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March 25, 2014

CanLit Companions: Prairie Ostrich and Jane The Fox and Me

jane-the-fox-and-meAs if Jane, The Fox, and Me needed another endorsement. Winner of a Governor-General’s Award for Illustration, included on many year-end Best Of lists, including The New York Times’. But I walked into Little Island Comics on Saturday to finally buy a copy, and when I asked for it at the counter, the other children in the store starting raving. “It’s the best book ever,” one of them told me, so if I’d ever had any doubt…

The star of this show is the illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault, which recall her gorgeous drawings from Virginia Wolf. The story, by Franny Britt and translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou, is about a young girl, Helene, who seeks solace from her tormentors within the pages of a book: Jane Eyre. And here, Arnseault’s images are lush, defined and richly coloured. Whereas, in the panels of her life, lines are rough, darkly shaded, bare-treed and dull. Helene is on the outs with girls who’d once been her friends, as is ever the way, and both the text and images capture her sense of being totally alone. The bullying is unrelenting (an amazingly, so pointedly hurtful and careless and stupid at the exact same time), Helene powerless against it, even more so when she’s made to join her classmates on a trip to a wilderness camp. Things get worse before they get better, but a curious encounter with a fox shifts everything, and then Helene makes a real friends, colour slowly returning to her world.

prairie-ostrichI read it as I was reading Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi, whose cover design is so stunning that the book does not seem so far apart from a graphic novel. (Full disclosure! Prairie Ostrich is published by Goose Lane, which also publishes The M Word.) Kobayashi’s Egg is younger than Helene–7 or 8-years-old–but just as alienated from her world. On their ostrich farm in the Alberta Badlands, Egg’s is the only Japanese family on the prairie in the 1970s, her parents’ painful pasts from WW2 refusing to stay buried. But the past has got nothing on the present, in which the family has been torn apart since elder brother Albert’s death under mysterious circumstances a few months before. Her father has taken to sleeping in the barn, her mother seeking solace in booze, and her sister Kathy’s close friendship with another girl is raising eyebrows in their small town. Egg doesn’t understand the disarray she’s witnessing and, like Helene, takes solace in books, though she prefers the dictionary and books of facts over fiction, because fiction is so slippery. She likes the illusion of order which the dictionary offers to the world, and she likes other illusions too, like the alternative ending to The Diary of Anne Frank, which her sister reads to her, in which Anne survives and travels to a new life in America.

Such a young protagonist in an adult novel is a tricky thing, which Kobayashi succeeds at by making Egg quite precocious (though she is very much the opposite in other essential ways, much to her social detriment). Egg is also provided with abundant material to filter through her point of view, small towns being good for such things. There were a few moments in which as a reader, I could glimpse the author above the story, busily pulling on strings, but in general, I was taken with this story, with its pop culture allusions and as a testament to how we bury ourselves in books (and escape recess by hiding in the library—who hasn’t been there?).

Both Prairie Ostrich and Jane, the Fox and Me are books whose appeal extends between age groups, and which offer thoughtful, emphatic perspectives on everybody’s favourite buzzword, bullying. They’re books about the books that save us, about the fictional worlds we so need when we’re young in which we’re free to dream ourselves.

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