Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Review: The Squirrel Mother Stories

With characters drawn in clean, cartoony lines and colored in soft pastels, you might think Megan Kelso’s comic strips would sit comfortably on the Sunday Funnies page somewhere between Cathy and Family Circus. But her new book The Squirrel Mother Stories collects comics of a different variety. Not different so much because Kelso tackles more serious subjects, delivers thoughtful dialogue, or creates memorable characters. While she certainly does all of these things Kelso’s real skill lies in the way she lets her stories grow seemingly on their own. Instead of ending each tale with a sudden quip or an obvious “Aha!” moment, these fourteen stories, ranging from fiction to memoir to historical essay, build slowly, panel by panel. You are never quite sure which direction she’s going, but when Kelso gets you to the last panel everything suddenly makes sense.

“Meow Face”, for example, shows us how the heart-wrenching story of a young girl being purposefully locked out of the house by her own aunt becomes the singular moment that defines the girl’s adult life. Two separate but related pieces---“Publius” and “The Duel”---start out as simple character studies of historical figures like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, but develop into thoughtful explorations on not just our history but where society is now.

The complexity and depth Kelso delivers in such a small space puts her writing more in the league of short story authors like Alice Munro. Her approach can be a little too subtle at times(I had to read some of the tales a couple of times to fully get what was going on). The point of her tales can be a bit difficult to follow for anyone just looking for a fun read, but those readers willing to dig into the layers of subtext will find a unique vision well worth experiencing. Kelso’s bio lists a novel-length work coming out in 2007 and I can’t wait to see what she’s able to do with more space.

**Special note: The faded quality of these images is the fault of my camera and my low quality image editing software. Someday I'll invest in a scanner, but not today. For better quality images, check out Kelso's own website


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