Search View Archive

Happy Trails, Sort of

Stitches, by David Small, W.W. Norton (paperback 9/13/2010)
The Impostor's Daughter, by Laurie Sandell, Little, Brown and Company (paperback 7/12/2010)

The comics medium and the memoir genre are very well suited to each other. In no other genre is personal point of view so relevant, and no other medium is as adept (and adaptable) at depicting that point of view: not just what but how an author sees her world. The sequential nature of the images allows an author to show readers the events she remembers, but also the way she remembers the events; and a talented author can convey mood and tension, as well as setting and story in a single panel.

David Small’s memoir Stitches uses the wavering lines and streaks of watercolor paints, but it is devoid of color: a subtle palette of gray and black splotches incompletely filling, or drifting over pen lines. Each section is introduced with a blank, black page: a solid sheet of ink on which is written, in negative, the author’s age at the time of the events. The words work like an accusation: “I was 6.” Or: “I was 11,” so that you begin to feel the unfairness of the situation, and Small’s righteous anger even before you begin the story.

The black and white watercolor technique hearkens both to the early 50’s era, and to the grim nature of the setting and story, but the style is all his own: Detroit cityscapes and household backgrounds are blurred, impressionistic, and Small uses rough pen strokes and hard shifts in shades of gray to evoke his world. When something suddenly appears in detail—the look on a face, or the book’s titular stitches scrawled across the boy’s neck—it marks how clearly the moment stands out in Small’s memory. The effect is striking enough to make it stand out in the reader’s as well.

The writing in Stitches is often sparse—conversations are clipped, narration is terse, and a reader might read two or three pages of panels before a word graces the page. The appropriateness of this is hard to overstate. Stitches depicts a household in which everything important is left unsaid. His mother speaks in furious silences and slammed cupboards. His father, constantly chewing on a pipe, either utters doctoral harumphs, or stentorian pronouncements that explain nothing. The only sound his brother makes comes from banging drums. And as Small writes of his own communication methods: “Getting sick. That was my language.”

Much of the book is, in fact, about sickness: Small’s journey to physical (and emotional) well-being dominates the book, but there is room also for the physical and mental illnesses of different members of his family. He is born with severe sinus problems and his radiologist father, following the science of the times, treats him with regular doses of x-radiation. When he reaches puberty, Small develops a growth on his neck—a cancer from the radiation, though it is dismissed at first as a “sebaceous cyst” and left untreated for years. When they finally take him in to get it removed, and the extent of the disease is understood, they take out his thyroid gland and one of his vocal chords. He wakes up nearly unable to speak. At no point do his parents offer an explanation, and Small must find out that he had cancer on his own.

“You didn’t need to know anything then, and you don’t need to know about it now,” his father announces when finally confronted. Much of the rest of the book involves Small’s efforts to come to terms with this, why his parents did this, and how he might deal with it. Perhaps more stunningly, Small’s tumor is not the only unspoken problem in Small’s family, nor is it the only medical illness.

Still, the book is primarily about Small, his illness, and how he learns, or relearns to speak. At first his remaining vocal chord allows him only to say “ack,” but soon he’s able to whisper. More or less forced to be quiet, he searches for ways to make himself heard. At first these are relatively unhealthy. He steals the car. He runs away. But eventually he meets a therapist, and begins to make his life into something livable. And his voice, both physically and psychologically, grows stronger.

This is the rare memoir that feels necessary. It’s clear that for Small, who has written and illustrated children’s books for 30 years, won Caldecott medals and worked with the likes of Beverly Cleary and Ted Kennedy, that this intimate, personal story is the culmination in a lifetime of learning to speak up, to fight the dangerous silences of his childhood. But the book is necessary for readers as well. Stitches is a tightly-written, powerful story about the ways that keeping quiet (about needs, about fears, about culpability) can threaten, even destroy families. And Small’s artistry with monochrome and terse dialogue is a strong reminder of how a child’s  whisper can be more powerful, at times, than the loudest of screams.

