In The Country Nurse, the final installment of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy, the artist is obsessed with images—the image of the open farmland of Essex County, the image of a crow flying in front of the moon, the image of a boy growing up and learning the truth about who he is. He uses these composite images to complete a larger picture, started in the first two books in the series, of Essex County, a fictionalized version of his hometown.
In a real sense, then, Essex County is the protagonist of the three books. Whereas so often in series based on locations—consider any TV show set in a particular locale, for starters—the plots of the characters’ lives become the focus of the story, here the reverse is true: The tales of these characters are woven into the larger fabric of the story of Essex County, and the stories are important not so much for what happens in them as for how they represent life in the county. The lives of the people in Essex County become emblematic of the place, rather than subsuming it with their own drama.
Thus Lemire tells about his characters and their pasts, but in a very unassuming, unhurried way. As we read, we do not feel like we are racing toward any plot conclusions; we are merely observing and taking in what is set before us. The book is a feat of controlled tone and atmosphere. Lemire sets a slow pace that in turn mimics the pace of life in Essex County, where little really “happens” from day to day.
Because the plot is not at the forefront of the novel, the art is extremely important; luckily, it doesn’t disappoint. Lemire’s black-and-white drawings are poignant and at times deeply personal. He often prefers that we get to know the characters by reading the expressions on their faces, and sometimes their thoughts, rather than relying on dialogue. In one especially well-done scene, for instance, when Lester, who we met as a younger boy in book one, finally finds out who his father is, Lemire skips the conversation between uncle Ken (who is raising Lester) and his nephew altogether. Instead, Ken tells Lester that “we need to talk,” and what follows is a silent two-page spread that beautifully renders the slight movements indicative of the conversation. Lemire even removes us from the room in which they are talking, placing us outside the window as spectators, along with a crow.
The wonderful thing about a passage like this is the balance that he strikes between story and form. We are engaged in what is happening—we have been waiting since book one for Ken to tell Lester about his father—but also how it is happening—the sparse, simple drawings that distill an emotionally charged conversation down to a handful of understated moments in time.