With Only Five Plums
Created by: Terry Eisele, Jonathon Riddle
Published by: Self Published
ISBN: 1483991148 (Amazon)
Somewhere along the line, somehow, the Holocaust narrative became an almost exclusively Jewish story. Most of us are aware that other peoples were also ferociously persecuted, concentrated, and executed. Some even know it started with groups other than Jews. Some even know that for all the terror they endured (or, often, didn’t get the chance to endure), Jews were not the largest category of Holocaust victims. And yet, the Holocaust is theirs, their story.
Maybe they were better organized and better placed to keep the stories alive. Maybe they were better storytellers than the other groups. Maybe it was that they were so rigourously a part of the discovery and prosecution of the criminals of war. Maybe the world was just more willing to listen to their story than to the stories of others more disenfranchised—the Romani, the homosexuals, the disabled.
This was a powerful scene.
In any case, the Jewish people largely own the Holocaust narrative and they are devastatingly adept at telling their story of 20th century horror. And this is not any kind of a complaint. They deserve to be able to tell this story and tell it often. Hitler’s world was a terrible world, and the reminder of how easily it came about is always worthwhile. Still though, I’m glad when other victims of the regime find the opportunity to tell their stories as well. I’m grateful for the unknowns to be given voice to their anguishes and I’m grateful for authors like Terry Eisele who have sought out these vantages into the known, recorded, and recited terrors of the nationalist machine.
A couple reviews back, when looking at The Boxer, I reminded readers that I don’t actually pursue Holocaust stories any longer. I’m drained and beaten and find the entire prospect of reading again the misery of the human condition in that distilled form to be a kind of oppression that I no longer wish to engage. It’s not that I want to forget—I can’t forget—but more just that I’m full up. In elementary school, junior high, and high school, we read Holocaust books, watched Holocaust movies, met with Holocaust survivors, and had assemblies devoted to the Great Destruction. Then I later read Elie Wiesel, saw Judgment at Nuremberg, read Maus, and engaged numerous other perspectives on the history. I didn’t know if there was any more room in my heart for this woe. I felt I had a surplus. So Holocaust books tend to sit in my reading queue longer than I’d prefer. It takes me a long time to get to them (if I ever get to them).
Young sad lady Anna transforms into old sad lady anna.
I received all three volumes of With Only Five Plums sometime in February. Gauging how busy I was and the fact that I wasn’t in a hurry to delve again into the 1940s German atrocity, I suggested I might review the book near the end of April. April came and April went. Then May.11To be fair, I guess, my Vespa accident at the beginning of May demolished any sense of timeliness in updating the site and, while gradually recovering, I still am having trouble returning to a regular review schedule. Then June. And now July is nearly vanished. The fact was: I did not want to read With Only Five Plums. I just wasn’t in the mood to be sad, to encounter again the depravity of the human animal in such stark terms. And I wasn’t ready even when I finally sat down and read the three books.
I didn’t used to be so sensitive.
In With Only Five Plums, Eisele recounts via interview the experience of Anna Nesporova, a Czech Holocaust survivor. Nesporova’s entire town of Lidice is erased in a systematic destruction that includes the outright murder of the men, the eventual gassing of the children, the imprisonment of the women in Ravensbruck, and the razing of every building. It’s a horror story that seems remarkable because Anna, whose family is particularly targeted, is not Jewish. The whole town, in fact, falls to the Nazi exterminators for reasons of reputation rather than the Purity Of The Race. It’s a much more mundane reason, and I can’t decide whether it’s more, less, or equally terrible for all that.
Nesporova’s experiences ring true to the common notes of the Holocaust story. There’re the murders, the starvation, the abuse, the rape, the badges, the trains, the camps, the experiments, the ruthlessness, the fear, the hopelessness. It’s only in the details that Nesporova’s story is made her own—and it’s in those personal moments of unique history and context that the story of Anna of Lidice becomes especially worthwhile. There are episodes in With Only Five Plums that should break the heart, but one in particular—one that clearly devastated her—devastated me as I placed myself in her skin.
Which, of course, is why I don’t read Holocaust narratives.
With Only Five Plums is pretty clearly a young work. It’s self-published and very indie. Eisele’s collaboration with Jonathan Riddle feels like two creators dipping their toe in a dream. They, admirably enough, get the job done—and I’m glad to have encountered Nesporova’s story—but there is still a certain lack of confidence and practice evident in the final product. Riddle’s artwork is inked with an overly fine line that probably would have benefited from some greyscale washes or halftones, but feels too much like an artist new to inking and unfamiliar with how to best draw on the strengths of his art. The supplemental backmatter was a bit revelationary to me in that Riddle includes numerous pencil sketches on which his final work was derived. I wished that he had left the entire book in pencils. He seems much more confident in his pencils and his forms have more weight on the page in pencil than they do inked. His page design is sometimes plain and sometimes quite imaginative.
I wish so bad the entire work held the softness of these character sketches.
Eisele’s script is entirely narrative balloons (though the text actually floats on page without balloons), so all three books read more as illustrated vignettes than as the common sort of comics experience. It’s not a kind of storytelling that’s impossible to pull off in the graphic novel form. Emanuel Guibert wildly succeeds using the method in Alan’s War, his illustrated recollections of former American G.I. Alan Cope. While Cope (through Guibert’s storytelling) is engaging and lively and interesting and tells his story in one- or two-page pericope, Nesporova’s voice never takes on any of that charisma. It may be that Nesporova was not especially adept at telling her story or that Eisele simply found himself struggling to edit the wealth of her story into something more satisfying in a narrative sense. It’s a valuable story, but one that isn’t told in the most compelling manner.
With Only Five Plums uses borderless panels of art that run into and over each other, and I suspect the story would have felt better punctuated by confining the illustrations to set panels and then dividing the sometimes long blocks of text across the newly forged collection of panels per page. The story might have benefited from a bit more adherence to traditional formalism, especially with the freshly-minted status of these two comics creators.
Additionally, hand-lettering or a more mundane comics font could have helped readability. Nearly all the books’ text is in an oblique script (used to indicate Nesporova’s words) and it’s not especially conducive to quick reading. At another point, there is a story from the Jewish mythos featuring the Golem of Prague. The words switch to an all-capped Hebraicized Latin lettering, and while it’s intended to remind the reader that this aspect is a Jewish story, it rather hinders the reader and removes him from the text. I’m never very fond of computer fonting in comics, but it’s usually easy enough to overlook. It’s only when creators use gimmick fonts, serifs, and scripts that the reliance on the computer impedes the reading experience.
I realize I just dropped a pile of criticisms here, but while With Only Five Plums isn’t a polished work, it’s a good start for a couple of new creators and the story of Anna Nesporova is worth your time. I’m happy Eisele took the time to track her down.22Presuming the interview portion isn’t simply fiction in service to the story’s framing device. It’s hard enough in contemporary literature to tell these things that it’s stopped mattering whether the author’s in-story avatar is nonfictional or otherwise. It’s a fascinating story and may provide new perspective on the Holocaust for many readers. If you happen to run into With Only Five Plums down the road, I recommend giving it your attention.
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