Rebecca Roher's debut book, Bird In A Cage, is a sensitively rendered exploration of family, rituals, and the ways in which time acts both as a sort of familial adhesive as well as the ultimate solvent. Roher tackles a tricky subject (a gathering of family to be at the side of her grandmother as she neared death) with grace, avoiding melodrama and maudlin displays in favor of celebrating the life of a complex person who meant a lot to a lot of different people. Roher, in her earlier work, showed flashes of skill with regard to loosely and expressively recording slice-of-life details in a poignant but lighthearted way, but it's remarkable how fully-formed and confident this book is. There are some unique aspects with regard to the story that makes Roher's depiction all the more intimate for the reader. The first is how incredibly close her family is across generations. Throughout the story, we meet various aunts, cousins and other relatives who join the cheerful vigil. Second, the fact that Roher's family spend summers on a small island in Canada owned by her grandfather and created its own traditions only added to that sense of closeness. When the same extended group summers in a beautiful, secluded area for close to eighty years, those decades add up and act as bedrock, a generator of memories that provide comfort and create strength.
There's another unspoken purpose as to why Roher wrote this particular book in this particular way. Her grandmother had suffered a traumatic brain injury over a decade before this story took place, and it gradually took away much of her ability to function and lucidity. Roher's goal here was to free that titular bird from its cage, to honor her grandmother's life by recording it on the page in a way that was truthful and entertaining, reflective of her personality. She flips back and forth in time, as her depiction of her grandmother's life evolves in much the same way that her own relationship with her grandmother evolved. It started off in the way little kids process their grandparents: through the kind of food they served, the way they let them play, the places they lived, and their charming eccentricities. It progressed to providing a deeper account of her life, exploring her youth when she explored Canada on her own, converting to the Ba'hai faith, finding her activism on behalf of the peace movement and faith was interfering with her parenting, and taking care of her mentally ill youngest child for the entirety of her life until she committed suicide. Slowly but surely, a robust and complex portrait of her grandmother coalesces, right up until she slowly slips away.
Roher is careful not to focus too much on how unfair or frustrating it must be for her grandmother, a highly intelligent woman, to be so at sea inside her body, to be betrayed by her brain. Instead, she shows how tight the bonds of family are in the way the women of her family in particular gathered by her side to show respect and affection. The chief motif of the book was the ways in which a group of songs sung at an annual family event called Sing Song united generations of relatives. It was a language unique to this family, one that Roher's grandmother helped to create. Singing became a way of comforting each other and honoring her, up until a scene late in the book when Roher is singing to her grandmother alone and both start crying in a rare moment of lucidity for her grandmother. It's a moment where Roher says it's OK to let go. Another element of the book is the remarkable capacity for forgiveness and self-reflection each of the characters demonstrates. Roher's mother in particular adored her mother but learned from her mistakes with regard to how to deal with stress and redirect it, and there's a touching scene between Roher and her mother that reflects this.
Roher's pencils are loose and expressive and aim at giving the reader a strong impression of times and places rather than precise recreations. That reflects the way that Roher is depicting memories in all of their fuzziness and subjectivity. Roher adds shading and texture at some points, but this comic is all about facial expressions, body language and the ways characters relate to each other in space. Roher is aces in all three of these categories, as there's a remarkable sense of ease in each panel that comes with the intimacy and comfort that family can provide. Roher is also careful to keep her focus relatively narrow; the reader doesn't learn all that much about her in this book other than the ways in which she relates to her family, but it's not Roher's own memoir. As such, the book is always thematically and structurally clear in its modest 110 pages, and Roher's book became part of the family tradition of keeping memories alive through stories and images (photo albums). Bird In A Cage is a fine example of honoring the life of a beloved relative in an affectionate but forthright manner in a way that's humane and comforting in a specific way for herself and her family, and in so doing, created a book that is also generally humane and comforting to a wider audience.