Review of the Day: Missouri Boy
The graphic novel memoir for adults has tentatively established itself as its own particular artform. Books like Marjane Satrapi’s, “Persepolis” or Joe Sacco’s “Palestine” carry with them the weight of their authors' personal histories alongside a much larger story. For kids, though, the graphic novel memoir has yet to really come into its own. Publishers so eager to embrace manga and two-dimensional storytelling shy away from kid tales attempting any kind of depth. Credit the good folks at First Second Books then with doing their part to change all that. Author Leland Myrick has tried his hand at a very personal story with the quietly moving, “Missouri Boy”. Following a boy as he grows to be a man, the book doesn’t offer as much insight or interpretation of Myrick’s experiences as I would have liked, but it does give the reader a very real series of slices of a single human being’s life.
He was born in 1961 alongside his twin brother just as his grandmother died. And from here on in the reader gets a series of brief glimpses of the author’s life growing up in Missouri. These are sometimes very simple moments. Creating paper airplanes that fly on winds that may not even exist anymore. The time he hid under a pile of leaves and his friends played a nasty trick on him. Hanging off a hospital parking structure to look up at the girls he likes. Other times the moments in this book would be of the sort we’d consider “important”. Witnessing his much older brother convicted of bank robbery and sent to serve ten years. Or not asking out the cute nurse at the hospital when he had the chance. It all works together. It all tells his story. It's life between the years of 1961 and 1985 that begins in the Missouri and ends in the greater world.
I liked very much that Myrick took the time to give each selection in this book its own separate title. The first of these, “Ghost Umbilical”, calls attention to the connection between Myrick's mother, bursting with life at her stomach, and his grandmother, dying of the bulge in hers. With expert skill Myrick is able to bring these two great moments in a human life together by saying, “Through a wispy umbilical of ectoplasm we didn’t even know we shared, arching between the living and the dead, connecting beginnings to ends, passing memories through the ether one belly to another”. “Underwear Pond”, in contrast, shows Leland and his friends in a swimming hole where they ritually tend to toss their underwear into the brackish depths before departing. There’s a little moment in this section where Myrick as a boy thinks of the pond in the future. “Imagining the day when the pond is sold away – And the new owners drain it … to find a solid coating of boy’s underwear”.
You might ask me why I thought this book was better suited for children rather than teens and adults. It’s a difficult question to answer. There is nothing in “Missouri Boy” that anyone could really count as “inappropriate” for children (with the possible exception of a section involving a hospital cadaver). And as an adult I appreciated what Myrick was able to say about the small moments that spelled out his time in Missouri. Still, there’s much in this story for kids to appreciate and love. Having a twin. Setting off firecrackers. Watching the first streak of gray hair appear on your father’s head. It’s slow but entirely comfortable. The illustrations themselves are not of a style I would normally seek out but they work beautifully within Myrick’s narratives.
As an author, Mr. Myrick is sparing of his words. This is not, by any means, a wordy novel and I’d never wish for it to be one. Still, I would have liked just a touch more connection between the disparate moments in the author’s life. We flash from age to age, from the seemingly inconsequential moment when his father buys an easy chair, to the time he helped with the full body x-ray of a crash victim. These are strong moments, but without any sense of continuity. As a result they feel almost too individual to hang together as a whole.
That said, it’s an excellent book. A definite keeper and a graphic novel appropriate for all children’s library collections everywhere. For those parents who see GNs only as superhero adventures or tales of malarky, try handing them Myrick’s quiet little book. It has the potential to win over a couple more fans to the side of the children’s graphic memoir.
Also check out Leland Myrick's website if you get a chance.