Review: Stitches

18 Aug

I read David Small’s Stitches a while ago. In fact I promised a review much earlier than this. Life got in the way, but that’s not really the reason I didn’t post this sooner.

I read Stitches and then I read it a second time about a week later. And then a third. And a fourth. And now I’ve lost count. Because I’ve been picking it up every few weeks or so, flipping through the pages and just looking at the illustrations. I know the story now, so I don’t necessarily need to read the text again, but the illustrations are what I’m drawn to.

When I first read this graphic memoir, about Small’s horrendous childhood and injustices done to him by his parents, I’ll be honest, I didn’t really get it. No, wait. That’s not entirely true. I didn’t get why people were falling all over themselves over this book. I’d heard that after reading this admitedly beautifully drawn story, people were sobbing and outraged.

That’s not entirely what my reaction was. On my first reading, I was heartbroken. Sad. But not all that up-in-arms. Children are brutalized by their parents all the time. No joke, that was my first thought. And realizing that this was my first thought made me even more heartbroken. The New York Times wrote an excellent article that is linked here, but they give a great synopsis:

Roughly a half century ago, when Mr. Small was 14, he underwent an operation his parents told him was to remove a cyst in his neck but which he discovered by chance had been throat cancer. The surgery left him without one of his vocal cords or his thyroid gland. And, for nearly a decade, he couldn’t speak above a hoarse whisper.

The matter of young David’s cancer was not discussed in the Smalls’ Detroit house except for a brief occasion a year after the operation. His father, an aloof and withholding radiologist, attempted to unburden himself of the knowledge that the extensive radiation treatments he had performed on his son had caused the cancer. “In those days we gave any kid born with breathing difficulty X-rays,” his father confesses in the book. “Two to four hundred rads. I gave you cancer.”

It’s shocking isn’t it? I know. I can’t imagine my parents doing this to me. But that brutality seemed inevitable in the depressing world of a family life that David lived in. I finished the book, and I admit that I felt guilty that I wasn’t more up-in-arms over this story though. I read it like I read most others. I was moved, but not to tears. And I put off writing this review because I felt bad that I didn’t feel worse. I’ve only really read the story itself once through.

But like I said, I keep going back to the illustrations. Small is a children’s book author — or at least he was classified so before this memoir. And I read this book right after completing a course in Children’s Picturebooks. So I was learning how to read those pictures differently.

I liked the story. I liked Small’s language and the way he used short clipped sentences and really drove home how lost he was and how alone. But man. Those illustrations are why I kept coming back to the book. I’m glad I bought this from the beginning, because I’ve been able to gather so much more from it with every re-read.

I admit though that it took me some time to feel passionately about the book. I’m still not sure if I get it quite as much as some people — I still haven’t cried. But I do get very sad when I think about how not only he suffered, but about how much his whole family suffered. Yes, he was victimized at the hands of his parents — abused in a very unconventional kind of way — but they all were locked into a situation that was detrimental and depressing, with little way out.

For me, this is a must-read kind of book. But with caveat. You’ve got to read it multiple times. It’s strength is letting it get under your skin and allowing the sparse language and stark illustrations to work their magic. Maybe it’s just me, but this reminded me stylistically of The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Speigelman, in illustrations. And also very much of My Lobotomy by Howard Dully in context and content. Both books are worth checking out, but let me just say that as someone who doesn’t read graphic novels on the regular, I really love this book, even if it took some time to get there.

Click on the images at the right for larger versions.


3 Responses to “Review: Stitches”

  1. Lori (TNBBC) August 18, 2010 at 8:56 am #

    Hi Rachel! I have wanted to read this graphic novel for the longest time! Have you seen the trailer for it? Creepy and intriguing. I like how candid you are about the reading process, and questioning yourself for not liking it or getting more upset by it in beginning.

    Great review!

  2. Amy August 18, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    This was the book that finally made a graphic-novel fan of me. The illustrations are really amazing.

  3. Julie August 19, 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    I really liked this one as well! I was planning to re-sell it, but I may just have to pick it up for a re-read after your post!

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