"Mercury" by Hope Larson

The graphic novel Mercury by Hope Larson weaves two stories together, sometimes echoing themes, sometimes building one off the other.

The synopsis from the inside cover flap: “In 1859 French Hill, Nova Scotia, Josey Fraser has just met handsome Asa Curry – a man with a mysterious and traveled past. While quickly winning young Josey’s heart, Asa reveals a secret ability to locate gold on the Fraser’s farm. But there is darkness in the woods…and in Asa.

In the same town one hundred fifty years later, Tara Fraser is dealing with the aftermath of her house burning down; a house that has been in her family – and Josey’s – for generations, when Tara discovers a pendant that turns out to be much more than a simple heirloom. As Josey’s story plunges into tragedy, Tara’s emerges with the promise of gold.”

The description sounds like a romance, but it’s much more down to Earth than that. Josey in 1859 lives with her parents on their failing farm. She's doing chores and thinking about the world beyond her house when a stranger knocks on the door. Meanwhile, in 2009 Tara is returning to French Hill High school after a year-long hiatus. Her house burned down and she and her mother had to move north to earn extra money. Tara is back in town, living with her cousin. In the next 234 pages Larson tells how the everyday lives of these two girls intersect in time.

The story grew on me as I read it, and the languid pace goes with the fluid artwork. The whimsy in the art is especially noticeable in the special effects, such as the cursive “flee” when a character runs away, or the elusive “Finish” hovering over the goal in a race.

I like the sense of place. The opening panels show a road in French Hill, Nova Scotia evolving from a forest in the 1400, through Native Americans, settlers, soldiers, farmers and suburbs to the year 2009 when we meet up with Tara jogging past the Hungry Miner Pizzeria. It feels like I could find the remains of Tara’s burned house on Google Maps.  It was also fun to see how Larson compares and contrasts the lives of the two teen girls, Josey and Tara, in the same place, similar situations, years apart.

Although it was less evident at the start, the graphic novel has elements of magical realism. Larson tells the tale as if both girls live in the real world, but by the conclusion there are plot points which make us question reality: malevolent pits, ghost processions and talking crows with human faces. The occasional sparks or lines emitting from characters adds to this impression.

I also like Larson’s general spirit toward her work. She truly wants to reach the teen girl audience. At Stumptown Comics Fest 2010 panel “Comics for Young Readers”, and online on her twitter feed she talked about finding readers.  It's evident in this book that she wants to deliver an honest story, not only for the teen girl audience but for everyone, while sticking with a goal of reaching young readers.

There were only a few distractions from the quality of the novel. If anything, I felt the conclusion could have been extended somewhat. I liked that Tara, as the protagonist, solved her own problems but to me it felt too pat. The redeeming feature, however, was that although magic led her to the solution, Tara had to solve the problem herself.

I was also confused by theme of mercury. Asa has a pendant filled with mercury that he uses to search for gold, and it’s also possible that Tara has a mercuric personality, but it didn’t work for me to link this to the house fire. Although the fire was the impetus for Tara moving away, and subsequently moving back as an outsider, the connection was a weak link for me. That theme was jarring to me, even though it worked well in the plot line.

In summary, Mercury is a great read. It’s an original story, and the artwork stretches comic tropes into new areas. I’d recommend it as fun for kids, teens, or adults. If you’d like to read more about Hope Larson you can visit her website www.hopelarson.com.