Today we’re starting with Craig Thompson’s Blankets! This is a beautiful book, but it contains its share of nudity, sexual themes, religious questioning, and sexual abuse. I’m really on a memoir roll here, but I think if you’re interested in bittersweet stories, childhood romances, or coming-of-age stories, then you’ll enjoy this beast of a book.
Plot: Craig Thompson explores family, religion, and first love in his coming-of-age memoir.
Initial thoughts: This book of nearly 600 pages looks intimidating if you’re just starting out, but it’s easy to digest in nine compact chapters. I read it over the span of the week, and honestly I could have finished it within two or three because although there are many pages, it’s a quick read that brilliantly utilizes white space and wide, sweeping imagery. I would even suggest reading it in two or three sitting periods (even within the same day, if you wanted!) because the emotional impact will be that much stronger. If you do decide to break it up between days, you still won’t lose anything or be overwhelmed by the content to the point of forgetting what happened. The narrative switching among Craig’s youth with his brother to his time with Raina to his fear of God is so tightly interwoven that the depth of these messages is easily understood even if you take a break.
Story-wise, the last chapter of the book, “Footnotes,” is really important to the overall message Thompson is making about growing up, but the last pages of the chapter before it, “Vanishing Cave,” are so powerful that I wish it would have ended there. Art-wise, the style is simple but eloquent. Words and drawings work brilliantly together in order to enhance the meaning of the story in ways that is not possible strictly with words sans images or with images sans words. In terms of a story that must be told as a graphic novel, Blankets fits the bill.
Itty Bitty Research: What could I possibly research about Blankets that isn’t already told in the story? I guess I’ll start right there: blankets. There’s Raina’s quilt, the bedsheets shared between Craig and his younger brother, the metaphorical security blanket, blankets of snow, and blanket statements. Blankets in all of these contexts serve to suppress or comfort, and Craig’s embracing or rejection of blankets changes throughout the course of the book. Going with the more literal of blankets, I decided to look into quilting because I don’t know much about it.
I started with the history of quilting in the USA because textile domestic work has been a traditionally feminine designated labor and I wanted to know if there was any connection to why Raina has a deep connection to quilting. It turns out that quilts are pretty important to the USA – even the Smithsonian has an exhibit on them. You can read a short woman-focused herstory about quilting in America here, which includes some interesting facts such as contemporary cotton quilts being a distinctly USA mark on quilting history because of the USA’s cotton industry. Prior to cotton, quilts were a luxury item because the textiles necessary to make them were expensive to make. The story takes place in the Midwest – Wisconsin and Michigan, to be exact – so quilting as a USA art form is significant to the cultural climate of the story as well.
Regarding the matter of social relationships and quilting, it’s interesting that during the 1800s family heirlooms had to be forgotten but quilts were able to remain because they were considered household items. Family histories were sometimes inherent in the final product of a quilt, but the rise of quilting bees – social gatherings where women made quilts – also meant that quilts had important social value in the process of labor. According to the site, “all of the stages of a woman’s life – girlhood, marriage, child raising, and death were shared with the women of her community over the quilting frame.” While Craig burns all of the keepsakes he had relating to Raina – including the only picture where she appears alone, Raina’s quilt serves as a way to preserve those memories. Furthermore, it is not only her memories but Craig’s which are preserved through the quilt, which embodies the practice of telling stories – family or otherwise – through quiltmaking.
There’s another interesting social implication as I read through the history of quiltmaking in the USA: women’s leisure and intent. Quilt making utilizes domestic skills that used to be important in a woman’s education and preparation to be a wife. Craig’s attraction to Raina is significantly domestic, and the quilt is representative of that. However, historically quilts were also given as tokens of friendship. Craig and Raina both seek a relationship but in different ways: Craig desires a romantic, sexual relationship while Raina recognizes she cannot commit to this. Their bond, with all its hopes and frustrations, is epitomized by the quilt. Simultaneously, the quilt is representative of seemingly contradictory definitions of family and friendship, though both terms could be applied to Craig and Raina’s relationship depending on how you view it.
Emporia State Unversity’s page on quilting in the Great Plains asserts that “Because quilts provide protection from the elements, quilt-making is an art or skill that has never ceased to exist.” In the context of Thompson’s Blankets, it’s important to consider what Raina’s blanket might protect him from other than the snowy chill. Since Craig burned all of Raina’s keepsakes, it seems as though the blanket is an object that evokes anxiety and frustration rather than soothing protection. I think, however, that the blanket represents innocence and support that ultimately protect Craig from his cynicism and doubt. As he says to his brother, “And that’s my comfort — / — that someone else was there and experienced the same thing. / How else could I know it was REAL, and not merely a dream?” (539). The quilt, like all other blankets in the book, protects, most importantly, Craig’s memories.
References: Thompson, Craig. Blankets. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2003. Print.