What do Jane Eyre, The Catcher In The Rye, and David Copperfield have in common? Aside from being three of my favorite books of all time, they’re also incredible coming-of-age stories. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever met a bildungsroman that I didn’t like; each tale of childhood unfurling into adulthood is distinct but also utterly relatable, because everyone has had to learn hard lessons and struggle to make sense of the world as they grow up. They’re the type of stories that are easy to get wrapped up in.
Blankets is definitely one of those types of stories. In this autobiographical graphic novel, Craig Thompson recounts his years as a child and teenager growing up in central Wisconsin in the early 90s. We see him constantly bullied by his peers at school, we see the emergence of his faith as a striving toward “an eternal world… that would wash away [his] temporary misery,” we see him struggle to reconcile his artistic abilities with his desire to serve God in everything he does. The conclusions that he reaches about God and religion and heaven at a young age are touted as incorrect by nearly every religious adult figure he comes into contact with, and as a result, he spends most of his teenage years fighting an internal battle over what others assert is Truth and what he believes in his heart is Truth. That internal battle is only heightened when he begins a relationship with Raina, a girl he met at a winter youth group retreat and his first love. He travels to Michigan to visit her for two weeks, and amidst her complicated family dynamic including her parents’ crumbling marriage and the stress of caring for her two special needs siblings, Craig and Raina find love in a hopeless place, even if it’s only temporary.
Though technically a memoir, Blankets tends to feel more literary than anything else. The way Thompson chooses to unfold his story is very nuanced, and there are certain events and feelings that he doesn’t unpack fully, almost as if those memories are still too raw for him to touch even now, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking in a way that is all too familiar and real. As much as this story chronicles Craig’s religious upbringing and subsequent loss of faith, the tone of the narrative never once borders on anger or bitterness; there are many adults throughout the story who “turn his magic to static,” as Raina says, and that the reader would be eager to label as villians of a sort, but Thompson always presents them as human beings, well-intentioned if not a little misguided, rather than monsters. There’s a tenderness in the way he’s so forgiving of these types of characters that is really beautiful, and even admirable.
I loved that the title had so many different meanings throughout the story: blankets are the memories that Craig has of sharing a bed with his younger brother as a child, when they would fight over the covers and wrestle each other in the middle of the night and make-believe that they were caught in a storm at sea in their boat-bed, and the youthful innocence that marked that time; blankets are the handmade gift that Raina gives to Craig when he visits her, as well as the thing that covers them the first time that they fall asleep in the same bed, bringing two together as one, keeping them, and their love, warm and protected from the outside world; blankets are the heavy snowfall of both Wisconsin and Michigan, covering everything until its simply a blank surface, a fresh start, and then receding with the spring to reveal the temporary nature of all things. It’s a really lovely and versatile metaphor that adds so much depth to the story as a whole.
The narrative is stunning, but the illustrations are what make the story really come alive. Thompson is an incredible artist, and there is so much detail in each panel that bring a wholeness that the writing probably couldn’t achieve on its own. So much of the nuance of the story lies in the illustrations and the subtle minutiae that fill the background of each scene, and I found myself pausing before turning each page so that I could study what was going on in the images. While Blankets is a pretty quick read, its a book that you want to spend some time with so that you can fully absorb the richness of the illustrations and how they work together with the narrative to create a truly beautiful story.
I loved this book and could scarcely put it down, and I suspect you will feel the same way. It’s funny and tender and existential and heartbreaking, and when I finished reading it I felt more human somehow. If that’s not a strong recommendation, I don’t know what is. I encourage you: read this book.