What starts as a solitary tale of woe featuring a lonely, hurt, young boy grows into something else, an epic story spanning time and space, with the central moral being the human heart.
All this is encompassed within the pages of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy, a graphic novel years in the making and now firmly entrenched in the Canadian literary foundation.
Essex County starts off with a young boy suffering from the heartache of his mother’s passing and now living in what he considers exile on his uncle’s farm. The two communicate through pain only when required, with the boy coping by donning a superhero cape and mask. To bring about more emotional chaos, he also is hanging out, behind his uncle’s back, with the man from the gas station. All these bits come into play as the story progresses, sometimes in big shocking chunks, other times as little crumbs to pique interest.
The second part of Essex County is filled with flashbacks to one characters life in hockey. To say that Lemire is a massive fan of Canada’s greatest pastime is an understatement, and this section is his love letter to the sport. This is more than a game being played here, it is life incarnate on ice.
The final segment of Essex County deals with a local nurse, going about her business in the area, while we are also treated to lengthy flashbacks to a tale of love and survival going back decades and decades.
By the end, all plot threads and character beats are expertly woven together, providing hidden secrets ample opportunities to be revealed.
Lemire packs so much into this very thick collected volume, giving the reader a vast amount of thought and love and people to root for. Even with the crop of players involved, the main focus for most experiencing this trilogy is the young boy Lester. The estrangement he feels from reality is only partially grounded by his friendship with the man from the gas station, Jimmy. All throughout these stories, even if Lester is only a minor character in a scene or a segment, we always want to give him a hug. A very long hug.
Helping slam the impact of the emotions into us is Lemire’s sketchy, sometimes minimalistic style. Pages can go by with no dialogue spoken, but with plenty being told. This is interspersed by conversation rich sections with underlying tones and thoughts bubbling up. Pacing is a major strength here for Lemire, one he utilizes even more in his newer works.
Essex County was always on the periphery of my radar, but like the vast majority of fans, it fully bloomed into my view when it was on CBC Canada Reads. Sara Quin from the great band Tegan and Sara did her absolute level best to fight the graphic novel prejudice, but unfortunately could not make the Plebians on the panel understand the love this book contains.
It is a love evident from the first pages, all with Lester on the farm. Being a hero.