Jeff Lemire's beautifully expressive, scratchy art is at the heart of why his Essex County stories are so appealing. His blocky, squat character design is a perfect match for the sort of rural life he depicts. Essex County and its wide expanses is a character unto itself, as both caretaker and agent of isolation. Lemire's books are filled with characters in isolation, either by choice or bycircumstance. As the trilogy unfolded, we learned of hidden connections between the characters and the reasons behind much of the alienation. In volume 2 (GHOST STORIES), I thought Lemire gilded the lily a bit too much and didn't trust the readers enough to pick up on story points strictly through his visuals. The clues were pretty plainly laid out for the reader to interpret, and certain subsequent conversations seemed both out of place and hammering points home without much subtlety.
In THE COUNTRY NURSE, Lemire scales things back quite a bit, letting the reader make connections without him spelling things out until the very end of the book. It made for a much more satisfying read as Lemire cleverly told the story of how several generations of different families interacted with each other in significant ways while being unaware of their connections. The title character, named Anne was a catalyst in the lives of the LeBeuf family, forcing them to work past their regrets, alienation and self-loathing. At the same time, she found herself trying to work through her own feelings of disconnection from her son and grief over her dead husband. Anne is a caretaker, and sometimes that means tending to people who either don't want to be taken care of or don't have their own best interests at heart.
What she didn't know was the way her grandmother played a similar role for the patriarch of the LeBeuf family, long dead by the time this story was told. That flashback of her grandmother tending to a group of orphans after a tragedy was a moving one, as she had to learn how to forgive herself just to survive a series of hardships. That theme of learning to forgive one's own sins before one can reach out to loved ones is a central one in this story. Visually, the way Lemire weaves in and out of past and present, dropping thematic hints here and there (like young Lawrence Lebeuf being good at pond hockey presaging the greatness of later Lebeufs, Lawrence wearing a blanket looking like a cape much like his great-great grandson later would) and then shifting to shots of buildings or land that held significance made following each page quite compelling. Lemire also tied together a variety of threads with a crow that seemed to be watching all of our characters across time and even played a significant part in the past. The crow was a nice symbol of the ways in which we are connected, often in a manner we don't understand.
The Essex County books have won all sorts of recommendations for reading by teens. I think this makes a lot of sense. There is symbolism here that isn't too obtuse and themes that are fairly easy to pick out. There's often unspoken tension beneath the surface, but Lemire throws in plenty of clues and guides to understanding those conflicts. The books even have a sort of understated but epic sweep to them, raising questions and only answering them much later when connections are revealed. There's an immediacy to the scratchy quality of his art that makes a reader want to study each page and each panel. These books remind me a little of Chris Ware's work in the way they deal with surprising connections, human loneliness and the things we do to combat it. Lemire's work is not nearly as complex or graphically dense as Ware's and is certainly much less ambiguous, but both men have a way of depicting bleakness, hope and the minutiae of daily life that reveals deeper truths. At its heart, Lemire is telling a story about the way growing up in a rural environment fosters a certain sense of hardiness and distance, to be sure, but also a sense of interdependence and affection as well. Finding ways to integrate the two is at the heart of the trilogy and embodied by Anne the country nurse herself.