January 26, 2016

Calvin

by Martine Leavitt
Groundwood Books
978-1-55498-720-7
180 pp.
Ages 12+
November 2015

Just because Calvin, the book, is being touted as YA doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read by everyone and anyone who needs to have an understanding of mental health issues. Calvin, the main character, and his friend Susie both may be seventeen years of age and dealing with boy-girl relationship issues, but the book is far more than just realistic fiction for teens.  It’s akin to a Canadian YA version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, about a young man who goes on a pilgrimage to find meaning and meets an assortment of individuals and learns new truths that help him interpret his life.  This is a book for anyone mature enough to handle the truths within.

Calvin, the book, is a letter to Bill Watterson, the creator of the hugely popular comic Calvin and Hobbes.  Convinced he is connected to Bill Watterson because of his name, being born on the very day the last comic was published, and having a stuffed tiger named Hobbes and a friend named Susie, Calvin, the book’s protagonist, is sure that Bill Watterson is the man to help him out when he is diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Escaping with Susie’s help from the hospital, Calvin embarks on a treacherous winter pilgrimage across Lake Erie to Cleveland where he is somehow assured that Bill Watterson will provide him with a new and final comic that will display Calvin as a well-adjusted teen without an imaginary Hobbes.

Written both as dialogue between Calvin, Susie, Hobbes and an odd assortment of bit players and as text of Calvin’s thinking, Calvin takes the reader into the mind and experiences of a boy newly-diagnosed with schizophrenia who cannot deal with that reality.  Though she has not associated with him for the past year, Susie, a childhood friend, insists on accompanying Calvin.  So, after carefully outfitting themselves for an 87 km winter walk across a barren lake, Calvin and Susie set out from Point Pelee National Park.  Only Bill Watterson knows, apparently, because Calvin had written to the cartoonist, requesting he meet them on the other side of the lake.
The wind only whines and whistles and wails when it’s trying to get into the cracks of windows and doors.  It only thumps and bellows when it bumps up against trees and houses and cars.  But on a big flat empty lake, it’s just a force.  It’s a big soft hand that pushes and presses at you, silent, steady.  Soon you realize the wind isn’t flowing around you, over you, it’s flowing through you, penetrating the electromagnetic field that gives you the illusion of being a solid entity, whipping straight through you, spinning your atoms like tops and leaving them dizzy and frosty and deeply impressed. (pg. 65)
What seems to begin as a lark becomes a dark and dangerous survival test, with Calvin grappling with the imaginary Hobbes for possession of his mind and Susie revealing hidden truths to Calvin.  Just as Calvin has difficulty determining what is real–even Susie could be a figment of his imagination–so does the reader as the duo with Hobbes in tow encounter an ice fisherman, a poet, a parking lot, snow goons, and a monster, discussing brain activity, God, war and peace, school, and Bill Watterson’s motivations.  It all comes down to Susie helping  Calvin see that “I know about you but you don’t know about you” (pg. 132) and Calvin helping to keep Susie safe.

Reading about someone dealing with a mental illness is a very different beast than being inside them as they wrestle with their mental health issue.  And beast seems an appropriate term because Martine Leavitt takes the reader into the beast that is Calvin’s schizophrenia, as creative and quirky and potentially ferocious as Hobbes, Bill Watterson’s comic tiger.  With an issue as colossal as that immense Lake Erie, Martine Leavitt is able to take us into that part of Calvin that is both confused and distinct and searching for identity.  Scared of the monster he perceives himself to be and anticipating the judgements that will be aimed at him,
Hobbes: Since when did we care what people think?
Me: There’s more of them. The definition of sanity is a democratic thing.  They get to decide.
(pg. 21)
Calvin is running from his fears and towards his perceived salvation.  Salvation may or may not be waiting at the end of Calvin and Susie’s crossing but Martine Leavitt ensures a resolution.  It’s not all nice and neat but it is what it is: an ending and an beginning.

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