Review: A Year Without Mom by Dasha

 Groundwood Books sent me a copy of
their recent release, A Year Without Mom, earlier this year, and in the
intervening time between then and now, I’ve been thinking about personal
narratives. In this debut graphic novel, Dasha Tolstikova tells the story of
growing up in Moscow in the early 1990s. Her mother is accepted into an MFA
program in the United States, and Dasha is left behind with her grandparents in
the summer of 1991.

 A Year Without Mom is a 174 page hardback book, illustrated with pencil and
inkwashes in a variety of dark tones. The book eschews traditional paneling for
a looser narrative structure, often with one large illustration per page and
text interspersed either as a typeface narration from an older Tolstikova or
handwritten in the voices of the characters. Page composition varies, and often
the illustration complements the text instead of being completely combined with
it. I struggled at times to call this book “comics” because it feels sometimes
very much like a picture book. But A Year
Without Mom
has moments of sublimity, like a scene where Dasha listens to a
tape recording of her mother’s voice, the text of which surrounds her as she
lays on the floor. There’s a feeling of heaviness in A Year Without Mom. A sadness that’s seen and felt but never mentioned hangs over the work – Tolstikova’s illustrations are muted and smoky, a fitting companion to the emotional tenor of the book.

 (you can make the argument that picture
books are comics, but I’ll save that discussion for another time)

 Part of what I find so fascinating
about the way we construct personal narratives is how confined they are to our
own sense of history and place. We have a sense of who we are because of what
happened to us and our friends, and rarely do major geopolitical events have a
huge impact on us as people. When they do, they’re inextricable, but rarely
singularly defined. For me, September 11, 2001 is a part of the fabric of my
life. It’s hard to remember that there are people who started college in 2015
who may have no actual memory of that date, who have always lived in an America
at war. But how that event actually plays out in my mind is just as much
whispered confusion and the giddy anxiety of being a teenager as it is the
images of a falling World Trade Center during study hall.

For Tolstikova, that defining geopolitical event is
the August Coup and the transfer of power from Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris
Yeltsin. But just like my experience with 9/11, Tolstikova’s memory of the
August Coup is more about the things she was doing at the time of the event
than the event itself. While the narrative of A Year Without Mom is made
from the fabric of the immediate fall of the USSR, the stitching that holds the
story together are the friendships, family members, crushes, art school
memories, and holidays. These things we remember about our lives, the humanity
we mix our history with, these are what make A Year Without Mom
resonate. Recommended.

Dasha Tolstikova @heytheredasha is an illustrator based in Brooklyn, NY. Her picture book The Jacket was a NY Times Notable Book in 2014. You can find more of Tolstikova’s work here.

Groundwood Books @groundwoodbooks, is an independent publisher of comics and books for children based in Toronto, and the Canadian publisher of one of my favorite graphic novels, This One Summer. You can see a catalog of their most recently published work here.

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