Maurice and His Dictionary is a distinguished non-fiction graphic novel from Toronto author Cary Fagan, based on his father’s experience during the Holocaust.
In 1940 Brussels, following the Nazi invasion, 14-year-old Maurice and his family flee their home in the middle of the night. Years of persecution and displacement follow for the Fajgenbaums until they eventually find passage onboard the SS Serpa Pinto, bound for a refugee camp in Jamaica. Maurice’s father’s resolute assuredness is a beacon throughout their harrowing journey: “Solve one problem, and then the next, and then the next. That’s how you move forward.”
Maurice also finds solace in his father’s conviction that “the law will make us all equal.” The eager student feasts on knowledge shared by teachers he meets while interned at Gibraltar Camp, which housed evacuees in Jamaica. Maurice learns English by studying Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, purchased from the sale of leather goods made by the family in secret. The words he recites are prophetic: “Position, positive, possible …” Through resilient determination, 16-year-old Maurice earns acceptance to the University of Toronto.
The graphic-novel format is well suited to this emotionally layered survivor’s account. Captions offer Maurice’s first-person reflections with a calmness afforded by the distance of time. Expertly paced panels simultaneously convey the gripping, close-up immediacy of the family’s experiences, like seeking shelter in an abandoned castle with mice scurrying along the floor. Montreal illustrator Enzo Lord Mariano effectively contrasts sombre, brown-blue wartime hues with warmly glowing sepia-tone washes for Maurice’s dreams of becoming a lawyer.
Small, nuanced moments in the text and illustrations are emotively significant: French villagers pass baskets of eggs through train windows to hungry strangers; a homework assignment check-marked with “excellent travail!” lies abandoned on the sidewalk; and loosely sketched soldiers can be glimpsed brusquely taking away a prisoner.
In a moving afterword, Fagan includes a photograph of his father’s dictionary, which now rests on his own desk. With a faded red cover and bound together with tape, it is a poignant reminder of a line from the novel: “Even in dark times, each of us can be a candle, adding a little light to the world.”