One hundred years of ice hockey

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Jeff Lemire’s Essex County tells a uniquely Canadian story

Every year, CBC Radio holds the Canada Reads competition, a multi-part event in which five notable Canadian figures each choose one piece of Canadian literature and then square off in debates against each other, with each figure championing the merits of their chosen book. The panelists slowly vote off books until only one remains, and that remaining book is supposed to be the book that every Canadian should read that year.

This year’s was the 10th competition, so it was a bit different, in that it was restricted specifically to books from the previous decade and it ran for three days in front of a live audience. But the process was no different, and there was still a winning book: Terry Falis’ The Best Laid Plans, a comedic novel about Canadian parliamentary intrigue that won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.

Intrepid journalists that we are at the Carillon, however, we’ve decided that we’re not going to take the CBC’s word for it. Instead, we’re going to read them all and see which ones – if any – were real contenders for the crown. We’ll be publishing articles covering the rest of the books over the next few weeks, but feel free to join in on the conversation by commenting below, and check out cbc.ca/books/canadareads for more information on Canada Reads.

John Cameron
Editor-in-Chief

Paul Bogdan
A&C Writer

Essex County
Jeff Lemire
Top Shelf Productions

Unfaithful nuns, betrayal, ice hockey, and aliens – all are part of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, a collection of three graphic novels that was one of the finalists in CBC’s Canada Reads competition. The three individual books, Tales From the Farm, Ghost Stories, and The Country Nurse, each tell a different story, but as collected in Essex County, they collectively tell a larger, and quite tragic, story of a southern Ontario community struggling with loss, anger, and regret.

The entire story of all three books takes place over roughly a century and moves through many characters from various generations and settings; throughout, Essex County maintains a sense of continuity that is more-or-less straightforward and relatively easy to follow. The differentiation of panel shape and size also helps to set the pace of the story and gives the reader clues to the significance of each scene.

The heavy involvement of ice hockey and the rural, agricultural setting connect with the Canadian mindset, and readers (especially ones that are familiar with a rural setting such as Saskatchewan) can easily identify with the characters and each of their motivations.

Essex County is almost more similar to a film than another piece of literature. Because of the limited-text nature of the graphic novel, Essex County relies heavily on the use of its illustrations to imply actions, events, and meanings. Lemire does a fantastic job of conveying vast amounts of information with very little dialogue and narration. Each line is packed with implications about the characters’ histories, mental state, and relationships with the other characters in the novel.

The use of subjective points of view cause the reader to question what they are reading; the story often takes the reader deep into a character’s mind and dramatically flows with the character’s thoughts, in and out of dreams and reality. Scenes flow from the mundane life of an old man in a care home through the depths of his mind into the regrets of his youth that haunt him generations later, all in the space of a single page turn.

One of the advantages of a graphic novel over a traditional one is that the writer doesn’t have to rely on imagery in their language, but rather can employ the use of actual images to explicitly display important aspects of the narrative process, namely setting and characterization.

Jeff Lemire proves that graphic novels are different from superhero comics filled with explosions and fight scenes. Essex County is a highly dramatic and tragic graphic novel with themes of isolation, family, and regret. Even though the amount of actual written text is nothing particularly great or elaborate, Lemire successfully communicates the story to his reader in an interesting way. It’s evident why this was frontrunner in CBC’s Canada Reads campaign; it easily could have taken first place with its uniqueness amongst the candidates in terms of presentation and with Jeff Lemire’s deft ability to convey a message to the reader through his illustrations and concise dialogue and narrative text. It’s a superb piece of literature that is uniquely Canadian.

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