Staff Book Review: Maus

Do you love graphic novels and wish there was a place you could talk about them with others? Your Library now offers Beyond the Pale, a monthly discussion group for adults that focuses on graphic novels. We’ll meet for the first time this Thursday, Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. at Mulligan’s Gaming Pub (308 East Main Street, Johnson City). This month we’ll discuss Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus. If you’ve read Maus, please join us!

JCPL Library Assistant Zachary Harris, who leads your Library’s Beyond the Pale Graphic Novel Club, recently reviewed Maus. Check out his review below!

Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel memoir about the Holocaust, Maus, remains a titan in the graphic novel canon. Since its first appearance in 1980, Maus has challenged even the best of the traditional printed page. Combining personal testimony and the complexity of a family’s intergenerational trauma, Spiegelman demonstrates the heights that the supposedly “lowly comic” art form can achieve.

Maus is an exemplary account of the horrible and real human suffering of the Holocaust. But as Spiegelman chronicles his Jewish parents’ real-life experiences in the Holocaust, he also provides a commentary on identity, family, and how history lives within us for better or worse. His father’s identity, his relationship to the Holocaust, and the inseparability of Spiegelman’s identity from his father’s, shine throughout Maus.

The graphic novel has received an incredible amount of praise and a fair amount of derision in its tumultuous publication history. However, even the praise heaped upon it tends to mischaracterize the content and intention of the book. A common term used to describe this book’s philosophy is “stoicism.” Spiegelman’s depiction of his father, himself, and the Holocaust have been seen by many as trending toward the dispassionate, or being concerned with “just the facts.” However, Spiegelman’s telling of the Holocaust survivor’s experience is rife with the sidetracks, step-retracing, and interpersonal intrigue that only a deeply emotional and personal story can convey.

Spiegelman does not shy away from representing how the Holocaust and his father have shaped his own feelings of inferiority, crises of identity, and familial alienation. He portrays his father as someone who experienced one of the worst atrocities humanity could conjure. His father is pictured as chronically unable to throw anything away nor spend his money in any reasonable fashion. This behavior, according to Spiegelman, undoubtedly arose from the tribulations of the ghetto and the Auschwitz death camp.

However, his father holds prejudices of his own, and Spiegelman does not shy away from including these in his story. At one point his father profiles a stranger with an offensive stereotype and uses a Yiddish slur against him. The unfortunate irony of this instance is not lost on Spiegelman. He bookends this scene with himself and his partner decrying his father for this blatant racism, especially given his experiences at the hands of the Nazis.

This experience illustrates that Maus is not fundamentally stoic nor dispassionate. Rather, Spiegelman’s Maus is a prime example of the messiness of history and its actors. The lessons learned from even the worst tragedies are not always clear, nor are the subjects of history ever fully separated from their experiences. In all actuality, Maus is a complex book full of even more complex people.

There are no grand conclusions in Maus, as there rarely are in life. Yet, in bringing the past and its countless dead to life, Spiegelman surrounds us with history’s ghosts. The choice left for us is whether to converse with them.

Your Library’s staff members love giving book recommendations! If you need something new to read, we can help find books and authors that are perfect for you. Call (423) 434-4450, visit our website, or drop by 100 West Millard Street to talk with a librarian. We also regularly highlight and recommend books on Facebook and Instagram, so follow us!

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