Each of Hope Larson’s books is more accomplished than the one before, from Salamander Dream (2005) to Gray Horses (2006) to 2008’s Chiggers and now Mercury.
The title refers to the liquid metal, which is contained within a mysterious pendant that ties together the stories of two girls living in the same small Nova Scotia town in different centuries. Tara is currently staying with her aunt, uncle, and cousins and preparing to enter 10th grade. She and her mother lost their home when their farmhouse burned down, and Mom is working elsewhere in the country. The family wants to move on and find a new future, but Tara’s not sure she’s ready to let go of the old homestead.
Meanwhile, in 1859, Tara’s ancestor Josey and her family are visited by a mysterious traveling man, the original owner of the magical necklace. He and her father go into business together, opening a mine when gold is discovered on the family’s property. The stories alternate frequently, with the white-bordered pages being set in the modern day, while the black-based pages take place in the past. Both girls’ stories are told much through their relationships with other girls of similar age, a friend in the past, a cousin in the present. It’s wonderful to see such strong female friendships.
The historical aspect is established through an unusual beginning, as Larson draws the same road in different eras, from the forest trail of the 1400s to a current paved expanse that Tara is jogging down. By connecting the story to this particular place, Larson follows in the sense of her previous books, which all had natural settings that suited her strong but flowing lines. They have a fluidity that suggests a river or bending willow, something flexible but hard to destroy, seeking its own path. It’s especially noticeable when it comes to her word balloons, with tails that curve back and forth before finding the speaker’s mouth. (This gives her increased freedom in staging her panels, too, since if tails curve around more than usual in order to get dialogue in the proper reading order, it’s not obvious.)
Larson has clearly done her research; the elements of daily life in the past provide a strong sense of place. The two sets of girls are similar in many ways in what they want and hope for and fear, but there’s a firm underpinning of just how different things were in the past due to the details of home and daily tasks. Josey’s dreams, when the possibility of riches is raised, are small — a new bonnet, maybe some white lace gloves. In the modern day, events are clearly taking place in Canada, but elements unclear to U.S. readers, like what a “loonie” is, are footnoted briefly.
Tara’s growing up and attending high school is complicated by her status as a “charity case”, where she had to take donations after losing everything. She feels rootless, which may explain her fascination with her old home (now destroyed) and history. Her escape is running. Josey, on the other hand, is fascinated by the man who’s introduced a different element into her life. Both are experiencing their first stirrings of possible love, but unlike many other graphic novels for young readers, that doesn’t become the center and only thing in their life, but a balanced part of it.
As you might expect, the necklace winds up tying the two together across time. Mercury’s a key part of refining gold, a symbol of the events that change Josey’s life, while Tara finds that the pendant gives her an unusual ability. There’s some magical realism here, a second sight that sets the girls apart for good or ill. This story is meaty and substantial, with a lot going on in these 234 pages, in addition to being uniquely balanced and creative, an approachable reworking of historical fiction. Highly recommended. (The publisher provided a review copy.)