Prominent picture-book illustrator Small (Imogene’s Antlers, 2013, etc.) follows up his critically acclaimed 2009 graphic memoir, Stitches, with another look into the turmoil of adolescence in 1950s America.
Russell is a sensitive, introspective boy of 13, which makes him easy prey for life’s everyday brutalities. After his parents divorce, he heads from Ohio to California with his Korean War veteran father—a man who dismisses his son’s concern over a stray puppy in a motel parking lot (said puppy is then struck down by a semi on a lonely stretch of highway). The Golden State doesn’t prove to be the land of opportunity that Russell’s father had hoped it would be, exposing Russell to xenophobia, animal mutilation, and abandonment. As Russell navigates life in a small, “Anywhere, U.S.A.” town in Northern California, his greatest challenges arise through the relationships he develops—with his alcoholic father, with an outcast classmate who helps him elude bullies but exposes him to odd rituals, with the clique he forms with two roughhousing friends, one of whom is particularly good at pushing buttons in a bad-boy, alpha-male way. Russell struggles to understand himself and his place in the world and along the way makes regrettable decisions, sometimes tinged with violence, so the inexplicable kindness and charity of an older immigrant couple proves particularly vexing to the boy. Small is a master storyteller, moving the tale swiftly through pages with a wonderful array of panels, many of which are wordless or have just a choice bit of dialogue or narration; his illustrations—emotive, kinetic, with a striking balance of realism and cartoon and particularly arresting facial expressions—speak volumes. Grappling with questions of identity and society, the story has the authenticity and ache of universal experience—filtered through the singular eye of a visionary.
Powerful and profound.