A Canadian Magnolia? – a review of Essex County: The Country Nurse

Essex County is full of simple people.  They’re farmers, nurses and, occasionally, retired hockey players.  They’re young and old.  Basically,they’re good people who are trying to live as good of a life as possible.  Sure life isn’t always fair to them and they don’t make the best choices but they are trying.  Doesn’t that count for something?

Country Nurse is the third volume of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy and is the key to everything.  The two previous volumes, Tales From the Farm and Ghost Stories, still stand perfectly fine on their own.  Without the concluding chapter, both still are two of the best books of 2007 with their own tales of dysfunctional and disintegrating families.  With the latest and concluding chapter, Country Nurse, Lemire brings all of the themes, characters and histories together sublimely as the tale jumps from now back to the early 1900s and back again.

The country nurse of the book is Anne Queeneville, a character who was seen in a small supporting role in Ghost Stories and who actually had an unseen background role in the first book.  Anne is a matriarch of Essex County, or at least of a small group of citizens, as she tries to repair relationships, bring families together and just help strengthen the bonds between people while her own family has fallen apart.  Her husband died years ago and her only son uses her home as merely a place to crash at the end (or sometimes the beginning) of the day.  Her home life is only herself, her quilts and her radio.  As a country nurse, travelling from home to home and patient to patient, Anne can try to heal those under her care emotionally as well as physically.  In fact, she probably spends more time on the emotional health of everyone else.

Anne’s story is contrasted by the story of Sister Margaret, a nun in the early 1900s Essex county who’s in charge of an orphange.  Reading this part of the story takes a few pages to figure out because Sister Margaret looks remarkably like Anne and an orphan, Lawrence, looks a lot like Lester, the boy from Tales from the Farm, who also has a small but prominent role in this book.  The strong likenesses are important and you have to pay attention to them.  There is more happening here than just similar appearances but all is not made clear until you’ve hit the end of the story.

Both Anne and Sister Margaret bind together the entire story that Lemire is telling over the three volumes.  These two strong characters care for and protect their charges; Anne’s patients and Margaret’s orphans.  While none of the characters in their lives are their own sons, the two are mothers to everyone.  They are both mothers to characters who don’t have or have lost their mothers.  The first two books focused on stories of how men relate to each other and drives them apart but The Country Nurse looks at how a mother-figure brings everyone together.  The alienation and detachment of the first two books has been replaced by a feeling that we all belong together and should actually have the hope of finding a family.

Lemire pushes his storytelling in this book.  His swollen nose and expressive, clay-like characters have always been the strong point of his cartooning but he pushes himself quite a bit with this book, particularly the last 15-20 pages where he brings to two time periods of the book together, thematically and visually bringing everything to everything together.  He doesn’t rush into the ending but lingers on certain visual elements, such as what’s turned out to be an ever present bird flying through the sky.  As the bird drifts into and mainly out of the story, Lemire gives the reader the chance to think a bit about his story, to ruminate on the characters and their lifes before actually finishing the story.

If the first two books were fairly straight-forward tales about families and the walls we put up between each other, The Country Nurse tears those walls down using equal parts poetry, metaphor and history.  Lemire shows us how the past informs the future as he uses the story of the nun and orphanage to show the connectivity of life and family lines.  In the same way, this book can also inform the first two Essex County books as this one clearly defines the true family relationships of all the characters from all three books.  After finishing The Country Nurse, I had to flip through the first two volumes to look for hints and foreshadowing for some of the revelations in the new book.  The two earlier books, particularly Tales From The Farm, take on a different meaning after you read The Country Nurse.

Essex County Vol.3: The Country Nurse
Written and Drawn by: Jeff Lemire

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