Craig Thompson apparently wrote a book for children. It is also for children. But it appeals more to grown-ups, because it spans life, simply, all ages.
In a small provincial town, Chunky Rice, the turtle, leaves his best friend deermouse Dandel back home, while setting out on the sea to see the world, destination: the Kahootney islands. His kindhearted and feeble-minded neighbor Solomon shows him a little bird (Merle) whom he found injured, then helps Chunky with the boxes down to the harbor to his brother Charles’ boat. Charles asks 200 dollars boarding fee and obliges Chunky to leave his lamp, dishes and disks behind and take only his backpack aboard.
On the boat Chunky meets Livonia and Ruth, a pair of funny-looking but comic Siamese sisters: they share the heads and the bodies. When one smokes, the other coughs. They are on their way somewhere to a new career for Ruth, but we are not told what that is. Meanwhile Dandel misses Chunky so much that she searches across the town for as many bottles as possible to launch messages at sea for him.
Solomon’s birdie, Merle, grows feathers on her wings again and flies happily to freedom, while he falls very sad, finding himself alone and desolate once more. However, Merle returns and Solomon becomes joyful again at the re-encounter. He is the most endearing character of the book and I couldn’t help feeling deeply sorry and tender towards his early unhappiness.
On the boat we see the passengers having fish dinner served by Eleanor, Charles’ mistress, then being hit by a storm, when Charles seems to feel thirsty with the passion of feeling alive, fighting with the sea, making best use of his sailor skills. When the storm ceases, Chunky and Charles stay on the deck and think about beauty and journeys, while the graphic perspective changes to Dandel who says “There is no Good-Bye, Chunky Rice”.
I was particularly drawn to Captain Charles, being he is a character who puzzles us from the beginning. At first we think he is mean, selfish and frivolous, seeking to take advantage of everybody, while toward the end of the book he becomes a sort of emotional Ahab of Melville, uttering nearly philosophical phrases such as “I love the sea because it is BOUNDLESS”. This, combined with the faces he makes in the book, depicts a sullen character in desperate need of loving or care and comfort. We realize that he was also not loved by their Paw but he learned to cope differently with the pain caused, becoming tough and seemingly lacking empathy.
Memory is the pregnant theme of the graphic novel. It is preserved through symbols such as messages in bottles, the sea, and through plot tools such as intercalation of moments in time. We are several times taken back in time so we can understand the characters from some meaningful point in their past.
One aspect not obvious at first sight is that the author takes care to show us that, contrary to the black and white drawings, nothing or nobody is actually just black and white. They all carry hues and nuances. Charles becomes sympathetic and forgivable, we understand he went through the terrible loss of his wife, Solomon is very simple-minded and kind but somehow we can’t help feeling uneasy that he killed Stomper’s puppies at the behest of his father, Dandel is caring but she doesn’t really take any step farther than her limits, Chunky is active and hungry for “something different” but not terribly witty, and the sisters best exemplify false appearances: in spite of their slightly unsightly appearance, they are kindhearted, funny and childish (Livonia falls asleep with a teddy bear).
Extrapolating just a little, this is also a story of abuse and loss. Abuse of children by inadequate education and domestic violence (see Solomon’s undeveloped language, emotional fears of loneliness and past bullying by his father, brother and other kids). All the characters lose something or somebody, even Stomper loses her puppies. Overcoming these wounds takes time and learning to observe beauty around you and in others or having simple joys: Solomon loves animals and caring for them, Dandel overcomes the rupture by becoming creative and admiring the beauty of the ocean, Charles allows himself deep feelings for the sea while mourning over his former wife Glenda who “understood that”, and Livonia and Ruth overcome their condition by simply enjoying small pleasures like sunbathing, smoking, drinking, interacting with others. Like any apparently unimportant elements in writing, these details or “character realities” translate into larger powerful symbols.
And everything is wrapped in the sea background, as the waves set friends apart but also bring them close again. This edition’s 125 pages are a great and entertaining lesson for children and adults alike, a colorful non-discriminatory story of friendship, kindness, courage and helpless compassion. A story of optimism and strength, which we all need in life to succeed and… become.