Mercury: Scottish folklore, gold-mining, and track in Nova Scotia

As my readers may have figured out, I am mildly obessed with Canada. Something about a nation which has had similar influences to my own but has gone in a very different way just tickles my fancy, Therefore, any story that really deals deeply with Canadian culture is immediately of interest to me.

Therefore, when I found this comic at the library, I had to check it out once I read the words "Nova Scotia" and "gold mining." What I found was even more fascinating than I expected.

"Mercury" tells two parallel stories, both based in the fictional town of French Hill, Nova Scotia and centered around a teenaged girl member of the Fraser family--one story in 1859, another in 2009. To distinguish between the two, the 1859 story's gutter (the bit between the panels) is black, while the 2009 story's is white. It's simple but surprisingly effective.

The 1859 focuses on Josey Fraser, the level-headed and virtuous daughter of a farmer worried about providing for his children. Into the lives of the Fraser family comes Asa Curry, a roguish Australian tramp with a talent for finding gold who proposes a partnership between himself and Josey's father to mine a gold seam on the Fraser land. Josey's mother does not trust or approve of Asa, but the rest of the family is smitten, especially Josey herself. But bad omens begin to mount up, and this story is destined for a dark ending...

150 years later, Tara Fraser has moved back to French Hill. Her family's ancestral farm house (the one Josey and her family lived in) burned to the ground recently and her mother had to move to the Alberta Tar Sands for work, so she is currently living with her cousin Lindsey, attempting to relearn the ropes in French Hill, particularly the high school she left for homeschooling two years ago. There she meets two new friends: fellow track athlete Ben, who she bears an unfortunate physical resemblance to (thanks to Tara's boyish haircut), and his friend Ceilidh, who is impressed with Tara's knack for finding things and loves telling stories of local folklore.

It is interesting to compare the two protagonists. Both Tara and Josey resemble each other physically, although they are clearly not the same person. Both have overbearing mothers who want to control them, and both are unsure of what they want out of life. But while Joey is fairly passive, allowing her path to be shaped by her mother, father, and Asa, Tara at least tries to assert her authority, even though it doesn't really end up helping much in regards to the wishes of her moher, aunt, and uncle.

Of the two stories, Josey's is probably stronger, as she falls in love with Asa while Asa butts heads with her mother who clearly views him to be bad news, her opinion not helped by a vision she saw of disaster occuring because of the mining project. This is because Josey's story is an actual story, whilst Tara's story is just a collection of random events that happen: she re-connects with her school acquaintances, gets a crush on Ben, finds a necklace with charm of a glass bead with a bit of mercury inside it (last seen around the neck of Asa Curry), and discovers the necklace can find lost objects. While a pseudo-plot arises kind of (with Tara, Ben, and Ceilidh going off to look for gold), and there is a conflict at hand (Tara's mom wants her to move to Edmonton with her, while Tara wants to stay in French Hill with her new friends), the first's resolution seems to be an afterthought while the second one gets no resolution at all. It's the one major disappointment of this otherwise great book.

One thing that I loved about this book was is background of Scottish folklore that permeates the story. I liked how it reveals itself gradually, so that it's shocking when it becomes clear that some of its elements seem to be actually happening. Tara's story seems to have a majority of it, but both stories are full of it, and it really gives a lot of texture and detail to the story.

Finally, I loved how real this felt. Hope Larson, the writer and artist, has obviously done her homework. Tons of little details (down to the names of various Nova Scotian and Canadian restaurants) make it very clear that Larson knows what she's talking about. What makes this all the more impressive is that Larson is an American from North Carolina. And yet, she seems to be able to write about Nova Scotia as if she were a native (at least, as far as I can tell).

All in all, this is an impressive comic. Although the Tara story is a little weak, the strength of the Josey story, combined with the great characters in both stories and the fact that Hope Larson obviously knows her stuff about both Scottish folklore and Nova Scotian culture makes this story a must- read for anyone who comes across it. If you find it, check it out!


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