If your idea of graphic novels involves super-heros battling the forces of darkness using dialog heavy on "Bang!" "Pow!" and "Zap!", you may be surprised when you see Marian Henley's graphic memoir, The Shiniest Jewel. It's a deceptively simple story of love and family, of being different and learning self-acceptance—and of the life-altering miracle of gaining a whole new understanding of yourself in the process.
The Shiniest Jewel chronicles cartoonist Henley's decision at age 49 to adopt a child from Russia, a decision she announces to her parents on a Christmas Eve visit after years of agonizing and months after actually initiating the adoption process. A panel filling the whole next page shows Henley doubled over in a chair, alone after blurting out the news. "That night, I worried," says the caption. The thought balloons drifting over her solitary figure will resonate with anyone who has ever doubted her path (which probably is all of us): "What are they thinking?" "Why do I care what they're thinking?" "They think I'm crazy." "Maybe I am crazy." "I'm not crazy."
The decision to adopt a child takes Henley through anxiety and into elation when the adoption agency finds her a boy, Sergey. "I kept [his picture] on my drawing table, so I could see it while I worked...I felt proud of him. He wasn't my son, and yet he was," says the text next to the panels showing the photo of a snub-nosed, round-cheeked, bald infant. Then comes despair when after months of waiting (one panel shows her using reading glasses to decipher a Russian grammer labeled "Easy!" "Fun!" while in another she is doing a yoga headstand), she finds that the authorities in Russia have decided that she is "too old" (here the panel shows her looking into a mirror and feeling her face) and "too unstable" to adopt. ("They had seen my portfolio statements. How unstable could I be?")
As Henley reels, her father, who has already survived heart bypass, prostate cancer, and throat cancer, goes back into the hospital, and her boyfriend of seven years, an orthopedic surgeon, asks her to buy a house with him in Nashville, where he has moved after medical school in Austin, where Henley lives. Then she gets an email from her agency offering Igor, a year-old boy in Vladivostok, the far eastern edge of Russia. His mother was HIV positive, his father unknown. She has 12 business days to make her decision. What she decides will test her more than anything she has ever known—and ultimately reshape her life completely.
Henley's spare and evocative drawings and her deft ability to employ just a few words to evoke voices and thoughts exemplify the truth in the phrase "less equals more." The lack of clutter keeps the story moving quickly and also lends it a simple realism and power. If you've wondered about the popularity of graphic novels, you'll understand after reading The Shiniest Jewel, a jewel of a story, well-drawn and well-told.
Marian Henley's comic strips have appeared in publications as diverse as More, Glamour, Ms., and MAD, as well as the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Utne Reader. Live action video adaptations of her comic strip have aired on PBS and the Learning Channel. She is the author of Maxine!, a graphic novel, and Laughing Gas, a collection of comic strips. Visit her website.
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