By Renaud Dillies and Régis Hautiére
Well, this came through a while back, and immediately I had it marked down as a potential for the school library, a sweet, charming, cutesy graphic novel with a Euro feel.
How wrong can I be? Seriously? It actually has more in common with Winschluss’ Pinocchio, the same sense of surface cute, masking something deeper, more disturbing in Pinocchio’s case, simply more magical and breathtakingly sad here.
The story all revolves around little Abelard, a little chick with a dreamer’s heart, whimsical, innocent and full of childlike wonder at the world around him, a world he shares with a group of hard-drinking, fishing, poker-playing misanthropes with no time for the ways of the outside world, happy with their isolation deep in the marsh….
So, what do you think is going to provide the required push to make the dreamer do more than gaze wistfully towards the moon?
Pretty, pretty Eppily, so lovely, but here for so fleeting a moment, a quick holiday and then off, oblivious to the seeds of love planted in Abelard’s heart. And thanks to het friends, Abelard’s now convinced he knows how to win her over…
‘You won’t catch her with a flower. I should know: I’ve picked whole fields of them for her.’
‘No, to seduce a gal like Eppily, you got to offer her the moon. Or, at the very least, a bouquet of stars.’
So, off she goes, and Abelard is left with a dream, and a dream swiftly turns into a quest, after he discovers that getting to the moon is no easy task, no matter how big the ladder.
And that’s where it all started to get a little emotional. Where the familiar knot started forming in my chest, the first signs that by the end of this there may well be tears shed. Here’s the moment, right after she sails off into the distance….
Off Abelard goes, determined to get the moon for this girl who doesn’t even know his name, and if he can’t reach the moon from the ground then he’ll head to America and get one of those new flying machines to get there instead.
On his way he meets Gaston, a grumpy, grumpy bear diametrically opposed to Abelard’s innocent abroad. Yet after a few travails and dangerous and bruising encounters the pair get on, with Gaston eventually taking pity on poor Abelard and taking him onboard ship as a stowaway. The friendship that develops, the way Gaston in particular is touched by Abelard’s wide-eyed innocence is heartbreaking.
By two-thirds of the way through there’s a sense of inevitability about it all, and a feeling of pressure, of tension, the ending can be seen from far off, but the emotional kick to the chest that it comes with was a real surprise. Tears. Lots of tears. You will too.
And inside this cutesy tale of animal friendship amidst the worst the world can throw at them we have a not too subtle parable of the early immigrants to America, each struggling to make their way, just like Abelard and Gaston, yet doing so with determination, pioneering spirit, and a belief that better things are just across that horizon for those fortunate enough to make it. They know they may not all reach the promised land of their dreams, but their hope is too strong to stop them at least trying.
I’m just soppy, and something like this really does get me every time. But I got to the end of the book, turned that final page and had a good, long cry. A harder heart than mine may find it too sentimental and determined to break hearts with a mix of sweet imagery and brutal themes, but I’m too busy wiping away the tears to hear those complaints thanks very much.
It’s a beautifully crafted piece of storytelling from Hautiére that tugs mercilessly at the heartstrings but doesn’t ever fall into sentimental or sickly sweet. If anything, by the end, we’re assaulted by the brutality of the story. And Dillies’ artwork is quite beautiful, his charming characters almost deliberately at odds with some of the themes and actions of the tale, yet never feeling wrong. His stylised colours perfectly suited to detailing all the wonders, all the misery, all the dreams Abelard finds along his journey.