WE ARE ON OUR OWN reviewed in Geist

“We Are On Our Own” / Geist / Sarah Leavitt / July 10, 2006

Miriam Katin was a small child when she and her mother escaped Nazi-occupied Budapest by faking their deaths and walking into the Hungarian countryside. At sixty-three, Katin has finally told her story, in straightforward, unsentimental prose and lovely, seemingly effortless drawings. We Are On Our Own (Drawn & Quarterly) opens with a page on which the words "In the beginning, darkness was on the face of the deep" sit surrounded by a scribbled black background. Over the next few pages, young Miriam (called Lisa in the story) and her mother Esther study the Bible while a huge flag with a swastika on it blows across their window. Then, from an eerily mundane scene of Esther and Lisa at a café, the tale spirals into terror as Esther first hands their dog over to the Nazis-Jews are not allowed to have dogs-and then burns their belongings and takes Lisa into hiding. Katin tells her story with sparse, well-chosen words- minimal narration and dialogue that highlights key incidents-instead of trying to explain every detail of what happened to her. She draws with casual grace, creating figures that are cartoonish and even funny sometimes: the neighbours gossip about Esther with sketchy faces-wide eyes, turned-up noses, two lines of dark lipstick-that hark back to 1940s and '50s New Yorker cartoons. Yet Katin's loose, expressive style also brings immediacy to harrowing scenes in which soldiers rape women and shoot dogs, and to the final frames, in which Lisa sits under a table remembering, and stabbing her doll with a fork. This image ends the story on a powerful, haunting note, but it is followed by a five-page afterword consisting of explanations and details of Katin's life since she and her mother escaped. As well, the jacket copy on the advance reading edition promises (three times in 245 words) that the story will trace Katin's "lifelong struggle with faith." It doesn't-it tells what happened to Katin and her family over several months between 1944 and 1945, and the writing and drawing are weaker when the author seems to be trying to live up to the promo material. Is it my imagination or do publishers seem reluctant lately to let stories-fiction or non-stand on their own without explanation? In spite of such interference, readers will appreciate We Are On Our Own for what it is-one woman's clear and potent recollection of childhood horror-and we can imagine for ourselves what might have happened to Katin's belief in God after witnessing unspeakable violence and death.

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