Briggs, Raymond. Ethel & Ernest.

NY: Knopf, 1999.

I have a thing for graphic novels, or at least some of them. Not superhero BAM! POW! stuff usually, but a talented artist who is also a thoughtful author can, with a little luck and a lot of effort, come up with something memorable.

What Briggs (who was born in 1934) does here is to tell the story of his parents from their meeting in London in 1928 — he was a milkman, she was a housemaid — until their deaths in the early ‘70s. They were thoroughly working class, a designation that meant something very specific in Britain eighty years ago. Neither of them had much formal education, but they managed to buy a comfortable little house in which they lived for more than forty years. They even eventually got a car. Ernest was a Labor supporter and Ethel admired Mr. Churchill, but he was the breadwinner and she looked after the house and their only child, and they got along wonderfully through the Depression and the Blitz and the Second World War and the times of privation in post-war Britain and Ray’s decision to pursue an art career.

The narrative is episodic, hitting all the highlights of their life together, and Briggs’s soft, quiet, highly realistic drawing style is exactly right for the story. There’s also a lot of “real” history here, gently purveyed, and I would strongly recommend this lovely little book to younger readers who know little or nothing about the last century. And after you’ve finished the book, and thought about it a bit, it’s very likely you’ll go right back and read it all again, more slowly this time. A beautiful piece of work.

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