In contrast to Small’s stark, delicate work, Laurie Sandell, a contributing editor at Glamour magazine, has dragged her brush over every watercolor block in the palette for her bright, lengthy memoir, The Impostor’s Daughter. If Stitches centers on the isolations of silence, Impostor’s Daughter brims with colorful discourse. The book begins with Sandell’s father William, a loquacious professor of economics from Argentina, and her greatest hero. Sandell grows up fascinated by her dad’s ability to do anything, the great number of books he’s read, the wild, passionate lectures he gives in his classes, and the many adventures in his mysterious past. When she finds a box of medals in the attic her father regales her with tales of his heroism in the Argentine army. In his office, she stares lovingly at the academic degrees posted on his wall: NYU, Columbia, Stanford. He goes on long, mysterious trips and comes back with Mayan swords, as well as stories of jungle adventures and giant diamonds.

But there are troubling indications that her father has a less than ideal relationship with the truth.  He takes phone calls and receives mail under a variety of assumed identities. “But there is no Stoneman College,” a young Laurie tells her dad. “Aha! You know that, and I know that, but they don’t know that!” her dad replies. In addition, “helping” with her homework involves him finishing her science projects, and writing her papers, so she can get good grades. When she becomes a Girl Scout, he purchases a box of patches and buttons to affix to her sash, and when she hesitantly offers that perhaps she’s supposed to earn them, he responds that she’s already earned them.

The tales he tells of duels in Argentina, business meetings with Bill Gates, tours of duty in Vietnam, seem impossibly adventurous. Eventually, of course, her suspicions lead her to begin checking up on him and the extent of her father’s fraudulence becomes clear. At college, she discovers that he has been maxing out credit cards in her name. She frets, she spends years in denial. Eventually she calls around: Universities have no records of his attendance. Old friends and neighbors accuse him of having cheated them out of money, just before they moved. She finds love letters he’s written to other women. Determined to discover the truth, she takes a trip to Argentina to visit his estranged sister and finds that, far from being a war hero, he escaped the country as an army deserter.

But when she confronts him, her accusations get her nowhere: there are more stories, evasions, lies, manipulations. He’s in the middle of something big. There are important people involved. If she makes what she knows public, he can’t be responsible for the outcome. Though genial, and well-liked by many people, her father appears to be incapable of presenting anyone with an honest face.

But as with Stitches, Impostor’s Daughter isn’t really about the parents, it’s about the memoirist herself. As she grows up wrapped in the glamour of her father’s adventurous life, the combination of fascination and disillusionment have interesting effects on Sandell’s choices. Graduating from college, she runs away and spends four years travelling around the world: to Israel, Japan, India, Egypt, Thailand. She throws herself into potentially dangerous situations, experiments morally, sexually, and socially. Dissatisfied, she returns to America and puts her interest in ostentation and the listening skills she developed at her father’s knee to work as a journalist writing about and interviewing famous actors and actresses.

As an illustrator, Sandell is not nearly the artist that Small is, and Impostor’s Daughter is marked by a flat style, solid tones, and affectless faces. She compensates for this with high-paced, well-detailed writing, and labeling for any- and everything that might need explanation. Still, she relies heavily on the establishing shot/mid-range shot/close-up format, and visually, the book feels staid and repetitive.

But there is much about her drawing that gives the reader insight into Sandell’s point of view.  She is clearly fascinated by surface and appearance, and the book’s variety of color and cheery design create a warm, friendly atmosphere that plays well against the giant, mythic lives of both Sandell’s father, and the celebrity interviews she speaks about.

The book is not as tightly written or organized as Stitches. Though much of it is about Sandell’s relationship with her father and her concerns with truth, she also covers a burgeoning career at Glamour which puts her in contact with celebrities like Ashley Judd and Sarah Jessica Parker. The second half of the book includes a long piece about a difficult relationship that meanders both for the participants and for the reader.

There’s also an ancillary, relatively typical bit about alcohol/Ambien abuse and recovery. This storyline has potential to be important—as the “impostor’s daughter” Sandell clearly wants to draw connections between the lies she told to herself about her drug use, and the lies her father told, but the connections don’t seem clear to her, or she doesn’t make them clear in the book.

Still, The Impostor’s Daughter is an interesting story by a garrulous writer, who uses her skills—charm, cheer, conviviality—much to her advantage. If the story were as tersely told or finely crafted as Stitches, it would not speak as clearly to the story’s motifs of flashy talk, and charm. Nor would the book speak to Sandell’s obviously engaging personality, one that has won her such success.


Christopher Michel

CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

All Issues