Small town blues in 50s Amer­ica

David Small’s tale of a sad, iso­lated teenager is timely in the age of Trump, writes Rachel Cooke

The Observer - The New Review - - Books -

Q: Which books can help my 10-year-old daugh­ter nav­i­gate her feel­ings of low self-es­teem and not fit­ting in at school?

Joanne Phillips, 48, writer, in­dexer and sin­gle mum

Fiona No­ble, chil­dren’s book re­viewer for the writes: On the cusp of se­condary school and pu­berty, 10 can be a chal­leng­ing time, and books of­fer chil­dren a safe place to ex­plore these emo­tions. In the award-win­ning Roller Girl by Vic­to­ria Jamieson (pic­tured), 12-year-old Astrid faces the tough­est summer of her life when she and her best friend be­gin to

Home Af­ter Dark David Small

Liveright, £19.99, pp396

When his mother runs off with lo­cal foot­ball star Ol­lie “Ac­tion” Jack­son, Rus­sell Pruitt, 13, finds him­self alone with his fa­ther, Mike, a hard-drink­ing vet­eran of the Korean war who re­gards feel­ings as the exclusive pre­serve of sissies. Poleaxed by his di­vorce, though he would rather die than ad­mit it, Mike packs up the fam­ily house in Youngstown, Ohio, and he and his son head for Cal­i­for­nia where he hopes to es­tab­lish a new life close to his sis­ter, Rus­sell’s Aunt June.

Un­for­tu­nately, things don’t quite go to plan. As June points out, even with the help of the GI Bill, prop­erty in swanky south­ern Cal­i­for­nia drift apart. Sign­ing up for roller derby camp is a gamechanger.

This sparky, in­spi­ra­tional graphic novel is full of wis­dom and heart, cap­tur­ing the com­plex­i­ties of grow­ing up, self-dis­cov­ery and cop­ing with change. The set­ting may be Amer­i­can, but themes of em­pow­er­ment and per­se­ver­ance will have univer­sal res­o­nance.

Cath Howe’s back­ground as a pri­mary school­teacher brings in­sight and au­then­tic char­ac­ters to her well-ob­served de­but, Ella on the Out­side. Ella has moved to a new town and is thrilled when school queen bee Ly­dia be­friends her. But Ly­dia, it seems, has an is far be­yond Mike’s means; he and Rus­sell have no choice but to drive north, wind­ing up at a town called Marsh­field, where they rent a room from a Chi­nese cou­ple, the Mahs. Marsh­field isn’t only un­pre­pos­sess­ing, it’s sin­is­ter, too – a se­rial killer of an­i­mals is on the loose, the kind of bru­tal fiend who hangs puppies from chain-link fences. At school, Rus­sell strug­gles to fit in. The other boys are bul­lies, boast­ful and ho­mo­pho­bic. At home, he’s aban­doned, his fa­ther hav­ing taken a job teach­ing English in San Quentin pri­son. Only the Mahs are kind to him.

The il­lus­tra­tor David Small is best known as the author of the ac­claimed Stitches, a 2009 mem­oir of a child­hood dur­ing which he con­tracted cancer (and for which ul­te­rior mo­tive and Ella be­comes tan­gled in a web of se­crets, lies and peer pres­sure. Howe poignantly chron­i­cles Ella’s strug­gle with anx­i­ety and self-es­teem and is he was short­listed for a Na­tional Book award in the US). His new book, Home Af­ter Dark, is a work of fic­tion, but like Stitches, its pri­mary sub­ject is voice­less­ness: nei­ther Rus­sell, nor his fa­ther, nor any of the men or boys they meet is able fully to vo­calise their emo­tions, a state of af­fairs that will have grave con­se­quences for them all. The set­ting is 1950s small-town Amer­ica: this is Pey­ton Place as seen through the eyes of a con­fused teenager. How­ever, af­ter al­most a decade in the mak­ing, it comes to us with added res­o­nance. In the age of Trump, anger is all about; the other gets the blame for al­most ev­ery­thing.

But Small isn’t re­ally a words guy. All of the power of Home Af­ter Dark lies with his metic­u­lous pen and wa­ter­proof ink draw­ings (af­ter three years’ work and 12 re­vi­sions, he re­drew all 400 pages by hand, un­happy with the way his washes looked on the orig­i­nal card he’d used). Among his in­flu­ences, be­sides the work of Egon Schiele, which he loved as a younger man, are directors such as Hitch­cock, Polan­ski, Bergman and An­to­nioni, and his ex­quis­ite hold­ing shots, stun­ning close­ups and ex­tended silent se­quences do bring the movies im­me­di­ately to mind; at times, you fancy you might al­most hear the whirr of the pro­jec­tor.

From them, too, he has bor­rowed, or learned, a cer­tain emo­tional hon­esty. While an­other artist might not have been able to re­sist giv­ing his story a happy end­ing, Small doesn’t quite go there. He is never sen­ti­men­tal. In Marsh­field, Rus­sell learns some hard lessons. But at the book’s end, he’s still just a mixed-up kid. Even as some small mea­sure of hap­pi­ness may now be about to come his way, saint­li­ness is clearly go­ing to elude him a while yet. ex­cel­lent on friend­ship dy­nam­ics and mak­ing the right choices.

Fi­nally, chil­dren’s non­fic­tion is full of books de­signed to in­spire and em­power, from Good Night Sto­ries for Rebel Girls to Fan­tas­ti­cally Great Women Who Changed the World. You Are Awe­some by Matthew Syed, mean­while, ex­am­ines peo­ple, from Mozart to Ser­ena Wil­liams, who achieved their po­ten­tial through hard work and re­silience. A prac­ti­cal, mo­ti­va­tional ap­proach to build­ing con­fi­dence.

Sub­mit your ques­tion for Book Clinic at gu.com/book-clinic-ques­tions or email book­clinic@ob­server.co.uk

The power of Home Af­ter Dark lies with David Small’s metic­u­lous pen and wa­ter­proof ink draw­ings. WW Nor­ton

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