Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, _Jane, the Fox, and Me_ (trans. Christine Morelli and Susan Ouriou)

A GRAPHIC NOVEL marketed for young readers, apparently, but you could have fooled me. As novels for young readers go, it comes awfully close to the bone. Our heroine, Hélène, lives in a city in Francophone Canada, is about thirteen, thinks she is fat, and has been cut socially and turned into a butt of ridicule by her former friends. Her dresses are homemade. When her class goes on a weekend cabin, she ends up in the outcast cabin, each outcast in her own dead zone of loneliness.

This is all rendered in faint lines and nearly colorless washes. Hélène always seems to be looking for the place in the panel where she can hide.

She does have some sources of support, though. Her mother, even though she has put in a full day at work and a full evening cooking and cleaning, is willing to stay up much of the night making her a crinoline dress. And Hélène is reading Jane Eyre.

What is it about Jane Eyre? This fall I taught it in a regular course for the first time.  Even though I had been through it two or three times over the years with students who were doing individual special projects, I was not at all prepared for what happened.

In most literature classes these days, there are more women than men, but in this class the margin was wide, nineteen to five, and teaching Jane Eyre was like...I've never surfed, but it was like what I imagine surfing might be, being borne by a giant wave, lifted by a force that by careful balance you can just manage to stay on the leading edge of. Not everyone loved the book, but everyone cared about it, and it was easy to see how the novel could be, for a tempest-tossed adolescent like Hélène, a life-raft.

Other sources of support arrive for Hélène. There is the fox, who wanders out of the woods for a brief moment of communion with her, and more crucially there is Géraldine, who wanders into the outcasts' cabin (having been exiled from the cool girls' cabin) and instantly, without even seeming to try, creates a bond among the outcasts and a sense of budding possibility.

So things do work out--still, this graphic novel is so chillingly accurate about the swift and inexplicably cruelty of children (cf. Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye) that I would think twice about giving it to anyone under sixteen. Think twice, then perhaps give it anyway, since it is also accurate about the power of a great novel.

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