Monday, April 28, 2008

Peter Sis: The Wall (Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain)

I first came across Peter Sis and his intricate, detailed drawings when I was in college. I just happened (thankfully) across Starry Messenger one day while browsing the children's section, and I was instantly hooked. His work is all at once breathtaking and thought-provoking and complicated and unaffected. Each time I read a Peter Sis book, I immediately want to go back to the beginning and read it all over again so I can appreciate all the details I missed the first time around.

So it's no surprise that I was swept away by his newest book, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. I can't believe almost a year has gone by since this book came out and I just got it yesterday!

The Wall is the story of Peter Sis' childhood and young adulthood in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. Throughout the book, we see the life he lived through his eyes: the book is spattered with entries from his childhood journals, actual family photos, and even his own childhood drawings of tanks and planes and patriotism. But it is art and music that dominate his world, though both can be very dangerous. He paints in secret in his room and joins a rock band (but fails to grow his hair long--the ultimate act of defiance).

I've read some reviews that criticize the book for being too one-sided, too western eurocentric, too America-saves-the-day. Sis himself mentions in an interview that some colleagues in Prauge are disgusted by the book (I'd be interested to read some of *those* reviews). But this is his life as he remembers it from a child's point of view. Of course things are always more complicated than they appear on the surface. To me, this book is more a testament to art and music and the desire to create and be free.

And it is an interesting discussion. I lived in Budapest for six months in 1997, and many of the Hungarian students my age were disgusted with the new capitalism and were nostalgic for the days of Communism, when there were no red light districts, no homeless, no Burger King. They refused to learn English in school, preferring Russian. Their parents, however, were shocked. I saw one parent telling her son how he couldn't begin to understand the constant fear and anxiety she had lived under. That went over as well as the "I walked 10 miles in a blizzard to school every day" kind of speech you'd get from your grandfather.

In his afterword, Peter Sis (who came to the US in the 80s on a short term work visa and stayed) explains it this way:

Now when my American family goes to visit my Czech family in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies. I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it's hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life--before America--for them. Any resemblance to the story in this book is intentional.
The Wall is an absolutely fascinating book, and though it is picture book size, I would actually recommend it for adults, especially jr. high and high school students. The graphic-novel, personal narrative style is an interesting way to engage the subject of the Cold War and should incite lots of discussion.

On Peter Sis' website, there is a Teacher's Guide (.pdf) for anyone hoping to use the book in class.

You can also find an interesting audio interview with Peter Sis on the site (click Audio Reading).

Here is the New York Times review with a small piece of one of my favorite images from the book--of Czechoslovakians painting and repainting a wall.

Here is the Fuse #8 review (I almost always turn to Fuse #8 *before* the New York Times :)

Here is an interesting YouTube mashup of images from the book and actual video footage from communist Czechoslovakia.

1 comment:

Andrew Clarke said...

Josephine, if you like books such as "The Chronicles Of Narnia", or allegorical fantasy with serious themes, may I suggest a title to try? "Outcasts Of Skagaray" was written for the neglected and unwanted children of the world. It works toward a good outcome, not just a cheesy happy ending. If you read it and commented, your opinion would be valued. I liked your review of "The Wall." For excerpts, please see www.threeswans.com.au Best wishes