Mau­rice and His Dictionary

Cary Fagan, Enzo Lord Mar­i­ano (illus.)

  • Review
By – October 13, 2020

Acclaimed Cana­di­an author Cary Fagan has ded­i­cat­ed his writ­ing tal­ent to help­ing chil­dren under­stand the refugee expe­ri­ence. He is a grand­son of Jew­ish emi­grant Mau­rice Fej­gen­baum, who, along with his fam­i­ly, fled Nazi-occu­pied Bel­gium; they first found safe haven in the British colony of Jamaica, and ulti­mate­ly set­tled in Cana­da. Fagan nar­rates his graph­ic nov­el from the per­spec­tive of Mau­rice, a con­fused and fright­ened child. His sto­ry begins in chaos and fear, but ends in hope, as Mau­rice dis­cov­ers that many peo­ple empathize with his predica­ment and are com­mit­ted to help­ing him achieve his dream. Illus­tra­tor Enzo Lord Mariano’s live­ly sequences of com­ic book-style action com­ple­ment Fagan’s min­i­mal­ist word bub­bles, where fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty inter­ac­tion mix with Maurice’s reflec­tions on his life.

The book begins abrupt­ly, with the famil­iar scene of dis­be­lief and fran­tic activ­i­ty, as the Fej­gen­baums pre­pare to leave Brus­sels. Maurice’s ques­tions to his par­ents remain unan­swered, as his moth­er, pic­tured stuff­ing a fam­i­ly meno­rah into a suit­case, orders him to start pack­ing!” Young read­ers learn the back­ground of their des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion through Maurice’s brief first-per­son recital of events, and are invit­ed to empathize with his loss of com­mu­ni­ty — from syn­a­gogue and fam­i­ly cel­e­bra­tions, to his brother’s care­free enjoy­ment of soc­cer. Mau­rice finds an emo­tion­al anchor in ratio­nal process­es. He has always hoped to become a lawyer, because his father has taught him that the law is what makes us all equal.” Even as his fam­i­ly is uproot­ed through no fault of their own, Mau­rice refus­es to find the irony of that asser­tion, instead insist­ing that the pow­er of words will even­tu­al­ly lib­er­ate him.

Although the events of the book are trau­mat­ic, Fagan tem­pers the sto­ry with gen­tle­ness and humor. Maurice’s father, even as he strug­gles to sup­port their fam­i­ly, is unfail­ing­ly sup­port­ive of his son, instruct­ing him to solve one prob­lem, and then the next, and then the next.” The prob­lems they con­front are mas­sive, and hard­ly seem amenable to res­o­lu­tion by that sim­ple direc­tive, but at least they have escaped. Their intern­ment in a Jamaican camp deprives them of per­son­al auton­o­my, but leaves them some basic dig­ni­ty. When the camp com­man­dant grants Mau­rice a pass to vis­it the town, he pur­chas­es the dic­tio­nary which becomes his sal­va­tion. While his prac­ti­cal moth­er dis­putes the use­ful­ness of this item, Mau­rice has inter­nal­ized his father’s trust in words recit­ing them alpha­bet­i­cal­ly, read­ing aloud from a Dick­ens nov­el, and work­ing to mas­ter the arcane require­ment of Latin in order to gain admis­sion to the local prep school. It is at this school where stu­dents and teach­ers of both Euro­pean and African ances­try help him to feel at home.

There is a del­i­cate bal­ance between real­is­ti­cal­ly depict­ing the worst of human nature and empha­siz­ing people’s abil­i­ty to adapt and sur­vive. Mau­rice and his fam­i­ly cheat the Nazis through a com­bi­na­tion of tim­ing and luck. The ten­sion in their fam­i­ly includes moments of strain, par­tic­u­lar­ly between his ide­al­is­tic father and lov­ing but ambiva­lent moth­er: The schol­ar is home! Pick up a nee­dle and tell us what you learned today.” Mariano’s mem­o­rable por­traits of each char­ac­ter, with ele­ments of car­i­ca­ture pep­pered with per­son­al details, invite the read­er to iden­ti­fy with this quirky fam­i­ly — tossed and turned by events beyond their con­trol. Maurice’s obses­sion with lan­guage at first seems almost obtuse, remov­ing him psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly from a sit­u­a­tion from which he may nev­er exit. Ulti­mate­ly, he does thrive; that seem­ing­ly quixot­ic love of words was his tick­et to freedom.

Mau­rice and His Dic­tio­nary is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes an Author’s Note” with fur­ther his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion, pho­tographs, and doc­u­ments about the Fagan family.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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