Sunday, October 29, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Francis Desharnais' Little Russia

Francis Desharnais' Little Russia is the final volume I'm looking at in this series on Pow Pow Books. That publisher certainly has a particular aesthetic, as the four different artists whose work I've reviewed feel like they're part of a larger tradition of Montreal cartoonists. I'm thinking of folks like Michel Rabagliati, who use a slightly cartoony style, a fairly thin line, and an otherwise naturalistic approach. Desharnais, in this book, is writing about his grandparents, who were settlers in the wilds of Quebec in the 1940s. This was all part of a government experiment where the settlers would go in, cut lumber, and share the proceeds equally to help build houses and start farms. It was dubbed "Little Russia" by some because it was a boldly socialist experiment that required not only total buy-in by all involved, it also made every man an equal in determining how their commune would be run. 

One of the interesting things about this account is how pointed the use of every "man" is here. Women were part of the community but had no say in public matters for decades. Desharnais' grandmother Antoinette did her duty as a good Catholic, giving birth to eleven kids, but her story is one of gradually losing her patience with the quite literal patriarchy determining her every move. Indeed, a priest was one of the chief leaders of this community of Gueyenne, even if he didn't actually live there. 

Desharnais deftly turns what could have been a dry and episodic account into a smooth narrative with a number of repeating themes. The lack of a voice for women is one of them in this supposed utopian community is one of them. Another is the inevitable lack of community spirit when people obtained their goals of having a home. Desharnais' grandfather Marcel was committed to being a farmer, and the lack of commitment of so many others forced him out of the community after more than 20 years. This book, above all else, is about the inevitable decline of communities when individual needs and greed supersede the understanding that the greater good of a community nourishes all. The spirit that saw the men save a fellow townsman's house from a fire ebbed when there were opportunities to make money elsewhere. A town's spirit cannot survive when everyone is isolated. 

There's a matter-of-factness to the narrative and a cartooniness to the character design that reminds me a lot of another Quebec artist: Guy Delisle. Desharnais, however, adds depth and detail to his backgrounds in a way that Delisle doesn't, especially with regard to the forests. There's an almost oppressive quality to the land that's a key element of the narrative and Desharnais captures the almost inevitable event of the land opposing the settlers at every turn. Even on his own farm, there's a sequence where Marcel hits a hidden stump while trying to sow seed and he goes berserk with fury. It captures the hopes and dreams of Marcel and Antoinette as well as their slow but stubborn understanding that their dream has faded and no one cares about the potential of the experiment anymore. Throughout Little Russia, Desharnais' drawings may not be spectacular, but he makes smart and subtle decisions throughout that honor a legacy while telling a compelling story. 

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