Book Review - Hope Larson digs for treasure with Mercury

Graphic novel pictures life on the Canadian frontier

Hope Larson's Mercury is a graphic novel for young readers. In other words, you could call it a comic book for kids. You could also call it a multigenerational family drama, a work of magical realism, and a story of the legacy of gold mining in rural Canada. Yet, the truth about Mercury falls somewhere between all those generic tags.

The novel transpires in French Hill, Nova Scotia, a fictional town near Halifax. The Fraser family has lived in the same house in French Hill since the mid-19th century, when Nova Scotia was still unincorporated frontier. Mercury alternates between two young members of the family – from the rustic life of Josey in 1859 to the 10th-grade concerns of Tara in 2009.

A calamitous fire in the Fraser family home has turned Tara's teenage life upside down. She's living with a friend since her mother has left town to find better work. Her interactions at school are perpetually awkward. She fields insinuations about her short hair in the locker room. Fickle, tactless teenage boys stumble around her, not sure of what to say.

Josey labors through teenage life on the frontier. She feeds slop to the chickens and gathers berries in a basket. Her father, an unsuccessful farmer, has recently met a young grifter, Asa, looking to convince their family to mine for gold on the land. When Asa meets the slim, long-haired Josey, though, his prospecting hopes expand to include her.

Tara and Josey's stories, while separated by 150 years, are entwined in this history of gold mining. The treasure Asa and Josey's father are working to uncover might change Tara's bad luck in the future. An heirloom quicksilver necklace creates a simple but effective visual relationship between the two girls.

Bold lines and uncluttered frames dominate Larson's clean style. Fans of Marjane Satrapi's work in Persepolis or Embroideries will recognize a similar approach in Larson's illustrations. Mercury's most visually arresting moments happen in the natural beauty of rural Nova Scotia. Wind seems to be constantly breezing through the frames, quietly rustling tree branches and carrying birds.

The story's dialogue tends toward the banal, likely dumbed down for young readers. The skill of Larson's execution lies instead in the subtlety and flow of her frames. A scene showing Josey working in the chicken coop effortlessly slips into her perspective as she stares out the window at Asa. This spare, fluid style works like the best of realist fiction, hemming close to the perspective of a character while maintaining the distance of a third-person narrator.

Despite the sophisticated visual style, Mercury's story lingers on slow-paced, adolescent romance for too long. The vaguely suggestive themes may be enough to enthrall tweens, but readers old enough to know the vulgar details of frontier and teenage life will inevitably be bored.

The book's most interesting parts come from the details Larson works into the edges and corners of her story. A short, visual history of French Hill opens the novel, flashing single scenes of life along a single rural trail. A Native American quietly crawls in the tracks of a deer. An ox carries a massive load of cabbage heads to market. A grocery store dilapidates over the decades. When the story takes slightly magical turns – ghostly visions, mystical jewelry – Larson's images don't exaggerate or caricature.

That restraint might be Larson's greatest asset. Mercury's quiet, controlled moments are vividly memorable, even when the story isn't. Panning for gold with Mercury turns up enough nuggets to make it worth the time.

Mercury by Hope Larson. Atheneum Books. $19.99. 240 pp.

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