We Are On Our Own
Drawn & Quarterly
Katin’s story begins in “lousy rotten times,” just as the deportation of Hungarian Jews is about to begin in earnest. Meanwhile, Esther Levy, the smart, attractive alter ego for Katin’s mother, is desperate to keep herself and her young child safe until her husband, who is off fighting with the Hungarian army, can find them. This requires several things: faking her own death; securing false documents and assuming the identity of a peasant travelling the war-torn countryside with an illegitimate child; allowing herself to be seduced by a German officer; and depending on the precarious kindness of strangers. “Be smart. Be crafty. Find a way to vanish,” she is advised by one of those strangers.
The most moving element of Katin’s book centres on the relationship between mother and daughter – in particular, the mother’s determination to safeguard her child’s innocence despite an ever-worsening situation. Here, the choice made by Katin to make her story into a graphic novel pays dividends. In the shadowy, stark, mainly black-and-white illustrations, we see the desperate expression on the face of the mother as her world crumbles and on the face of the child as her naive happiness occasionally gives way to grim understanding.
The comic book, a.k.a. the graphic novel, is not just a comic book any more. The work of graphic novelists like Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and Art Spiegelman, and publishing houses like Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly (the publisher of We Are on Our Own), illustrate that telling a story with pictures and words is as valid and as intrinsically literary as telling it the old-fashioned way, with words alone. No subject is out of bounds, the Holocaust included.
Even so, some adjustments are required. With We Are on Our Own, that means getting used to the fact that Katin’s drawings carry the weight of the book’s suspense and poignancy. The dialogue is adequate but the narrative structure can be clumsy at times. We jump, for example, from 1944 to the late 1960s and early 1970s, and from the central character as a little girl to a mother herself, without much warning or preparation.
There is also the suggestion, throughout the book as well as in the publisher’s press release, that this will be a story about the loss of faith but that theme is never satisfactorily developed. Here a perhaps unfair comparison with Spiegelman’s Maus, the story of how the author’s father survived Auschwitz, is unavoidable. In addition to his strange, brilliant decision to make Germans and Jews into literal cartoon characters, cats and mice respectively, Spiegelman gives us the complicated subplot of growing up as the child of a survivor. It’s the anguish and ambiguity of that father and son relationship that makes Maus testimony and, what’s more – literature.
In We Are on Our Own, testimony will suffice. This is not to diminish its considerable value, however. Elie Wiesel has said that “not to transmit an experience is to betray it,” and the 63-year-old Katin is to be commended, so many years later, for honouring her experience in powerful words and pictures. She tells her story with courage and determination.