An illustrator found that during a painful childhood, “Art became my home.”
Stitches: A Memoir. By David Small. Norton, 329 pp., $24.95. Ages: See discussion below.
By Janice Harayda
David Small’s mother had her heart in the wrong place — literally. Elizabeth Small was born with her heart on the wrong side of her chest, and the defect serves as a metaphor for her coldness to her son in this graphic memoir and Midwestern Gothic tale of growing up in Detroit in the 1950s.
As a teenager, Small had surgery for throat cancer caused by high doses of radiation given to him by his physician father for sinus problems. His parents didn’t tell him he had cancer, and he learned of it from a purloined letter. He discovered that his mother was a lesbian when he found her in bed with another woman and that his grandmother was insane when she set her house on fire.
Small blends real and imagined scenes as he describes these and other traumas in a book that fittingly bears many hallmarks of neo-gothics: a madwoman, night terrors, family secrets, a locked drawer, mysterious passageways, a church with pointed arches. He also nods to Alice in Wonderland through both words and pictures, including images of a psychiatrist-as-White-Rabbit who helps him burrow into his past and find redemption through art.
Working in pen-and-ink washed with black and white, Small has filled Stitches with artistically and psychologically rich illustrations that help to offset the limits of the weaker, solipsistic text. In his pictures he vividly shows the world from a child’s point of view, often by casting himself as a small figure looking up at adults whose eyes are obscured by glasses that suggest their inability to see him for who he is.
But Small writes from the point of view of an adult looking back on his childhood, which at times makes for subtle discontinuities between the images and words. The back matter suggests that he knows his mother comes across as a monster and that he became aware of some aspects of her grief only after she died. And yet countless writers have made you feel both their youthful sorrow and that of the parents who caused it.
The pain of unhappy housewives like Elizabeth Small was powerful enough to help launch the modern feminist movement. Hers must have been that much greater because she had the added burden of having to hide her sexual identity. But Stitches gives you little sense of that pain; you see its roots in her own upbringing, but you never feel it. Perhaps a sequel will capture more of the spirit of a quotation in Small’s afterword about his mother, which comes from the poet Edward Dahlberg, “Nobody heard her tears; the heart is a fountain of weeping water which makes no noise in the world.”
Ages: Stitches made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature, and some people questioned whether it belonged there or in an adult category. It’s a judgment call: This is a crossover book that may appeal both to mature teenagers and to adults who enjoy graphic novels and memoirs.
Best line/picture: No. 1: “Art became my home.” No. 2: In a review in the Washington Post, Michael Sims described one of the finest pictures in the book, which appears on the frontispiece and elsewhere: “The boy sits on the floor, on a sheet of drawing paper almost as large as he is. Crayons lie scattered nearby. He leans forward, resting the top of his head on the paper. Then he begins to literally sink through the floor, to disappear into the paper. A last kick of his legs reveals that he wasn’t sinking so much as joyously diving head-first into the world he created, leaving behind the world he was born into.”
Worst line/picture: “On the one hand, I felt the fear, humiliation and pain … While on the other, for reasons I could not quite understand, I felt that she was justified … and that I deserved everything I had gotten.” This passage supposedly describes Small’s feelings at the age of six but sounds more like something he worked out later in therapy. It is also involves telling rather than showing. Small doesn’t trust you to understand his feelings from his pictures, as he does in many other parts of the book, so he overelaborates here.
Published: September 2009
About the author: Small also wrote Imogene’s Antlers and illustrated Judith St. George’s So You Want to Be President?, which won the 2001 Caldecott Medal. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and other magazines. Born in 1945, he lives in Michigan.
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© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.