Irene Watts’s Good-Bye Marianne is the story of an 11-year-old Jewish girl living in Berlin in the late 1930s. Over the course of several weeks, Marianne witnesses a murder, is barred from attending school, discovers that her new friend is associated with the Hitler Youth, has her apartment violently ransacked, and learns that her absent father has been forced to go underground. Jewish shops are vandalized, and Marianne and her mother are evicted from their apartment.
This somewhat autobiographical story exists in three forms – as a play, as a children’s novel, and now as a graphic novel, illustrated (although there should be a better word for this – “realized”?) by Kathryn Shoemaker. If we compare these various modes of storytelling, we get an intriguing look at what the graphic novel can do.
In presenting history to young readers, and especially history’s more brutal chapters, we need to ask two questions: how much can we assume children know, and how much are we willing to tell them? With movies, books, and school curricula now including the Holocaust, the potential audience for this story has a good deal more background in this subject than in previous generations. Watts and Shoemaker can therefore fashion a classic graphic novel, consisting of black-and-white pictures, speech and thought balloons, sound effects, and the
occasional document, without resorting to running text or explanatory sidebars.
In terms of how much it reveals of the horrors of the past, this depiction is conservative and protective, however. Shoemaker’s style is gentle, quiet, shaded, and soft-edged. She filters the horror, thus allowing some access to this world to quite young children – younger than would be appropriate for the core novel, and not just because of reading skills. For example, one of the most chilling scenes in the original novel concerns Marianne witnessing a raid on a Jewish house: “Marianne wasn’t listening, except to a voice in her head which was saying, ‘Go home.’ She turned her head, forced to do so by the sounds of glass breaking, a cry, the thud of a body landing on cobblestones.” In the graphic novel we see the event in five panels, bookended by the “screech” of the truck arriving and leaving, but we’re at too great a distance to see detail in the impressionistic pictures. The shocking trio of sounds exists – as is often the convention in graphic novels – in the gutters between panels. If we notice the victim’s cap left on the street, we really notice it: nobody points it out. Both modes of storytelling pull us in, but in quite different ways.
Part of the engagement issue has to do with point of view. The text novel is written in limited third person; essentially, we are inside Marianne, looking out. In the graphic novel, except for a single panel in which we see through her eyes, we are looking at Marianne. We are privy to her thoughts via thought balloons, but we also “hear” the thoughts of her mother. This less focused point of view could lead to emotional distance, were it not for a few tricks graphic novelists have up their sleeves. For example, in the original novel we read that Marianne, after being barred from school, “felt colder and more alone than she had ever felt in her whole life.” In the same scene in the graphic novel, we get a close-up of Marianne’s shocked and saddened face. Then her face half disappears out of the panel; then it is replaced by the notice prohibiting Jewish students, a notice that obliterates her. Even more effectively, the page loses its equilibrium: as Marianne walks away from school, the panels break up into smaller images and slide onto a slanting plane. We share Marianne’s disorientation.
Is anything lost in this graphic novel treatment? Several scenes and many details have been necessarily pared, and the medium doesn’t suit backstory, but what I missed most was colour – the fruit designs on the family’s Rosenthal china, the fact that the “Jews Only” benches in the park were painted yellow, the drops of blood in the snow, “scarlet as winterberries.”
Gesture, on the other hand, is more effectively rendered in pictures. Marianne, alone and bored in her apartment, goosesteps around with her finger under her nose, impersonating Hitler. This scene appears in the original novel, but it wasn’t until I saw the picture that the poignant goofiness and vulnerability of this moment really sank in.
The particular appeal of Marianne’s story is that the ordinary woes of childhood – loneliness, boredom, betrayal by a friend – are in the foreground. In its graphic novel incarnation, the story retains this familiarity and welcomes a new crop of readers.