Essex County Vol. 3: The Country Nurse
by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf, 2008)

The final chapter in the Greek-drama tragedy that composes the lives of the LeBueff family comes to a close as long-held secrets are taken from darkness into light, loose ends are finally tied down and new worlds filled with possibilities are opened up. The Country Nurse follows a day in the life of Anne Quenneville, the traveling nurse for Essex county (introduced in the second chapter, Ghost Stories), among whose duties was caring for the aging Vince LeBueff. The intimate, often strange tensions between family members is a subject Lemire tackles with authority, resulting in what has to be one of the best graphic-novel trilogies to date.

TCN is a worthy addition to an exquisitely drawn and written series. Lemire is a world-class writer possessed of literary talent to rival that of William Faulkner and Eduroa Welty. Lemire takes us through Anne's lonely day, handling her abject solitude with depth and amazing sensitivity. Bittersweet and touching, this is one day in the life of a woman who, for all the lives she touches, is uncertain of just how she really affects other people. It is but a single day in her life; yet it is also the history of an odyssey that began before she was even born.

Lemire is as comfortable in the past as he is in the present, probably because he sees the two as not being very different from each another in the way they fold together to form one narrative that resonates through time. We meet characters from the first two installments, such as Jimmy and Lester and Kenny, as well as new people, including Anne's itinerant son, Jason, and her aging grandmother, who has a dark past of her own. No secrets are left untold, and perhaps it's all for the best, no matter how painful it may be. All the years of loneliness and the relationships between the main characters are beautifully limned in this smaller but very fruitful closing chapter.

Lemire's art is as breathtaking as ever. He has even expanded his form somewhat to try interesting new angles and layouts that only add to his painfully wonderful writing. His "scritchy" scratchy, plain black-and-white style carries the whole story so well that words are almost unnecessary, so clear is the imagistic rendering of the landscape that is emotional as much as physical. Again, the physical landscape is the primary focus, being the literal and emotional map that must be navigated, becoming in the process a metaphor that vividly evokes the manner in which the main characters become lost in their own pasts, unable to speak the simple truths that would set them free from the constraints that are keeping them from being a family. Lemire takes the reader on a visual journey that creates the odd sensation of floating above the lives of the main protagonists, a view matching that of the ubiquitous crow as it flits in and out of the characters' lives, showing them the truth while also leading them home.

The crow, in Native American belief systems, is the animal that performs the task of leading souls into the underworld. The little crow in all three books is Lemire's anchoring motif for the soul's journey through life; the beginning and the end, the final chapter in a story that's only just starting.

Lemire wisely chose to let the images speak for themselves, rather than crowd the panels with too much explanatory commentary. Anne emerges as a character that endures. She becomes the symbol of perseverance and life in the face of death, the spirit of true sacrifice and giving.

This is not by any means a stand-alone story. TCN requires previous reading of the first two installments for any sense to be made from this chapter. If you love good graphic stories, you'll want to read the entire Tales of Essex County. They are destined to be classics that will be talked about for years to come.

review by
Mary Harvey

1 August 2009

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