Stitches: a memoir
Author: David Small
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: September 2009
Lexile Level: n/a
The graphic novel Stitches: a memoir takes place in Detroit in the 1940s and 1950s. It is a snapshot of scenes from the life of the author, covering events of his childhood, teen years, and early adulthood. The artwork is entirely in black and white and is also done by Small. The book was a New York Times #1 bestseller and was named one of the ten best books of 2009 by Publishers Weekly. It was also awarded the YALSA Alex Award in 2010.
The book opens when David is six. He takes us through the family life, highlighting the language of each family member. Each form of communication is decidedly nonverbal, highlighting the strains of the family’s life. We see David visit his maternal grandparents, and the abuse that happens at the hands of his grandmother while he is there. However, we do also see the loving relationship that he has with his step-grandfather. Soon afterward, a family friend notices a growth on David’s neck, pointing it out to his mother. When asked if he will have to go to a doctor, his mother appears to be more concerned about the cost of such a venture than his health. As David’s father is a radiologist, many of their friends are also in the medical field. While visiting said friends on a yacht, one of the doctors examines David’s neck and advises a visit. The official diagnosis is that it is a cyst, and can be removed at their convenience. Again citing money worries, David’s mother puts off the operation.
However, we see that their family does not hurt for money, despite his mother’s protests, as she soon goes on a shopping spree with his father. The physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother becomes all too clear as the book progresses. This is especially clear in the fact that it takes more than three years after the initial diagnosis for the surgery to take place.
David is left almost completely mute following his operation. By the time we reach his late teen years, his mother’s abuse and her impact on him has become clear. Eventually, and after much trouble, David moves out, and eventually establishes himself as an artist.
There are a few twists in the book, which I won’t spoil here. As far as graphic novels go, this book is amazing. The artwork is simple, but effective. Small’s art appears to be something in the lines of a watercolor medium, and is entirely in black and white.
There is a lot of silence in this book, and it sets the atmosphere perfectly. The overall impression is of a family trapped by their own silence and inability to talk to each other. I do wish that we had gotten to see more of the brother, especially since the book is partially dedicated to him. With the exception of one scene, he is rarely in the book, and I would have liked to have more of a picture of David’s relationship with him. I’m curious as to if the abuse was focused on David, or if his brother was equally disliked by their mother.
Dreams are a heavy motif in the book, as is Alice in Wonderland symbolism. I thought that the therapist being portrayed as the White Rabbit was interesting, particularly given the comments at the end of the book in the acknowledgments, which credit the therapist with helping David regain his sense of self.
Overall, this is a very impressive piece of work. It is stark and realistic, even if the artwork is a little more cartoonish. The style reminded me of the Calvin and Hobbs artstrip, despite being in black and white. While the material is dark, it is a quick read, and well worth checking out.
If you liked Stitches: a memoir, check out Special Exists by Joyce Farmer, or Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell.