By Chester Scoville
Adolescence is both the most ephemeral of life stages and the most enduring—ephemeral because it is both brief and provisional, enduring because it profoundly shapes our lives afterwards. The latter is true both individually and culturally; tales of adolescence, of coming of age, dominate much of our storytelling tradition in the present moment. This is particularly the case in graphic novels, most especially graphic novels about girls. Hillary Chute notes that comics starring pairs of teenage girls, specifically, have become a robust and popular part of the market, especially in literary graphic novels (275, 280). The reason for this success, Chute suggests, is that narratives about maturation are particularly well-suited to the comics form: the hand-drawn and -written quality of comics, the way that they represent time “from both granular and synthetic views,” their fragmentation reminiscent of the workings of memory all make comics a medium with apt affordances for narration about the time of adolescent maturation (280). Writer Mariko Tamaki and illustrator Jillian Tamaki, in the graphic novel This One Summer, explore the lives of their protagonists at just this pivotal moment of change and maturation. Unlike Lynda Barry’s and Marjane Satrapi’s works as explored by Chute, however, This One Summer deals for the most part with seemingly small details of everyday life and is strictly focused in time. The very title of the text signifies both its temporal limitation and its understated perspective—two factors that highlight the communicative aptitude of this text as it explores its topic of adolescent change.
Three specific elements—knowledge and bodies as they develop in the field of place—are central to this narrative. The protagonist Rose and her friend Windy’s exploration of these elements is effectively the process of maturation as Mariko and Jillian Tamaki portray it. None of these elements is straightforward; their very complexity represents the challenge of growth that Rose and Windy face, and as such, their maturation during This One Summer is of necessity only partially complete.
For Edward S. Casey, place is the meeting between “body and landscape…a place is a locale bounded on both sides” but constantly outgrowing its own borders (29). It is connected intimately to both time and culture in that “in a culturally specified place…What matters most is the experience of being in that place and, more particularly, becoming part of the place” (33, italics in original). In other words, to think about place is to think about the way in which the body shapes, indeed creates, our experience of it. We see this process constantly in This One Summer. A crucial factor in the experience of place is also time. In an interview with CBR, Jillian Tamaki notes the fleeting, nostalgic nature of Canadian summers (“Mariko and Jillian Tamaki”). Casey notes acutely that nostalgia is a longing for lost places at least as much as for lost times (38-39). Indeed, something like this nostalgia for place forms a central element of the narrative from its commencement as Rose remembers, with the statement, “Awago Beach is this place,” the crunch that her father’s footsteps made as he carried her up the stony path to the summer cottage during her young childhood (Tamaki and Tamaki 5-7).
In a review of This One Summer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, April Spisak notes, “There is a developmental moment that young people don’t always spot when they are going through it, but they will often recognize it in retrospect—a specific incident or time period that marks the shift from childhood to adolescence” (493). This One Summer recounts just such a moment in the life of its protagonist Rose Wallace, although not, apparently, in that of her best friend Windy. The understated title, the long and languid approach to the text’s narrative, and the visual presentation of the characters and events all indicate a text that operates from multiple perspectives: both as an account of the moment Spisak describes, unconsciously experienced, and as a retrospective meditation on the importance of that moment. Rose’s moment of development consists largely of the discovery of some difficult and unpleasant truths that children are generally shielded from, especially truths about bodies: what they do, how they develop, what goes into them, how they betray us. During the narrative, Rose moves from what Christopher Bonovitz calls the timeless mode of adolescence to the nostalgic—from the mode in which one observes and narrates the self as separate from and outside of the flow of normal life to one in which the adolescent may desire time to slow or stop, in response to the understanding of the fragility and contingency of real life, especially the life of their parents (137, 140).1
An initial examination of how such contingencies develop in the text is visible on pages 104-107, a quiet conversation on the beach between Rose and her father Evan. In this scene, Evan reassures Rose that the argument she has overheard between her parents is not a cause for concern. As Rose—and the reader—will eventually discover, her mother Alice suffered a miscarriage on a previous trip to their summer cottage, and this trauma has been a source of tension between Alice and Evan ever since. Because Rose’s parents protected her from this knowledge, Rose has no way to frame the meaning of her parents’ arguments. Evan’s words, however, provide more than reassurance. Opening the conversation, Evan says, “Hey listen, kid. Don’t worry about any of this stuff, okay?” (Tamaki and Tamaki 105.1). While the friendly nature of Evan’s words reveals the kind relationship that he has with his daughter, they also draw immediate boundaries. He opens with two commands—“listen” and “don’t worry”—and addresses her as “kid,” reminding her of her position in the hierarchy of age. His reason for the admonition, however, is that the argument she has overheard is “just adult junk that doesn’t mean anything” (105.2). His choice of words, progressively dismissive of adult matters as first “stuff” and then “junk,” indicates that his emplacement of her within the boundaries of childhood is not merely limitation but protection; adult matters would not—should not—mean anything to her. Yet it is precisely the tension in the Wallace family—the meaning of which has been kept secret from Rose—that drives the narrative forward. Rose’s moment of maturation breaks the boundaries to which she has been confined.
The moment of maturation is not solely or even primarily physical for her; the trauma of the body is displaced from her onto other characters, including her mother. Rather, it is the intertwining of place and knowledge with the body that drives the narrative. Place frames the narrative’s meditations on the passing of experience: the action occurs out of the characters’ ordinary contexts, in a summer cottage community, deliberately ephemeral and incomplete like adolescence itself. Windy calls her summer cottage experiences “like a TV show where we only get to watch the first two episodes” (Tamaki and Tamaki 237.4). What the setting permits and what it excludes define much of how Rose and Windy experience their stage of maturation—as a set of incidents, not yet understood without the benefit of looking back from a conclusion later experienced.
The distinction between permission and exclusion also occurs in the case of knowledge. The term knowledge here is used in a fairly generalized way, avoiding detailed epistemological discussion. Knowledge, for the present purpose, may be thought of as the set of facts, frameworks, and understandings which help us act and make sense of our surroundings; it is the cognition that enables us to exercise agency and is therefore fundamentally political. Knowledge in This One Summer is bounded in multiple ways: there are things that local Awego residents know that the tourists do not; things that adults know that children do not; things that women know that men, boys, and girls do not. Because Rose is a tourist, a child, and a girl, she is denied access to multiple forms of knowledge that hamper her ability to understand and affect her surroundings. Much of this story focuses on her attempts to breach the boundaries—geographic, age-based or temporal—that keep knowledge protected from her and her from it. Knowledge in this book is not merely a matter of content or of mastery; it is a matter of right of possession.
Finally, bodies are a crucial element in the experience of permission and exclusion. To be an adolescent is to have a changeable and changing body, literally to take up space differently as time goes on and to occupy and belong to different places and subjects of knowledge. Naturally enough, Rose and Windy speculate on what their bodies might become and what they might do with them: have children or not, perform different sexual acts or not. The body is also vulnerable: it gets injured, it rejects pregnancies, it gets sick, it can die. It can consume things, excrete things, injure other bodies. Mariko Tamaki’s narrative takes bodies through each of these events, and in the context of the narrative’s summer place, Jillian Tamaki’s art calls attention to bodies by depicting them relatively free of clothing. Katharine Slater notes how the text “uses the conventions of comics and visual narratives in ways that draw our attention to spatiality, making material the complex relationships between bodies and their contexts” in such a way as to complicate and enrich its depiction of adolescence and growing up, tracing multiple possible geographies as manifestations of multiple possible ways of growing sexually into adulthood (2). The knowledge that Rose and Windy seek, and from which they are guarded by adults, largely concerns these vividly present bodies and what they do in the places they go.
The place, specifically, is a fictional Ontario cottage town named Awego, a physical place within the story-world as encountered in Rose’s experiences and memories. Awego is the framework for Rose’s maturation, not merely the backdrop of it; and it is also the set of associations and symbolic links that are deliberately made a part of that framework. Rose’s memories and her descriptions give the reader a sense of what the place means to her. On the opening page, trailing down the margin of mostly blank space, is the sound effect “crunch crunch crunch” (Tamaki and Tamaki 3, fig. 1). The following pages reveal this as Rose’s first memory: a sound of her father’s steps as he carries her up the sandy path to their summer cottage in Awego. This place is at the core of Rose’s memory and identity and has been for as long as she can remember, “ever since…like, forever” (7-8). Yet the positioning of this memory at the margin of the page is indicative of a perhaps common paradox of life. Awego is at the center of Rose’s self-awareness, but it is outside of her normal life. Her father’s joking description of the place as one “where beer grows on trees and everyone can sleep in until eleven” portrays it as a kind of Land of Cockayne, a site of both childlike indulgence and adult pleasures far from the routines of work and school (12). Even the name, which appears to be pronounced “Away-Go,” indicates this status, yet it is both the only place where the reader gets to know Rose and the site of much of how she sees herself.
These facets of Awego, however, are not inherent to the place itself; they are a function of the relative position of Rose’s family to it. Places are sites as experienced meaningfully by people (see, e.g. Ryan et al. 6-7), but those meanings and therefore those places are different to different kinds of person. For a summer visitor, the point of a place like Awago is that there is nothing important to do there. But that, of course, means something rather different to the residents of the town, who see their home more or less taken over in the summer by visitors who are not them but upon whom they depend economically. The tension between visitors and residents appears early in the text and remains an important motif throughout. The adolescents lounging outside the general store shout “Incoming!” upon seeing the car approach, as if alerting each other to a hostile invasion (Tamaki and Tamaki 13). For his part, Rose’s father Evan blithely waves to them, saying “Wave to the youth of Awego,” both acknowledging and making light of the tension. Still later, Windy, seeing the same locals still lounging outside the general store at night, exclaims derisively that “those guys are never doing ANYTHING! They’re, like, bums” (54). Windy and Rose have just spent a thoroughly idle day: rising after ten, eating late meals, playing leisurely games like mini-putt, looking at the sunset, walking on the beach. Yet idleness means differently to visitors than it does to residents, and Windy’s expression of contempt places this difference in relief. Doing nothing when on vacation is not the same as having nothing to do at home.
Windy frequently provides a critical—though unreflective—voice of contrast between these two senses of place, between the resident and the visitor. Near the midpoint of the narrative (Tamaki and Tamaki 148), Rose and Windy sneak into a private road inhabited by and reserved for residents to see what their lives are like. The road is a mundane enough lane, lined with small houses, yet Windy finds it “weird,” explaining that “everything’s, like, crappy.” The artwork reveals an unkempt community, densely packed into an area far from the water and strewn with an impressive amount of garbage—very different from the tidy, spread-out lakeside cottages of the vacationers (fig. 2, 3). Windy’s description of the landscape as “weird” resonates with Mark Fisher’s definition of the term: “a weird entity or object…[that] makes us feel as if it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here” (15). Fisher’s understanding of weird is that it is a disturbance in our previously held categories of reality; since the thing that we find weird is a fact of existence, our feeling that it should not be stands in need of correction. In the case of the garbage in Awego, its presence disturbs Windy in exactly this way. It is out of place compared to her expectation; its gross physical excess should not exist in the place that she thinks of as a neat, carefree vacation spot. Of course, it is really Windy and Rose who are out of place, encroaching on the residents’ private space; and the garbage in that space reflects the relative lack of availability of services to residents compared to their availability to visitors. It is a visual and visceral reminder of the political and economic inequalities that are necessary to create the illusion of the carefree vacation spot that has been central to Windy and Rose’s experience up to this point in their lives. It is also the case that wandering abroad as Rose and Windy do would be more expected for boys than for girls, so that they are “most visible as female subjects” as they breach public spaces and boundaries (Ali 154).
None of this disparity is part of the children’s core awareness. The latter is captured vividly on such pages as 80-83, in which Jillian Tamaki’s artwork turns the beach, lake, and sky into an indistinct, almost abstract design—as the clear edge of the water and the scale of the landscape become pure images, panoramas of timeless memory linked to Rose’s ponderings of the future and of the meaning of her life (fig. 4). For the protagonists, Awego is a place of repetition, one that they come to again and again, and which is always supposed to be the same so that they can reflect on who they are. As with Will Eisner’s much grimmer vacation story “Cookalein,” the placid appearance of a place of rest is only an appearance, always cloaking ever-present tensions and human difficulties. Yet the functioning of such a place requires that the expectations of ease and timelessness be maintained, and the only way—in turn—for these expectations to be maintained is through divisions and boundaries: the division of town from visitor and from one understanding of place from another.
The maintenance of expectations happens not merely through the physical boundaries of space, however. Inherent in the process is the marking of boundaries of knowledge. Prior to the discussion between Rose and Evan, Rose witnessed tension between her parents but did not fully understand its significance. Evan reassures her that what she heard was simply “Adult junk that doesn’t mean anything.” The word “junk” is significant here in that it anticipates the garbage that Rose and Windy will later witness in the locals’ private section of Awego. Like the garbage, the tension between Rose’s parents is both unwelcome and weird from her point of view. Lacking a framework to understand it, she experiences it as something that does not belong. Yet Evan calls the incident and its causes not merely junk but adult junk—the kind of detritus that is produced by the very act of growing up and being aware of its significance. From Evan’s point of view, Rose’s lack of access to knowledge prevents her both from understanding and from generating the kinds of uncomfortable, wrenching experiences that he and Alice have had. Rose encounters junk by crossing boundaries—the spatial boundary into the residents’ section of Awego and the temporal boundary of the adult world. Evan’s dismissal of the latter junk as meaningless is an exhortation and a desire for Rose to stay on her side of the boundary.
