Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers by John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh is a graphic novel that I picked up last spring because of a recommendation on Robin McKinley’s website (I really take book suggestions by authors seriously, and this book is made even more highly recommended through a note by Alan Moore on the front cover). It is a beautiful, unique book with illustrations that go into more detail than it seems can fit on the page.
The story begins with a telegram, informing protagonist Salem Brownstone about he death of his father, Jedidiah. The note comes from a stranger, Lola Q., who urges Salem to leave behind the Sit and Spin Laundromat that he runs and take possession of his father’s house and all of its contents. The telegram is sent on Halloween, but the year is conspicuously absent, making this story timeless; it feels both recent and far in the past at the same time.
Salem’s relationship with his father is one full of secrets and absences. He arrives at his father’s house regretting the time that he can’t reclaim to get to know his now deceased father. The only clues that he has to explain his father’s life exist inside the house, a towering Victorian mansion next to a circus encampment (Salem picks up a flyer that has drifted over that reads “Dr. Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights”), and his initial response is to believe that his father was a magician. Salem’s new life brings him into contact with Cassandra, a contortionist who feels like she has to take care of Salem because he is Jedidiah’s son. When a group called the Shadow Boys appear at Salem’s father’s house, Cassandra pulls Salem into the world of the circus, where he begins to learn about the secrets of his father and the ways that he will continue his lineage of magic and wonder.
This is an interesting book to read in tandem with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, because both novels see their story and characters eclipsed by the setting that the authors create. Salem Brownstone introduces another circus, but rather than using prose to describe this place, Dunning and Singh use the format of the graphic novel to immerse the reader in a fascinating and magical environment. Like The Night Circus, Dr. Kinoshita’s Circus is populated with strange and talented people, such as Roscoe Dillinger “Tiger Tamer Extraordinaire,” Jynx Monkeygirl, Cookie Hereo, and Dr. Kinoshita. As Salem learns the ways of the circus, he also becomes aware of who he is going to have to fight against, and why his father died, and what, exactly, is taking place in the dark world of Mu’brie, the Midnight City. This is as much a coming of age story as it is an immersion into a fantasy world, where magicians duel and carry on old antagonisms. The loss of Salem’s father and what that means for the rest of his life draws attention to the everyday aspects of this story that are tucked within the more magical ones.
It’s a fun, beautifully drawn book. I love the way that the setting of the circus impacts the format of the illustrations, where Cassandra the Contortionist has her speech bubbles turned upside down and to the side depending on what position she’s in. This is the ideal format to explore story and setting, and I think this is one place where the graphic novel becomes a blend of words and illustrations because the narrative calls for it.