Thursday, November 10, 2011

7 Generations by David Alexander Robertson and Scott B. Henderson

7 Generations is a Canadian graphic novel series written by David Alexander Robertson and illustrated by Scott B. Henderson. The center point of the four-book series (which run thirty pages each, a length that provides for an episodic story within the larger multi-book arc) is Edwin, a young man who goes back to the stories of his past in order to make sense of his present. Each book – Stone, Scars, Ends/Begins, and The Pact – introduces Edwin in the present before sliding seamlessly back into stories set in the past. These stories revolve around his ancestors, who include Stone, a young Plains Cree man from the 19th century, White Cloud, who lives during the smallpox epidemic, and most recently, Edwin’s father James who attends a residential school alongside his brother.

7 Generations is an ambitious and fearless undertaking. The series begins with Edwin’s attempted suicide. The opening panels depict Edwin’s mother frantically driving home while the contents of Edwin’s suicide note overlay the movie-like action. For Edwin and his mother, the past is a difficult place to return to, which is why this undertaking is so important to Canadian literature. As Edwin’s mother explains, “In the end, we define ourselves by the actions we take: how we address the past and look to the future.” The ability to “address the past and look to” the future is made possible by the overlap and fluidity between past and present in the graphic novels.

Edwin is not alone in holding the story together. Rather, it is a simple stone pendant in the shape of an eagle that acts as the connective tissue between the past and the present, and from book to book. This pendant has been passed through generations, to finally rest with Edwin. It becomes the touchstone for the stories within the stories that accordion between past and present. The transition is carefully structured by hints of what is coming later – a broken picture frame, the closed door of a house, an unexplained memory. Robertson ties these loose ends together in subsequent volumes of the series.

However, it is Robertson’s characters that enact the reader empathy that makes this series successful. The rendering of James and his young brother Thomas at residential school is heartbreaking. I found the volume Ends/Begins created the most affecting story because of the character development of the two brothers. Upon entering the residential school for the first time, James reflects “At the school, pray they teach you their ways so you survive this changing world.” This sentiment is reflected and followed through to the last volume, as the repercussions of residential school on James are depicted up to the present date. The final volume, The Pact, which details the most recent history between James and Edwin’s mother Lauren, reinforces the circle structure of the series. Outside of the large historical movements that have been detailed so far, the small, everyday moments between a couple who are clearly affected by the history depicted in the volumes before emphasize the cause and effect nature of history on the present.

The splicing of the past with the present is the most effective part of the series, where Edwin must experience a passed history by reliving it through story. For the reader, this is made clear because of the format of the graphic novel. The reader sees the seamless weaving together of past and present, which is made most explicit by frame-by-frame representations that highlight the synchronicity between the two. At one point in Scars, a character in the past story asks, “What will happen to my children?” while in the present Edwin’s mother questions, “What will happen to my child?” The return to the past has the added benefit of historicity. Robertson explores substantial events in Canadian Aboriginal history from the nineteenth century to the 1960s. These include the smallpox epidemic and the residential school era.

7 Generations is so titled because, as Robertson writes, “The elders say what was done to us will touch us for 7 generations. So, too, the healing we do now will mend our people over that time. What happened to you doesn’t define you. You define you. We are not our yesterday, we are our today, our tomorrow.” Revealing the stories across these generations shows the way history seeps into present experience, and writing the stories of the past (particularly through the graphic novel medium, where it effectively a replaying of history) also effects the present of the reader. The graphic novel medium seems ideal to communicate this story. Robertson revisits the past by watching it unfold on the flipside of the present, as if they are one and the same, connected, the events continuing onward.

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