I love the internet. I don’t remember how I first heard of Breena Wiederhoeft or her work, but I visited her website, where she put the full first chapter of this book online as a PDF preview. After reading it, I knew I needed to know more about what happened to these characters. Click, pay, and here was a chunky (over 250 pages) volume ready for me to read.
Picket Line is one of the last Xeric Award grant recipients. It’s about a restless young woman who doesn’t know what she wants in life. Beatrice has moved from the Midwest to northern California, where she finds herself working for Rex’s landscaping company.
I’m a long way past being in that kind of circumstance, but while it’s usually easy to feel maternal towards such characters, or to adopt a sort of “there, there, how young they are, I’m glad I grew out of that” approach, in this case, I found myself worried about and sympathetic towards Beatrice’s uncertainty. I think it’s because Wiederhoeft is so honest about how homesick and out of her depth Beatrice is.
Wiederhoeft’s simply styled art contrasts in intriguing fashion with the depth of her character insight. Rex and Beatrice resemble Fisher-Price Little People, with round heads and minimal features and limbs. Rex’s tiny arms are part of the plot, in fact, since the two meet when Beatrice helps him get something from a high shelf. At times, she sees him as (and he’s drawn as, thanks to the magic of comics) a cute little dinosaur, big head and small arms. That device carries subtly through the book, until it’s reworked near the end in surprising ways.
The uncomplicated art isn’t a shortcut, though, since Wiederhoeft is putting detail into the setting (a key part of the book’s plot) and immense amounts of crosshatch shading. The result is a book that looks unique and pops the cast to the foreground, keeping the reader’s attention on them, their feelings, and their choices. The lettering, which appears to be done with a brush, is similarly organic and personal; it really adds to the appeal.
A local rich family owns a huge amount of natural land. The patriarch passed away, vowing to open the land to the people, but his surviving son intends to develop the land, which requires taking out a lot of old-growth forest. Rex and his company are hired to maintain the land while the project progresses. Rex accepts in the hope he can convince the heir to do the right thing and save the forest in its natural state. However, the community he’s part of only sees him crossing the picket line of the title, populated by those against the development and anyone working for it.
This conflict is one that will resonate with a lot of people, especially those concerned with how to balance concerns about the environment and sensible living with commerce and modern life. Rex’s perspective is a very uncommon one, and it feels authentic while being as complex as the story demands. He’s retired from high-powered corporate life to do something he feels is more meaningful, taking care of land and mowing lawns, and his optimistic wish that working for the devil will allow him to redeem the bad guy seems naive but still believable, due to the good heart Wiederhoeft gives him and shows us.
As time passes and nothing is yet resolved in the bigger picture, the crew settles into a new routine. It’s surprising and yet human nature that even odd circumstances become a habit quickly. Also human is the way people believe in conspiracies and secret motives, beyond what the media and other people tell them. The events throughout the book become more dramatic as the story goes on, but at the end, this is an amazing book for capturing the peace that a natural connection can give you. (I’m particularly impressed at how effective it was in creating that feeling in me, since I’m allergic to most of the outdoors and never have the impulse to go hiking or anything like that.)
Next year, Breena Wiederhoeft plans to return to a natural setting in her graphic novel Oaks. I was so impressed with Picket Line that I’ll be ordering it as well.