Graphic-novel-style autobiographies are numerous these days, which is all the more reason to recommend David Small’s new Stitches: A Memoir (Norton) highly. It recounts Small’s early teen years, living with parents so tight-lipped and severe, they never even told a 14-year-old David that the growth on his throat was cancer.
Subjected to treatments that initially baffled him, David is shown in Small’s elegantly simple drawings to accidentally overhear his true diagnosis. David loses his voice for a period of time after his operations, but he gains a lot more: anger, determination, and salvation — that last in the form of art, for it’s by drawing, and receiving rare praise for his work, that David musters the strength to endure his parents, his loneliness, and his fears.
All this sounds grim, but Small has made a truly beautiful story and book from this raw-in-every-sense material. An award-winning children’s-book author and illustrator, Small fills Stitches with what look to me like pen-and-ink plus watercolor-washed panels. The drawing is a marvelous combination of caricature, comic-strip cartoon, and film-noir ominousness. The result captures childhood feelings of confusion that lead to vivid leaps of imagination, as when David portrays himself falling into a piece of drawing paper and sliding down a long, dark tunnel where smiling, happy creatures await his arrival.
With its mixture of stark realism and devilish fantasy, Stitches achieves a vibrant emotionalism that’s rare in both memoirs and graphic work of this kind. It’s never sentimental, but it may well move you to tears. Never was I so glad to see an apparently healthy, happy man pictured in the author photo of this book’s dust jacket.