On the following pages the reader discovers that Rose knows more than Evan fully realizes (Tamaki and Tamaki 106-7). She understands that the tension between her parents arises from their inability to have another child, that it has something to do with the word “uterus” and with her mother’s body generally. Yet Rose’s knowledge is fragmented; she lacks a framework of understanding that enables her to make sense of what she knows. Jillian Tamaki’s artwork reflects and displays this fragmentation. Against a two-page splash image of the Milky Way, three panels at the bottom of the page arrange themselves in what Scott McCloud calls “aspect-to-aspect” (72) sequence, taking different looks at the cottage’s kitchen and at Rose’s parents. All of the panels are viewed from different angles and at different times; they share no perspective with each other. Alice and Evan’s faces are not visible, nor are their words audible. Rose knows that they are speaking and recounts some of the sense of what she has heard, but nothing is direct or coherent. Furthermore, Rose’s recounting is set as narrative against the splash of the night sky, as a random background to the main action, disconnected and remote from the real events that it attempts to describe. David Lewkowich notes, here and elsewhere, the importance of the image of the night sky in the tracing of Alice’s trauma, specifically the curious temporal nature of the stars visible from Earth: “While staring at the stars, we aren’t actually noticing what the stars look like now, but what they looked like many light-years in the past, which means that following a time of loss, gazing into the stars may offer an opportunity to observe a time before such loss existed” (10). As the stars hover over and prior to the world of the adults’ grief, Rose is suspended by her youth outside that world, on its periphery, unready to enter it yet. Her position is further highlighted shortly afterwards during the visit of Aunt Jodie and Uncle Daniel; Rose’s exclusion from the grown women’s conversation and her overhearing of her mother’s wish that she could be a child again—not required to deal with her knowledge and burden of memories—only makes Rose further aware of her marginal position as she once again finds herself looking and listening in at the kitchen in uncomprehending frustration (Tamaki and Tamaki 128-130).
Another crucial divide is related not to age per se but rather to the spatial divide already mentioned: that between the residents and the tourists. These two communities live separate lives, but not only spatially. As with any pair of communities, there are things that members of one know that the other do not and should not. A striking and crucial example can be seen in the incident at the Historic Heritage Huron Village, one of the tourist attractions in which the two communities mingle in a highly artificial and problematic way (Tamaki and Tamaki 211-19). Rose and Windy suspect—and the reader is clearly meant to understand—that none of the re-enactors at the Heritage Village are actual Huron people (207). They are locals, descendants of settlers, who play at being Huron people for the sake of the visitors.
Among the locals enacting the role of Indigenous people is Jenny, the young woman whose unexpected pregnancy is a significant subplot of the book. As Rose and Windy enter the scene, Jenny is at her job as a tour guide, leading tourists through the heritage village to learn—if in a desultory way—about the lives of both Indigenous people and early settlers in the place. Her role, in other words, is to impart a sort of knowledge in a way that reaches across the social and spatial boundaries that define the key reality of the place where she lives: the divide between those who live in Awego and those who only visit. Her question to the tourists, “Does anyone have any further questions before we head into the museum?” is a serious query but also a conventional marker of the end point of a process (Tamaki and Tamaki 212). Jenny’s costume, her words, and her persona as a guide all mark out a set of necessary boundaries for the imparting of knowledge in the context of the re-created village.
These boundaries, however, are violated by the two local boys who ask her, “What did they use for birth control?” The question is, of course, not serious; rather, it is intended as a cruel joke at Jenny’s expense. The boys know of Jenny’s pregnancy and wish to humiliate her in a way and in a place they know that she cannot respond to them. The boys’ question violates her personal boundaries of privacy and dignity, but their mockery depends firmly on the boundaries of knowledge illustrated in the setting of the village. Jenny is playing a role; by asking this question the boys both call attention to and exploit the artifice of that role, as its public-facing nature limits Jenny’s ability to respond, increasing her humiliation. Their follow-up remark, “Like fuckin’ condoms made from squirrel skin or something,” is intended to play—unconvincingly by design—at disguising the original question as appropriate to the situation, as if it were an actual question about early village life, while adding to Jenny’s embarrassment and that of the listening tourists (213). Jillian Tamaki depicts Jenny’s humiliation through multiple techniques: by facial expression and body language, especially in the first panel on 214; but also through composition, as in the final panel on 212, when Jenny’s face is only partially depicted in the corner of a long horizontal panel, as if she is barely keeping her head above water—foreshadowing her suicide attempt by drowning towards the end of the text. Here, the bounded nature of knowledge is demonstrated as a contributor to its ability to abuse and be abused, as the boys weaponize both their knowledge of Jenny’s personal life and the boundaries of her current situation to assert their power over her for their own amusement. Jenny’s humiliation, to a great extent, comes from the violation of a boundary between her public-facing role as a promulgator of knowledge about place and the insinuation of private knowledge about the body.
