Monday, October 17, 2011

Slog's Dad by David Almond, Illustrated by Dave McKean

 "'They can hack your body into a hundred bits,' he'd say, 'But they cannot hack your soul.'"  

It's difficult to imagine the audience for this moody, unusual story.  In a way it's a typical David Almond book--mysterious, earthy, otherworldly, a little unsettling, a little wonderful.  Almond's body of work is mostly composed of  chapter books for the 8-12 age group, and although this story is much shorter and heavily illustrated I couldn't imagine giving it to a child younger than eight.  In fact, I think Dave McKean's illustrations ramp up the creepy/sad qualities to the tale (although those are certainly not the only moods they evoke).  I would say that with Slog's Dad, Almond and McKean have together created a highly original work of art for children who are mature enough to handle some emotional ambiguity.

For those of you who don't know David Almond, he's an internationally recognized  British writer who has won the Whitbread Award twice, the Carnegie Medal once and has been awarded the very prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal by IBBY International  for his lifetime achievement.  His first novel, Skellig, has been adapted into a radio play by the BBC and into an Opera which was reviewed as  "mysterious, eerie and enthralling" by the Guardian.  For those of you who are not familiar with Dave McKean, well, what can I say?  Go read The Graveyard Book, or Coraline, or The Wolves in the Walls.   He's an artist/photographer/illustrator whose work tends to be matched with writing that has a certain fantastical quality. The pairing of these two here is very powerful.  McKean digs into the rich emotion of Almond's story and allows us to slow down and linger over the complexity of it.

Slog's Dad is told from the point of view of Davie, whose friend Slog's father has just died of a slow, devouring illness which robbed him of his legs before it robbed him of life.   Slog's Dad promised on his deathbed that he would return for a visit in the spring.  Slog believes his father's promise implicitly, but Davie is more practical.  For Davie, dead is dead.  So when Slog sees a dirty, apparently homeless man sitting on a bench in the springtime, he believes it is his father come for the promised visit.  Davie, and we as readers, resist seeing the miracle.

"Slog looked that happy as I walked towards them.  He was leaning on the bloke and the bloke was leaning back on the bench grinning at the sky.  Slog made a fist and face of joy when he saw me.
'It's Dad, Davie!' he said.  'See?  I told you.'
I stood in front of them.
'You remember Davie, Dad,' said Slog.
The bloke looked at me.  He looked nothing like the Joe Mickley I used to know.  His face was filthy but it was smooth and his eyes were shining bright.
....'He looks a bit different,' said Slog.  'But that's just cos he's been...'
'Transfigured,' said the bloke.
'Aye,' said Slog.  'Transfigured.  Can I show him your legs, Dad?'

Slog's Dad is about grief, hope, and, possibly,  resurrection.  It's also about love and how tenderly it can be bestowed upon even the most humble of us.

"Once I stood with Mam at the window and watched Mrs. Mickley stroke her husband's head and gently kiss his cheek.
'She's telling him he's going to get better,' said Mam.
We saw the smile growing on Joe Mickley's face.
'That's love,' said Mam.  'True love.'"

But Almond's vision of love and resurrection isn't typical.  Cold looks, glittering eyes, twisted faces and the stink of garbage mingle uneasily with the image of a man who's gone to heaven.  Almond makes it difficult for the reader to make the leap of identification from Davie's closed, doubting heart to Slog's open, accepting one.  Even once we believe, we are left questioning:  what manner of miracle is this?  I love the ambiguity and full emotion of this story.  I love how this short book made me think and feel and re-read. There's a lot of depth in this murky, marvellous tale.

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