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Brian Francis visits Essex County

There's a golden rule when it comes to writing; one that most writers need to be reminded of time and time again, regardless of what stage they're at in their careers.

Show, don't tell.

In a nutshell, the "show, don't tell" rule means that writers should, wherever possible, avoid telling the reader certain things and, instead, plant the necessary clues and descriptions that allow readers to discover things on their own terms.

For example, a novelist could write, "Mr. Jones was an evil man." Which is fine, but, ideally, the writer should show Mr. Jones actually doing something evil. That way, the reader forms his or her own opinion about Mr. Jones and this engages the reader's participation in the story in a much deeper way.

Sometimes, though, it's not always easy to "show." It can be tough for a writer to convey an image, an idea or an emotion, especially when he or she is restricted to the confines of language. Let's face it. Words can often fail us, especially when it comes to describing the complexities of human behaviour or the nuances in our interactions with one another.

I was thinking about the "show, don't tell" rule when I started reading Jeff Lemire's Essex County. Here was a guy who seemed to have the best of both worlds: language and illustration. He didn't have to rely solely on words the way a fiction writer did, and he had the option to (literally) draw out emotions, moods and themes through visuals.


But as I got further into the book, I started to wonder if Lemire faced a tougher challenge than I initially thought. In order for his story to work and for his characters to spring from the page, he had to understand how the images worked in conjunction with the language; to know when to use words and also when to revert to illustration in order to maintain the emotional momentum of his story.

Not being someone well versed in graphic novels, I have to admit that I brought some baggage to Essex County. It was hard for me to pick it up and not be reminded of my childhood and the time I'd spent, poring over my copies of MAD magazine. There was a pocket of innocence I felt as I turned the pages. I thought of the expanse that Saturday afternoons used to hold and my postered bedroom and the smell of tempera paint. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to feel that way or not. After all, Lemire hasn't written a children's story. The book is as "adult" as the other books on the Canada Reads list. Consider the characters in Essex County: A young, lonely farm boy. A failed hockey star. A guilt-ridden brother. A widowed nurse.

But there's such a simple yearning in all of these characters, from Lester's budding relationship with Jimmy to Lou's regrets over his relationship with his brother Vince to Anne's lunch at the gravestone of her late husband.

And here's what Essex County ultimately came down to for me: that isolation magnifies loss. Readers may be lulled by the black-and-white illustrations of Lemire's book, feeling — as I did — a sense of childlike wonder as we turn the pages, but the irony is that there's nothing simplistic about Essex County. What we expect to find in its pages has already left us.

That's not to say there isn't a sense of wonder in Essex County. But I think that comes more from its creator than from its characters. In many ways, I saw Lemire as the crow that appears throughout the book, linking the characters and their unknown destinies together, like the acres of farmland, like the image of the stitched quilt that closes the book. Lemire shows us (both through his words and his images) that it's our shared isolation that keeps us from truly being alone.

Will this book be the champ? Each week, I do a round-up of what I think are the strengths for each title competing for the Canada Reads crown. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts.

Reasons why Essex County might take it:

  • The first graphic novel in Canada Reads history
  • Readers seem to like stories that span generations
  • Its format makes it stand out
  • Books about hockey have done well before (King Lear)
  • Defended by Sara Quin (she was very passionate at the launch and that should take her far in the debates)

There's a lot of momentum for Essex County, but, pitted against four conventional novels, will its black sheep status hinder its shot at winning?

Next week, I'll search for goodness in Unless by Carol Shields.

Brian Francis

Brian Francis is Canada Reads' resident blogger. His debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published in fall 2011.

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