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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.