Monday, April 7

How I Learned Geography

by Uri Shulevitz
FSG 2008

When his family is exiled from Poland, a young boy and his parents take refuge in nearby Soviet controlled Turkestan. Too poor to afford bread, one day the boy's father comes home with an enormous map of the Eastern Hemisphere. At first the boy is resentful of his father's actions because of the hunger, but the next day -- and many after -- the boy loses himself in the map, memorizing place names and imagining himself all over the world. In the end the boy forgives his father because he realizes the map gives back much more than the temporary fulfilment of physical hunger.

Based on Shulevitz's own experiences it's hard to figure out whether this is a personal memoir or a story about loving geography. Of course it's both, but it enters that same between world of another expat, Peter Sis, with his recent bio-memoir-picture book The Wall. The story reads like an old tale, partially because of its austere setting, but the flights of fancy also add that sense of something Old World. Shulevitz tells us a variation on the old Yiddish expression that sometimes a person needs a story more than food, the idea that feeding the mind can have greater value at times. Indeed, for a boy living the life of a refugee, having a singular point of refuge from his daily plight isn't such a bad trade-off in troubling times.

Shulevitz provides us with some biographical notes at the end, in addition to a pair of drawing he made as a boy that show his interest and development as an artist. One is a map drawn on the back of an envelope (all he had to draw on) done from memory of the large map, the other a cartoon he drew as a teen living in Paris that echoes one of the scenes from the book. The connection between his life, the influence of the map, and his drawings all come together in this bit of back matter (more back material at the end of a picture book!) and give an already strong book a weightiness it might not have had otherwise.
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