On Jeff Lemire’s “Essex County.”

IMG_1255.JPGMy introduction to Jeff Lemire’s Essex County was weirdly serendipitous. Sometime during the months that I was studying for my comprehensive exam, I also gave my pastor a description of my area of study (I look at coming of age graphic novels that take up the relationships between bodies, spaces, and political and cultural structures). The following Sunday, I found her copy of Essex County in my mailbox, and proceeded to devour it in one sitting that afternoon. It was a few short months after my mother had died of lung cancer, and I was struck by the way that the text binds up loss and grieving with locatedness. Reading the text felt very personal (and still does), and left me genuinely longing for a geography that might allow me to play out my grief. My husband and I had relocated to a new city for my PhD (we had been relocated for less than a year when my mom passed), and despite having built up a good network of friends and supporters in the city we left, I’d only lived there for seven years. The sparse, sprawling images of Essex County that Lemire provides feel uncannily like my hometown (which is also in Canada, and which I won’t name), but my relationship to my hometown has always been troubled. (I visited again last July, and came away feeling extremely out of place and depressed. My dad and brothers still live there, but I’m sure I can ever go back.) Reading Lemire’s text was cathartic. I read it twice more during the process of my exams, and wrote on it for my topic paper.
Recently, I’ve been alerted to a call for papers that my work on Essex County might qualify for (with some hefty editing), and so I’ve been going through the process of re-working my comps paper. This means doing additional research, outlining a (partially) new argument, annotating the original work to identify problem places and spots that need further explication, and, of course, re-reading my primary text. Being now removed from context of immediate and raw grief from which I initially approached the text, I find myself coming away with a completely different reading (which is actually very useful for the particular project I’m trying to write for). I don’t mean this as a criticism of Lemire’s text, or at least not as the kind of criticism designed to encourage potential readers to stay away. Mostly I’m shocked that I initially didn’t notice a troubling pattern that seems, now, to be at the fore of the text. Essex County, while exploring masculinity, aging, place, and grief in a complex, effective (and affective) way, also does the work of systematically erasing indigenous peoples, and also almost all women, from the claims that it makes to land in the name of white men. This is part of a bigger argument, so I’m still figuring out all of the parts of it, so I can’t go into a lot of detail here, not yet anyway (plus you’d likely find it boring), but I’m happy to respond to questions, or to come back to this post if anyone shows absolutely any interest in it. The long and short of it, however, is this: indigenous people are absent from the text entirely (except maybe as a vague referent to the magical’ god-like crow( (?), which isn’t any better), but claims are made for the Lebeuf family’s right to remain on the land based on a legacy of several hundred years. Several hundred years is a long time when considered in relation to an average human lifespan, but is laughable when considered in relation to the history of the indigenous people that were evacuated from the land so that the Lebeuf family and others could settle there. Women, too, are evacuated from the text, save for the country nurse. Three separate women inhabit the narrative long enough to give birth and raise children (to varying degrees), but die before the opening moments of the text. Anyway, I’m still chewing on these patterns, and welcome any insight on these parts of the text.

On Jeff Lemire’s “Essex County.”

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