The Savage / Slog’s Dad
The first YA novel I read that was written by David Almond was Skellig, a GatheringBooks special three or four years back – a huge topic of discussion among my lovely brilliant girls (when GatheringBooks was not as public as it is now) – and since then I have fallen hopelessly in love with David Almond. Dave McKean, of course, I know from The Sandman and my lovely Neil Gaiman picture books The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish. Needless to say, I am likewise as hopelessly in love with him as I am with David Almond. Hence having these two team up for two gloriously-written graphic novels is a match made in the afterlife – a perfect fit.
The Savage and Slog’s Dad are published two years apart – 2008 for Savage and this year 2010 for Slog’s Dad – but they deal with similar themes and issues and utilized the same powerful medium of graphic novel (that is so Dave McKean).
Grief that knows no name. When I was trying to think of a perfectly nuanced way of capturing what these two books are – this is the only thing that I can dredge from my own soul. It deals with this unspeakable pain – that is part rage and part quiet acceptance. While seemingly disparate, it captures the complexity of how it is like to deal with the loss of a loved one. In Slog and Blue’s case, it was their father. I can not recall how many times my voice broke as I read both stories aloud to my eight year old – and yes we both ended up wiping tears from our eyes for each of the stories. It simply cannot be helped.
Power of the Vernacular. In both stories, David Almond used vernacular
language to highlight emotions and authenticity of how conversation normally is among friends or family members. This is an example of a conversation between Slog and his friend Davie:
“ ‘What’s up?’ I said. He nodded across the square. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘Look at what?’ ‘It’s me dad,’ he whispered. ‘Your dad?’ ‘Aye.’ I just looked at him. ‘That bloke there,’ he said ‘What bloke where?’ ‘Him on the bench. Him with the cap on. Him with the stick.”
To which Davie replied feelingly but with utmost sensitivity “‘Slogger, man,’ I said. ‘Your dad’s dead.’” – and so began Slog’s Dad.
With The Savage, the same way of speaking could be noted in the narrative, although not as heavily accented as in Slog’s Dad. I remember having soo much fun reading this with just the right Aussie and Brit twang, that my daughter loved it – though I have to admit, she is better at accents than I ever could be. Here is an illustration of an exchange between Blue and his mam (not mom):
“ ‘Lads need their dads to grow up properly,’ she said. I knew it was true, but I tried to be strong. I said as soon as I could I’d go out and get a job and look after us all. She laughed and said, ‘Will you now? What kind of job?’
I didn’t have a clue, of course.
‘One that’ll get me loads of dosh,’ I said. ‘I’ll be a pop singer.’ And I started yelling out a pop song. ‘Or a footballer,’ I said, and I dribbled a ball of paper through the kitchen.’
At the same time that it demonstrates the use of language, it also shares with the reader a private snapshot of how episodes of smiles and laughter are fleetingly extracted from patches and blocks of pain and loss and seemingly-unending anguish.
Story within a Story. What makes The Savage stand out is its skillfully
weaving a story within a story that took on a surreal note somewhere in the end – as fiction and reality seem to blend together like splashes of watercolour and overlapping paints – that is peculiarly David Almond’s style. If you’ve read Skellig then you’d know. Unlike Slog’s Dad which characterizes the heartbreak of disease slowly eating a person away into fragile little fragments – The Savage deals with the aftermath of loss. Blue explained his father’s death as: “One day Dad was there with the rest of us. The next his heart stopped, and he wasn’t.” No fanfare, no maudlin sentiments – just the dealing. Through writing. Through The Savage.
Upon his father’s death, the school counselor requested Blue to write down his thoughts:
“She said she wanted me to explore my grief, and ‘start to move forward’. I did try for a while, but it just seemed stupid, and it even made me feel worse, so one day I ripped up all that stuff about myself, got an old notebook and started scribbling ‘The Savage’.”
Instead of overanalyzing one’s unhappiness and collecting them all together in the pages of a notebook for the school counselor to ooh and aah over – Blue Baker did something else – he created this wild, feral creature who lives in a most uninhibited, wild fashion (that only boys perhaps could dream about) – a fearless being who can put bullies in their place with a growl, who could snap the necks of chickens in his bare hands and kills anyone on sight, if he feels like it. The Savage.
While there are a lot of psychological elements that can be teased out from the tale (I’d probably use this book if I was teaching Counseling or Abnormal Psychology) – I have a feeling that it was not meant to be read that way. And it seems like a huge disservice to the naked nature of the book to even attempt such. Yes, the Savage could be perceived as the reification (even alter-ego), the full embodiment of Blue’s rage – and could be (over)analyzed as such, but I prefer to see Blue for who he is. A sad boy who writes stories which eventually saved his life. While others turn to psychologists, drugs, pill-popping, knitting, or compulsively cleaning the toilet – Blue found his inner savage and brought him to life through his misspelled words and crude drawings. The Savage filled that aching, yawning chasm in his life that was created by his father’s passing away – and from that pit, the Savage clawed its way out to the white lined pages of Blue’s notebook.
