James McMullan’s fascinating and often disturbing memoir, while part of the Algonquin Young Readers series, will appeal equally to older readers. McMullan was born into a well-to-do merchant family living near Shanghai, and his early memories read like a vintage MGM film: servants, outings, dinner dress, galas. Yet, as he tells us, his book is about “a nervous boy” searching for “a way to be in the world.” And James has a lot to be nervous about. As he approaches adolescence, the world he knows crumbles as the Japanese invade, his father enlists, and he and his mother sail to Canada on the last passenger liner heading out.
The predominant emotion of the book is dread. If young James is not worrying about torpedoes and, later, his thuggish Canadian classmates, he is fretting about his father in Burma and his increasingly unstable mother. Eventually, he is drawn to art, where he finds his strength. In “Leaving China,” each page-long chapter is accompanied by a painting on the facing page — and what rich and unsettling watercolors they are!
McMullan translates his strong visual memories into washy, purple-shadowed scenes, full of silent foreboding. Clearly defined figures are surrounded by dreamy, unreadable forms: a concoction of nerves and nightmares. In one panel, we see the distinctness of Japanese troops entering the town where the McMullans live while a sketched-in group of Chinese, seemingly covered by a light haze, look on.
In another, “The Night Runners,” a squad of soldiers on the other side of a fence is glimpsed from a darkened room. The lead runner holds a torch. It is easy to imagine the terror of the concealed viewer. When James appears in the paintings, he is generally isolated, a troubled bystander to the unfolding events. The title picture shows him as the white focal center. His parents nervously urge him up the gangplank while one Japanese soldier checks the ship’s manifest and another points a bayonet.
James’ journey ultimately takes him around the world (1½ times, in fact), and this portrait-of-an-artist story is deeply affecting. While his childhood is full of fear and grief, we see him discovering art, then using it to gain a sense of mastery over his worries. He goes on, we learn, to art school and a career in co-authoring children’s books with his wife, and producing illustrations for magazines. In telling his own story here, he displays the life of a worried child experiencing an extraordinary childhood.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.