to exchange horses or for travelers to obtain food and lodging. 108 Mile House was not much more than vacant land in 1860 with the 108 Mile Hotel of Agnus McVee fame operating from 1875 to 1885.
The new world was to be an agent of freedom and new starts, but unfortunately for Agnes, the struggle to remove herself from her upbringing and relatives proved to be deadly… deadly for those who met her. Levitt used a brochure about the legendary woman who killed some fifty people at her hotel with the aid of her husband and son-in-law as inspiration for her character and story. Although no official records of the woman or the murders existed, Levitt knew she had to tell the story depicted in the brochure. As noted in the introduction: “the first written record of Agnes did not appear until the 1970s, when an amateur historian self-published a guide to buried treasure in British Columbia.” “Lost Treasure in BC #3” is an expressly gruesome and violent story by Larry Lazeo of Fort Langley who was repeating a story he heard from an unnamed old timer. In 2006, Red Barn Productions filmed the story for CTV’s Travel and Discovery series and is also on a BC Government web page of historical information.
Levitt’s Agnes, taught by her greedy grandmother to adore shiny items, is drawn to the gold of the miners who stop at her hotel. She does not resist the call of that gold, and her bloodthirsty manner of acquiring it demonstrates her strength, both physical and mental, as well as her lack of ethics and morality. This is a woman who is her own person and follows her own desires, but also a woman who is also haunted by her upbringing and her lack of empathy and compassion. She is quick to anger and is reactive without a thought to consequences. She is not a conventional heroine but someone to be regarded at a far distance for your own safety! She leaves Scotland after a squabble between Gormul, and Seamus, a village boy, erupts in the unplanned stabbing death of Gormul with a pair of scissors. Seamus travels with Agnes to the new world and is an unwilling participant in much of the subsequent mass murders, thievery, and mayhem.
Levitt’s years of research into the gold rush, the Cariboo Region, the men that came to find the gold, and the women who came to service the men, is evident in the authentic and gritty setting of the graphic novel. The remote rural Scottish community and its members are also vividly portrayed but this reader is enchanted by the familiarity of the equally remote area of western Canada and an era that is so paramount to the development of that region.
According to Leavitt, the images of Agnes and her horrendous deeds came to her first and then the narrative expanded to represent journal entries found after Agnes died. Leavitt’s moody illustrations are in black and white, with occasional touches of grey. They are stark, unsentimental, harsh, but, especially in the case of the landscapes, breathtakingly appealing. Leavitt effectively uses deep blacks to amplify the loneliness and mental confusion of the terrifying but oddly ingratiating protagonist who remains with this reader long after the covers closed.
I highly recommend this title for adults and high school students who wish to explore Canadian history and legend, strong female protagonists, mass murders, evil, and the possible long-term effects of a non-nurturing upbringing. It is a story without any definite answers, and I would not want it any other way. Just in case you find this critic and review rather morbid and seek a second opinion, the title was a 2020 Doug Wright finalist for the best Canadian graphic novel. It has also been nominated in two categories for the 2020 Alberta Book Awards: speculative fiction and book illustration. Sarah Leavitt is also the author of Tangles: A Story of Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me. She teaches comics classes at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
By Sarah Leavitt
Freehand Books, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Related to…: Retelling