Rose and Windy spend a great deal of their time thinking and talking about the body, and understandably so. As adolescents, the changes in their bodies and the implications of those changes loom large in their minds. Yet the two girls lack knowledge, even language or terminology, by which to talk and think coherently about their bodies and especially about sexuality, having “second or third-hand information on the subject” (Ali 153). Tamaki and Tamaki show a wide range of bodily experiences—most of them mundane—in which the girls take part, attempting to build frameworks of understanding. For example, on pages 35-36, Rose and Windy talk about breasts, comparing theirs to others’, wondering what theirs will be like as they become adults. More complicatedly, they consume media in which bodies are dismembered and discursively connect that media to sexuality and sexual development. On pages 62-65, for example, while watching the slasher movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, they talk speculatively about oral sex—imagining what it is, how common it is, and recoiling from the idea. Shortly afterwards, Rose recalls watching an educational film in school in which a deer gives birth and how a classmate vomited at the sight. As Rose remembers the incident, she draws an anime-style image of a girl for a homemade birthday card for her mother while Windy dances to music in the background, drinking a can of pop and remarking how her swimsuit makes her look. The body does numerous things in these short scenes: it displays itself and depicts other bodies; it listens; it moves; it consumes; it grows and develops; it reproduces; it gives pleasure; it suffers; it sickens; it dies. Rose and Windy do, witness, or represent all of these things, often overlapping the experiences, but without a coherent adult framework of knowledge.
These three elements of place, knowledge, and body converge shockingly at the book’s climax when Alice rescues Jenny from her attempted suicide by drowning and in Alice’s subsequent explanation of her own trauma: her miscarriage while on vacation in Awego the previous year (Tamaki and Tamaki 288-295). Alice’s trauma, Rose—and the reader—learn at last, has rendered the place toxic to her; it no longer means to her what it means to anyone else. This knowledge, furthermore, could not be directly apprehended by anyone other than Alice because it was her own bodily experience. Her sister Jodie apparently shares her knowledge but can only understand indirectly (137). Evan’s knowledge of the event is at a further remove, Jodie’s husband Daniel appears not to know at all, while Rose knows only fragments until the conclusion (137). That the body can betray and traumatize, attaching to and permanently altering a place, is the piece of knowledge that finally enables Rose to move into adulthood as she ponders what her new understanding means to her memories: “I wanted to have this perfect picture of Awago in my head. Which I guess is a perfect picture of Awago in the summer. Just like this” (302). As her family leaves Awago and Rose looks behind, she ponders how she will change. Remembering Windy’s joke, “You have to come back next summer. So I can see your massive boobs” (312), Rose thinks, “Maybe I will have massive boobs…Boobs would be cool” as the sound effect of “crunch, crunch, crunch”—her father’s footsteps carrying her to the place out of time—has now become the “tick, tick tick” of the cottage’s clock (317, 319) (fig. 6).
Rose, by the end of the narrative, no longer inhabits the adolescence of timelessness but has moved into a reflective nostalgia—the mark of moving forward into a world of loss and memory. Rose no longer sees Awago or herself as standing outside of time but rather in time, moving inexorably forward. She is beginning to enter the adult world of action and consequence. This One Summer conceives of the starting point of maturation as a coming to knowledge about the changeable and therefore fragile bodies that we inhabit and about the meaningful places in which they move. It also implies that the starting point of maturation brings us into a different relationship with time, which continually and inexorably changes all of these. Tamaki and Tamaki situate their adolescent protagonist among a set of ideas—place, knowledge, and body—that mark the boundaries between areas of permission and power. In negotiating, transgressing, and coming to understand these boundaries, Rose begins to reflect upon and take control of her own maturation, taking her first steps into the uncomfortable world of adulthood.
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