A Year Without Mom: A Gorgeous Graphic Novel About Separation and Reunion, the End of Childhood, and the Tradeoffs of Happiness
By Maria Popova
My parents, both Bulgarian, met while studying abroad in Russia. Shortly after I was born, they returned to St. Petersburg to finish their respective degrees, leaving me with my grandparents, with whom they lived. Although I was too young to have a conscious memory of the separation, it was a formative experience and one not uncommon in Eastern Europe of the 1970s and 1980s — a culture where people wed in their late teens and early twenties, had babies, and raised children with ample hands-on help from their own barely-middle-aged parents, all crammed into one multigenerational household.
In the gorgeous autobiographical graphic novel A Year Without Mom (public library), Russian-born Brooklyn-based illustrator Dasha Tolstikova — half of the duo behind the lovely picture-book The Jacket — tells a similar story, but one that impacted her all the more deeply under the circumstances of her age, her culture, and the particular moment in history.
We meet twelve-year-old Dasha, who lives with her mother and grandparents in downtown Moscow. It’s a quiet and comfortable middle-class life — as much as a middle class even existed under communism — until, one unexpected day, she overhears her grandmother and her mother in the kitchen.
It turns out that her mother has been admitted into a Master’s program in America and has decided to take the opportunity, which would mean leaving Dasha with grandma and grandpa for a whole year.
Coursing through the moving personal story of how Dasha fills her mother’s absence with a year of life are universal themes of loneliness, separation, communion, first love, and the disorienting desire to pin down one’s sense of self in a world of flux, instability, and incomprehensible change.
Undergirding the story is a lyrical farewell to the final frontier of childhood, past which one must learn to negotiate and reconcile the multitude of conflicting emotions paving that bumpy road to adulthood, adolescence — stubbornness and sensitivity, courage and anxiety, joy and despair, terror and tenderness.
We’re also reminded, as young Dasha watches the fall of the Soviet Union from the terrifying inside, that geopolitical history is always more complex, dimensional, and irrepressibly human than the victors’ textbooks tend to tell.
Tolstikova’s choice of color scheme — grayscale, with touches of red and navy — is both evocative of the Russian national flag and befitting the story’s mood: the all-consuming gloom of sadness and separation, sprinkled with the rosy hopefulness for reunion and the warm redemption of love.
At the end of the story, Dasha is given the coveted opportunity to join her mother in America — but even this previously longed-for reunion, like all major life-choices, proves itself to be a source of further conflictedness.
What emerges is a gentle reminder that road to happiness is strewn with tradeoffs, making peace with which is the only real way there.
A Year Without Mom comes from Canadian independent publisher Groundwood Books, makers of some of the most wonderful picture-books of our time, including Sidewalk Flowers, The Menino and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. Complement it with a parallel yet thoroughly different illustrated parable of separation and reunion, Marianne Dubuc’s wonderful The Lion and the Bird.
Illustrations © Dasha Tolstikova courtesy of Groundwood Books
Published December 18, 2015