STITCHES: A MEMOIR
by David Small
W. W. Norton Company
(September 2010 paperback, $14.95, 329 pages)
In the well done graphic novel the story surpasses both words and illustrations. With Stitches, David Small brilliantly writes and illustrates such a graphic novel.
Stitches is a sad autobiographical tale of Small’s childhood in Detroit, Michigan in the 1950s and the bulk of it is drawn from the memory of boy from age 6 to 15. A child of a wretchedly unhappy home where furious silences speak louder than screaming fights, the reader enters a world in which a mother’s silent fury is realized by a cough, a slam of a cabinet or the placement of a fork on the dinner table. For reasons unknown to Small as a child, his mother sets the dour tone of the household for hours, days or weeks at a time.
The youngest son of a radiologist father and a 1950’s housewife mother, Small brilliantly illustrates the tale of his neglected youth as a byproduct of his parents miserably unhappy marriage. Because words are never assigned to the deep unhappiness that envelopes his childhood, each family member develops a language to process the frustration and anger. Small’s father beats a punching bag in the basement. His older brother Ted bangs on his drums. Small gets sick. Born an irritable baby prone to bouts of colic and respiratory illness, he gets home-treated with shots, medicine and enemas. Thanks to the marvels of 1950’s medicine he also receives multiple sessions of high dosage radiation therapy for his sinusitis, administered by his father.
A growth appears on Small’s neck at age 11. Brought to attention by a friend of his mother, it takes three years for his parents to actually pursue diagnosis and treatment. The growth turns out to be a malignant tumor due to the repeated radiation exposure. This truth he discoverers on his own rather than being told. He undergoes radical neck surgery. His right vocal chord is cut and he is left without a voice. The surgery leaves his, “smooth young throat slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot.” Small struggles to find a voice and to conquer the demons of his youth.
This is a jarring tale. However, it manages to avoid the maudlin pitfalls of the “survivor” who overcomes tragic odds. It does not make Small a stereotypical “hero” who conquers the demons of his past. These are the all-too predictable pitfalls in many graphic novels. Instead, this tale is a truthful look at a painful past. With insight, Stitches illustrates memories of place and time which take the reader into Small’s consciousness. At times whimsical and magical, then is suddenly devastatingly sad and harsh, Stitches is moving yet it is never burdened with self-pity, or miraculously, with spite.
Small’s ink lines and washes are masterful. His use of space and expression illustrate volumes of words that are never spoken. He perfectly captures adult expressions from the eyes and understanding of a child: his mother’s crushing fury, his father’s aloof distance, his grandmother’s inconceivable insanity, a disapproving and confused frown from his parents friends and the kind eyes of his psychiatrist. Minimal use of ink and dialogue paint the greater picture of Small’s vulnerability during his childhood. Small remarkably and exquisitely captures the essence of the time and place without imparting distorted feelings or superimposing adult interpretations. This cathartic memoir of deep, disturbing loss is ultimately a testament of acceptance, forgiveness and moving on.
– reviewed by Sweetman