Monday, June 9, 2008

Craig Thompson's Blankets

Craig Thompson produces a powerful coming of age story in Blankets, and a lengthy one too: it weighs in at almost 600 pages. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household in rural Wisconsin, the semi-autobiographical character named Craig must share a bed with his little brother. He grows up in a cultural environment that I know all too well. There are signs on the road that proclaim ‘Jesus is the only fire insurance,’ and the boys are forced to attend a church in which even questioning things in good faith is strongly discouraged and dismissed.

At a winter church camp, Craig just doesn’t see how so many people can actually all be on the s
ame page in regards to their worshipping of Jesus, much less be able to jointly carry out any kind of cohesive policy in the world. But at this camp he meets a somewhat kindred spirit named Raina, and most of the remainder of the novel follows their relationship.

Thompson exploits the graphic form quite well. The snowy landscapes provide a sense of otherworldliness, and all adult authority figures are presented as giants, towering over the young boys and filing them with fear and intimidation. Though he is questioning his faith to some degree, Craig is fairly devout and Thompson presents a war between his desires and the Bible graphically. As he is told about Hell for the first time, the young Craig’s imagination shows people in agony in a style that is much more traditionally gothic than the typical style of the primary narrative. And upon learning that the book of Ecclesiastes had been revised and added to many years after it original composition, the artist presents the more hopeful additions with cartoonish pigs, contrasting the presentation of the darker statements, which reflect a surrealist type of horror.

Though the love story between Raina and Craig worked quite well and was very believable to me, I was more affected by Craig’s stifling religious environment because it reminded me of my own as a boy. When questioning his pastor about the changes made to Ecclesiastes, the minister dismisses him by saying that even if some additions were made as the translations took place across the centuries, one shouldn’t let that fact dissuade them from God’s holy word.

When I first started college, I went to religious school where all students were required to take a survey class in both Old and New Testament. In those classes, I learned much more than I had in years of going to church, and now religious history and theology is a prominent interest for me. So many of the implications behind the history were fascinating and caused me to look at familiar stories in a new way. Learning how the Samaritans were viewed in the time of Jesus gives the parable a deeper meaning. Yet none of this was ever discussed in the church we attended. And in having conversations with my mother and grandmother, both who had been attending churches for decades, I realized that they had no idea about any of this stuff. This was the basis of all their beliefs and yet they were so immersed within the culture of unquestioning orthodoxy that even simple matters, like the Pentateuch being attributed to Moses making no sense as he dies in the middle of it, were heresy to them.

In the last chapter of the book, Craig as a young adult returns home and has a conversation about leaving Christianity behind with his brother. He adds that he doesn’t feel he can ever tell their parents because they would think of nothing else but saving his immortal soul. And this is precisely how I feel as well. After years of hearing that the answer to my questions was God, but then being forbidden from asking questions in God’s church has left me feeling like Craig: apart from my family, yet overwhelmingly confident that I am on the right side.

As one would expect, there is a blanket motif throughout Blankets, and towards the end of the novel Craig notes as he walks through snow how ‘satisfying it is to leave a mark on a blank surface.’ Thomson would be happy to know that no only were his marks satisfying to make, but they were very satisfying to read as well.

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