Death Eating Away at One’s Flesh. In Slog’s Dad, a different face of grief is
portrayed. The painful recollections of the entire process of dying is laid out for everyone to pinch, slice, and cut – like death twenty times over and beyond. It is Davie’s voice that we hear, not Slog’s. Davie recalls what it was like before Slog’s dad died – as pieces of his body are gradually being hacked into bits – it began with one toe…
“Then he got a black spot on his other big toenail, and they took him away again, and they started chopping at his other leg, and Slog said it was like living in horror picture.” (p. 25)
Yet Slog’s dad regardless of how weak he is becoming each day, refuses to be
beaten by this illness that cuts away into the core of his bones:
“ ‘They can hack your body to a hundred bits,’ he’d say. ‘But they cannot hack your soul.’
We saw him shrinking. Slog told me he’d heard his mother whispering about his dad’s fingers coming off. He told me about Mrs Mickley lifting his dad from the chair each night, laying him down, whispering her goodnights, like he was a little bairn. Slog said that some nights when he was really scared, he’d got into bed beside them.
‘But it just makes it worse,’ he said. He cried. ‘I’m bigger than me dad, Davie. I’m bigger than me bliddy dad!’ (pp. 26-27)
The Afterlife. While other writers tend to shy away from these beyond-haunting narratives (these two books are so achingly real it could not even be classified as a horror story) – David Almond and Dave McKean plunge into taboo topics like a brilliant shaft cutting into murky darkness. Only those with scarred souls can enter that depth of darkness and come out whole. These two men are out on a rollercoaster pilgrimage to the afterlife through McKean’s cinematic, pastiche-like illustrations that bring such discomfort and unease – and Almond’s soul laid bare through his words.
The books also deal with a lot of unanswered questions about mortality and whether the dead can come back ‘transfigured’ in some manner. And as is the trademark of Almond, the book raises even more questions: is it simply Slog’s desire to see his father again that made him regard the scruffy-looking man as his dad – as he holds on to a promise made to him by his pa when he said “Watch for me in the Spring.” This is one of Slog’s conversation with his Dad about heaven:
‘What’s heaven like, Dad?’ said Slog.
‘Hard to describe, son.’
‘It’s like bright and peaceful and there’s God and the angels and all that…’ The bloke looked at his sandwich. ‘It’s like having all the saveloy dips you ever want. With everything, every time.’ (52)
Snarls, Grunts, and Releasing The Wild Within. Over and beyond the story created by Blue about the blue-skinned feral creature, embedded in it is the story of the bully Hopper, his younger sister Jess who cries out in the middle of the night looking for her dad, and that raw snarl waiting to be released. This scene here shows the hues intermingling until one can not tell the savage from Blue, Blue from the savage:
“ ‘Come along, Blue,’ she said. ‘Come and tell me what the trouble is. You know you can speak to me.’
But I couldn’t speak. I grunted at her. I grunted again.
‘Oh, Blue,’ she said, trying to be tender.
And I couldn’t stand it. I bared my teeth and snarled at her like the savage would and I grabbed my book and pen and jumped out of my seat and ran out of the room and headed for the woods, and all the way, on street corners, and in lanes between houses, and as I entered the woods and went deeper into the woods, I kept stopping, scribbling the next bit of the story, and the next bit, till I was right there, walking towards the ruined chapel. And I was terrified, but at the same time somehow deadly deadly calm. I stood among the stones in the chapel and I wrote a few more words.”
Hauntingly Real. What sets these two books apart from the other tales that we would be most likely reviewing is that it deals with a spectre that haunts us all: Death and dying. I’ve mentioned before that books come to you for a reason. If you feel that you or your child are not ready for these books yet, you shouldn’t pick them up from the library shelves (or the bookstore for that matter). But if for some reason, the book beckons to you and asks you to open it – it would be great to have an adult with you or a special friend you can share your thoughts with about the book. While a deeply personal journey, this book invites one to see the pain, go beyond it, and transcend it – all the while acknowledging its uneven, pulsating quality.
David Almond is a multi-award winning British author for children (2010 Hans
Christian Andersen Author award, Whitbread Children’s book award, Carnegie Medal). He lives in Northumberland with his family. His bio, words of wisdom, thoughts about writing could be found in his website here.
Dave McKean is a league of his own. I have to cut this short because I have a feeling I would gush and be unable to stop raving about his surreal artwork that moves me like no other otherworldly fantastical children’s artwork can. His website could be found here.Sources The Savage is the feature writer’s personal copy. Slog’s Dad has been borrowed from the community library. Slog’s Dad book cover/ The Savage Book Cover/ Dave McKean’s Photo – http://www.viewfromheremagazine.com/2010/09/dave-mckean-interview.html All book photos were taken by me. The Savage – http://forbiddenplanet.co.uk/blog/2010/going-wild-for-the-savage/ Slog’s Dad – http://forbiddenplanet.co.uk/blog/page/22/?p=mazuxofzxs Slog’s Dad spread – http://www.viewfromheremagazine.com/2010/09/dave-mckean-interview.html