Occasionally, I’ll run into someone who will say they avoid sad works of art. “I just altogether skip movies with sad endings” is but one example.
I definitely have days when I choose Mount Carmel over Laura Marling and Raising Arizona over Cast Away. But to avoid any heartbreak whatsoever is something I don’t comprehend. Sometimes the beauty in a more somber work of art can actually make me feel better about the world. The notion that someone thoughtful captured it, assuming they did so with grace and subtlety, can sometimes bring insight as to what it means to be humans on this mad planet.
Stein Erik Lunde’s My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, illustrated by Øyvind Torseter, is such a book. It’s very sad. It nearly throbs with tenderness, the kind that exists in a newly inflicted wound, yet it ultimately fills the reader with a sense of promise, that we can maneuver our way through desolation if we lean on those we love.
First, let me give you the basics here: This picture book import comes to us by way of Enchanted Lion Books and will be released next month. Originally published in Norwegian in 2008, My Father’s Arms Are a Boat is translated by Kari Dickson for this first American edition. It’s the story of a young boy and his father who are trying to make some sense of the fresh grief inhabiting their home. The boy’s mother has died.
Mind you, their prodigious loss is something the reader eases into and discovers bit by bit. “My dad isn’t listening to the radio,” the book opens. The stillness is vast, as depicted in the artwork. One tiny bed, constructed from paper, sits alone in a giant white space, but with shadows looming. The boy leaves his bedroom door ajar so “that your dreams can come out to me,” his father tells him, the only sound in the room the crackling fire. “It’s quieter now than it’s ever been,” the boy adds.
The boy and his father plan to chop down a spruce tree, the boy wondering if the red birds have eaten the bread they left out. He frets: What if the fox has eaten it all? “Everything will be all right,” his father tells him. Then, our first substantial hint as to what has transpired: “Granny says the red birds are dead people,” the boy says. On the next page: “’Is Mommy asleep?’ I ask. ‘Mommy’s asleep,’ says Daddy. ‘She’ll never wake up again?’ I ask. ‘No, not where she is now.’”
I had coffee this week with two friends who also enjoy picture books. I happened to have this on hand, and we pored over it, discussing the writing and illusrations. One friend thought that describing the mother as asleep was vague, even amiss. Will children think that, if they fall asleep, they may not wake? The same thought had occurred to me. However, I recalled that Maurice Sendak once said about death, “I think the most graceful thing offered us is sleep without dreams.” I find that to be a beautiful (and sensible) idea of death, I told them. But would I tell a child that? I don’t know. It’s a line I still chew on in this book.
We also discussed the many instances of physicality in the text, also often depicted in the illustrations. “… I climb onto [Daddy’s] lap. He puts both his arms tight under my knees,” the boy says. “My body is curled up like a ball. I rest my head against his shoulder. My cheek is against Daddy’s cheek, close to his breathing.” Later, “he lifts me up so I’m lying on my back in his arms. My bottom hangs down.” There’s also the title, which comes from: “I look at the moon that looks like a boat. My dad’s arms are like a boat, too.”
Indeed. Leaning on one another, in more ways than one, is their best chance for surviving the silence, the heartache. This is tight, emotionally taut writing. It’s moving and entirely absent of sentimentality.
Torseter not only uses 3D paper constructions; he also populates the spreads with flat drawings and occasional paint, though most of this is stark and filled with open space, fitting the book’s tone. Many outdoor spreads, striking in their lack of detail, emphasize the duo’s loneliness with their distance from readers, as if we’re standing far away from the scene, which is then balanced by more intricate indoor scenes. In one of the final spreads, we’re treated to a warm, reassuring splash of red, telling us this family will be okay in the end. As a cut-paper artist with whom I was discussing this book noted, sometimes Torseter doesn't crop out the raw edges, giving readers a sense of how the illustration was made. Perhaps this is to give us space to breathe, just as the boy and the father are attempting to do.
Raw but hopeful. Spare and beautiful. Definitely thought-provoking. It’s not often we see picture books like this, ones unafraid to be contemplative. Or even sad.
MY FATHER’S ARMS ARE A BOAT. First American edition © 2012 by Enchanted Lion Books. Text © Stein Erik Lunde. Translation © 2012 Enchanted Lion Books. Illustration © Øyvind Torseter. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.