For the last few months, I’ve felt myself shying away from stories infused with painful emotions. There’s been plenty and enough of real, present pain expressing itself searingly in our world and in the lives of people I love dearly. Immersing myself in a fictional character’s pain seemed too heavy.
Thus, although this graphic novel has intrigued me, and was illustrated by one of my swoon-worthy-favorite illustrators, I kept passing on it, until now.
And oh my, it is a rare beauty. There’s pathos here, to be sure, but so much bravery, dearness, love, and that feathered hope that, as Emily Dickinson says, sweetest in the gale is heard.
Louis Undercover, written by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, translated from the French by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou
English translation published in 2017 by Groundwood Books
Louis is a boy, around 10 years old I’d say. An eminently ordinary boy. Not a bully. Not a nerd. Not a superb athlete, rock star wannabe, or class clown. Just your average, nice, kid. Big brother to Truffle, an innocent, carefree, squirt with a penchant for James Brown.
Louis’s circumstances, however, are presently demanding more than average responses from him. First is his father’s alcoholism and his parents’ separation. Our entry point into Louis’s life is, in fact, his keen, poignant observations about the wreckage in his dad’s life. ” My dad cries,” he tells us. As in, birds fly, waves toss, and his dad cries. It is woven into his essence as day after day he loses control, drinks himself into oblivion, and sobs alone in the dark.
Louis is old enough to remember the halcyon days when their family was healthy and rich with buttery ordinariness. He’s old enough to catch the veiled pain in his mom’s eye, to peek from the shadows at his dad’s desperation, to overhear heart-crushing sentiments spoken in late night arguments. Louis’s response to all of this is to shield Truffle from pain, and shield his parents as well by pretending not to notice, hear, see, the worst of the grievous shambles they’re clearly trying to hide from him.
The second situation demanding Louis’s attention is just as potent: He is utterly besotted with a girl, the lovely and brave Billie. Ah, Billie. Suave and bespectacled, bookish and preternaturally cool-headed. This is a girl, that “when she does speak, the world ignites and explodes in clusters of honey and fire.” Yeah. Basically a Greek goddess. Not that Louis ever has spoken to her. But he’s working up his nerve with the help of his buddy, Boris. Any day now, he’s going to just walk up to her and say…something.
Both of these situations, then, require a boatload of courage and Louis wrestles with bravery throughout his account. The story takes place over the span of just a few weeks, weeks in which we feel the bucking and rolling and yawing of his world, the adjustments continually required of him, the fear and dismay over his parents’ brokenness, and the intimidation of his first crush. Louis notices mainly his own short-comings, feels ashamed of his apparent lack of bravery, even while our hearts throb with the kindness, courage, and generosity of this very young boy. In the end, Louis takes one big step forward in his understanding of the courage required to love another person and is simply, delightfully rewarded.
With Truffle and Boris providing wonderful, understated comic relief, the radiance of Billie spreading beauty wherever she goes, and the naive goodness of Louis anchoring his own story in decency and strength, Fanny Britt has pulled off an exploration of some excruciatingly painful moments in a child’s life while still ending up with a book that cheers and encourages us. Arsenault’s brilliant illustration work is, as always, subdued, her predominantly taupe, white, and charcoal scenes giving us the almost nostalgic sense of a grainy old film. She’s added sparing, symbolic additions of mint green and teardrop blue, and some gregarious infusions of dandelion yellow when the sunshine of Billie radiates into the world.
Highly recommended for ages 10 through adult (it would make a fine book club read), this is a remarkable window into the pain of addiction, that’s simultaneously tender and charming.