Thursday, February 03, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 365 (2/3) -- We Are On Our Own by Miriam Katin

There's a tremendous riptide for reviewers, dragging them in the direction of laziness, obviousness, and tediousness. Nearly every book presents an opportunity to package it neatly -- either in a positive or negative way -- pat it on its little head, and send it on its way. Good reviewers swim against that tide as much as they can...but, sometimes, they've been swimming for a whole damn year, and the obvious looks as good as any other option.

So: picture a graphic novel memoir, about a Jewish family from Eastern Europe, during WW II. The family was well-off, happy, with a beloved child. And then the Nazis roll in, bringing death and despair. A generation later, a child tells the story of the parent of the same sex during that war, the flight through the countryside, the privations, the dangers, the things that had to be done for survival. I've carefully arranged those few facts to echo art spiegelman's towering achievement, Maus, but they equally describe Miriam Katin's 2006 comics memoir We Are On Our Own.

Of course, that comparison is reductive and not particularly useful; there are many WWII memoirs, and even a small library of the lives of Holocaust survivors, so merely putting two comics with superficial similarities together doesn't tell you much about either of them. And Katin's story is quite different from spiegelman's: she was alive for these events, two and three years old, hiding with her mother; she and her mother lived in Budapest, and the differences between Hungary and Poland are great; and Katin's mother Esther was never captured by the Nazis or sent to a camp. (Never "captured," I should say -- one Nazi officer takes advantage of her, in the way the powerful and unscrupulous always will.)

Katin tells the story of her mother -- Katin herself is in nearly every scene, in the way that a mother doesn't usually let her two-year-old daughter wander far away, but the viewpoint is her mother's -- through the lens of her own motherhood and as seen at the other end of a long life. (spiegelman was 38 when the first volume of Maus was published; Katin was 64 when We Are On Our Own was published -- and her mother was still alive, too.) Interspersed with the scenes of 1944 and 1945 Hungary are pages of Katin in 1968 and 1971, mothering her own two sons in America -- and those pages are in bright colored pencils, unlike the monochrome blue of the war years. She mostly lets the counterpoints speak for themselves, though a hand-lettered afterword recounts what happened after the war and explains some of that counterpoint, and the significance of the title.

Esther Katin was a tough woman when she had to be, willing to run off into the country under a fake name to protect herself and her daughter, to keep moving when she had to and to find ways to survive and keep Miriam safe. And Miriam Katin tells her story here, in squared panels of swirling pen lines, with grace and care -- a little bit dramatized, I'm sure, but as real as any story told sixty years later could be. And, if you can stand one last Maus comparison, We Are On Our Own may have its dark moments, and plenty of suspense, but we know that Miriam and her mother will make it out the other end of the war, and that's something to hold on to.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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