Overview: In his New York Times # 1 Bestseller graphic memoir, David Small recounts his childhood and adolescence in Midwestern USA during the 1950s, relaying the simultaneous whimsy and trepidation inherently embedded in the universal process of growing up. Suffering from sinus and digestive tract problems from the
time he was a baby, Small writes that he was “born anxious and angry,” but was constantly treated for his condition by his father, a radiologist, who Small, although distant from him, nevertheless conceived of as a “soldier of science” who could “cure anything” (Small 20, 27). Amidst his prescribed medications, shots, osteopathic manipulations, enemas, and X-Ray medical care, Small found escapism in drawing, trying to combat his illnesses, angry mother, bullies, and other negative encounters, with art. When, ironically, considering all the treatment his father offered up, Small develops a tumor in his neck that remains ignored by his family for years, he is forced to utilize his art as his sole means of communication and expression, as he finds that his voice has quite literally been taken away from him.
Character: With his blend of concrete reality and abstract imaginings, Small brings his childhood perspective to life as he illustrates with his drawings and brevity of words his experiences as a sickly boy struggling to maintain some sense of normalcy in his world. Besides his every day confrontations, Small manages to depict his childhood interior feelings and thought processes by showing how his drawings for him, sprung off the paper and came to life; or how when he doodled, he felt as though he was becoming a part of the page, a part of an alternate reality that was in
some way less plagued with fear and pain than his own. As another step in the direction towards magical realism, Small represents his psychiatrist as a rabbit, perhaps an allusion to Alice, who he so loved, as the therapist did indeed help lead him into a wonderland, or at least help him cope with his situation. When he loses half of his vocal chords and for a time cannot talk, he imagines himself inside his own mouth, “a hot, moist cavern in which everything I thought, every word that came into my brain, was thunderously shouted back at me” (Small 217). And such a scene is indicative of the reader’s transportation into Small’s life beyond the tangible, actualities of his experience and into the intimate broodings of his mind.
Plot: CAUTION – This portion contains serious plot spoilers. Proceed at your own risk! When David develops a lump on the side of his neck, mysteriously referred to as a “growth” by his father’s friends in medicine, his mother resentfully ignores it, telling him that doctors’ visits are too expensive, and that he couldn’t possibly understand the strains he continually caused to the family financially on a day-to-day basis. After
many years of letting the lump be, he finally as a teenager sees a doctor, who tells him that it is only a cyst, but should be removed immediately. When, in the operating room, however, the surgeon discerns he has something bigger on his hands, he is unable to complete the procedure and calls in a specialist to carry out the task; though David himself will not find out until months later when he happens to accidentally read a letter his mother wrote to her own “mama,” the ostensible cyst in his throat was actually a cancerous tumor. With only one vocal chord remaining after the operation, and thusly unable to talk at all for months, Small rapidly realizes, “when you have no voice, you don’t exist,” and is forced to learn how to cope in a world in which he feels he has no place (Small 212). Just when David is feeling more estranged than ever from his family, he discovers that his father was responsible for giving him the disease: the X-ray treatments that were supposedly therapeutic were in reality quite life threatening. Though Small is obviously the main character in his own memoir, the other people in his life are shown in the panels filtered through his eyes, further lending the audience an understanding of his perception of his own milieu.
Setting: The setting of this graphic novel oscillates, as aforementioned, between the real-life happenings of Small and the ruminations of his mind. Certain era-specific details – like the 1950s Cadillac and other cars, the drive-in movies, the use of X-Ray technology, the fur coat and deep-colored lips of the woman he loves as a child and who his mother has an affair with, as well as his mom’s cat-eye glasses – distinctly place this graphic novel during a particular era. But like any great work of art, Small’s memoir transcends the boundaries of time, becoming universal in its commentary on what it’s like to feel alone growing up.
Style: Framing his panels like shots created for a storyboard, Small’s drawings take on a story of their own, only needing a sparse smattering of words here and there to fill in the details of the action: “[Small] employs angled shots and silent montages worthy of Alfred Hitchcock,” writes Michael Sims of the Washington Post. When the narrative at hand shifts from Small’s present existence to a side story or a family history relayed to him by his mother, he changes his illustrations stylistically to
represent that shift, so that the pictures themselves take on an antiquated quality that conveys well David’s imaginings of the past. Small’s ability to relay every aspect of his childhood self – from what he saw, to what he dreamed, to what he thought and felt – creates a style reminiscent of magical realist fictions.
Theme: Like any coming of age story, the themes in Stitches complement the ubiquitous experience of growing up: finding a voice, overcoming impossible hardships, breaking away from one’s family in order to develop an increasing sense of self-reliance, facing depression, and finding one’s place on a social, intellectual, and grand scheme level.
Viewpoint: Starting the memoir from age six, the story follows David until he is fifteen, and at the end, the still profound impact on Small of the events of his youth is made clear when he illustrates a dream he had just a few years prior to creating his book. In the dream, he is a child, haunted by a fabricated image of his mother sweeping clear a path for him from his house to the state insane asylum. Finally, in his adulthood, his is able to resist the cutting impact of his mother’s maltreatment of him, and he ends his novel not with an illustration, but with the two bold words, “I didn’t” – he didn’t follow the path his mother dictated for him, but instead took his own.
Concluding Remarks: If you’re looking to pick up a highly renowned example of how the graphic novel teeters artfully between classic film and anthologized literature, Stitches has got to be one of your best bets. You will be amazed at his use of shadows and light, and how the nuances of character and emotion can be displayed so well in black and white depictions, that as Small, an award-winning children’s book illustrator, himself noted are “more like handwriting than regular drawing” (from an interview with Small via Amazon). Just as in any good piece of writing, where the form often deliberately mirrors the content, the use of this genre as the medium for recounting his memoir was an artful choice, as Small explains in the aforementioned interview:
…it’s a story about being voiceless. It demanded a visual treatment because it involved so much of that guessing game we played in our family, of trying to figure out why someone was mad at us–someone who refused to communicate by any other means than slamming things around. If told in words–even if I could have–the story would have lost that visceral impact.
Perhaps in our ever-technologizing world and with our subsequent ever expanding vehicles for storytelling, educators and the public at large need to reconsider the sometimes rigid boundaries of the category, “literature,” allowing it to include unconventional modes of storytelling that can convey all the same harrowing realities and yet stoic truths that a book with thousands of words and hundreds of chapters can. I would like to pose too, that arguably, sometimes, graphic novels and memoirs manage to do so even more movingly and honestly than their more conventional counterparts.
P.S. – You might be interested to know that besides making it to the top of the bestseller list, Small’s memoir has also been named a National Book Award Finalist, an Alex Award winner by the American Library Association, and labeled one of the best books of the year by NPR, Indies Choice Book Awards, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, and countless others!