I found Ethel and Ernest waiting for me one evening on my nightstand. This is the home of my “to-read stack,” or at least the non-digital incarnations in my to-read list. This small volume had been laid to the side…not inserting itself onto the top of the stack, but rather existing as a suggestion off to the right. Initially thinking this was a book for our daughter’s reading lessons, I passed it by. Then Karen told me that she had checked it out from our library, and that I really should read it.
Opening its pages and discovering it to be a graphic novel intrigued me, so I allowed it to skip ahead of others on the list and read it next. I am unbelievably glad that I did.
Ethel and Ernest is an artist’s recollection of his parents…the story of their lives told as he remembers and has pieced it together. One reviewer called it a “love story,” and that phrase resonates as I have found myself thinking about the book…unpacking it, journaling through its impact on my life, an impact disproportionate to its small size.
We initially encounter Ethel and Ernest as they meet and fall in love in 1920’s London. We watch them work through their relationship as the world goes to war, the horrors of what was faced as they sent their son away to the country to be safe, the stories we’ve all read in history books taking on a completely new depth when we witness how it played out in the lives of this ordinary couple. We watch them become lost in the pace of industrial and technological change, loving the new conveniences (she cannot believe how fast the washing machine gets their clothes clean) while grappling with the enormity of how their lives are altered by them. I adore the scene in which they buy a car and go riding down the street, in disbelief that they could afford such luxury.
We walk through their remembering their early romance later in life, watch them struggle with the alienation from their son (the author of the book) as they struggle to adapt to the things that he just accepts.
I feel as though I know Ethel and Ernest now, like I’ve met them. I feel like I know how they tried their best as life rushed by, how they found ways to cope with their profound political disagreements. Perhaps this is inevitable with such a work, whether it’s Brigg’s intention or not, but I can’t help but see my own parents here. They still sit in the same house in which I grew up, and I can picture them waiting for their son to visit or call, uncertain at times of how to adapt to a world that is merciless in the speed with which it changes.
I can hear Brigg’s sorrow at his frustration with them. I can feel my own love for my daughter as I watch Earnest’s affection for his son. In short, I see that I have so much connecting me…all of us…with Ethel and Ernest, because their lives were ordinary, albeit lived in extraordinary times. Any of us can, and likely will, live through very similar struggles and triumphs.
I think that is why I fought back tears over Earnest’s loneliness in the end.
Brigg’s remorse over his broken relationship with his parents is never explicitly stated, but is an unmistakeable through-line, palpably felt in the jagged speech bubbles and the stark lines of his drawings of himself, making the reader painfully aware of his disproportionate responses. Ethel, always seeing their family as proper and never “common,” persists in offering him a comb whenever they see each other, which we see as adorable but which was a source of much friction in their relationship. I think that she just wanted to take care of him in a manner of which she was deprived by the war. Later, he accepts the comb, no longer feeling judged, some peace made before the end, before Ethel and Ernest pass away alone and in the cruelest of circumstances after giving their life together everything.
I see so much of not only my parents in them, but also of Karen and I. I wonder how our daughters will remember our lives when we are gone.
In the end, we find the author and his wife looking at the house which Ethel and Ernest bought together. He states with some wonder that they lived in the same house for 40 years and never moved. That home becomes a metaphor for Ethel and Ernest’s devotion to each other. The horrors that they witnessed, the turmoil through which they lived, made them stronger, more resilient in their commitment to their marriage and to their son. They stayed together until the end in a way that I hope to, and were stronger for it.
This achievement alone, if it can be replicated, can be called a successful life.
This little graphic novel carries so much weight. I am not the same as before I read it. I do not treat my relationships the same, I do not view our world the same. Neither, I suspect, will you. I am so glad that Briggs has given us the chance to become acquainted with Ethel and Ernest.
I encourage you to take the opportunity.