We’ve got an interesting one in this episode – Journey Into Mohawk Country – originally written by Dutchman Harmen Meyndertsz von den Bogaert (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) in 1634, and illustrated by American George O’Connor (pronunciation: pretty straight forward) in 2006. Yes, that’s 372 years difference. Quite a collaboration, no? Curious already? Allow me to elaborate…
So, this is the brilliant thing about Journey Into Mohawk Country: it’s based on the personal journal of von den Bogaert, a Dutchman in the pre-American colony of New Amsterdam (present day New York), who is tasked with travelling north into Indian country during the winter of 1634. Wait – that’s not quite the brilliant thing. Did I say based on? Nay. The text of Journey Into Mohawk Country is the journal of von den Bogaert. Verbatim. (Translated, of course.) That is the brilliant thing.
A brief synopsis: Harmen, a 23-year-old barber/surgeon (yes, barber slash surgeon – he can do your sideburns and appendectomy in one sitting), is on a mission from the Dutch West India Company to revive the waning beaver fur trade with the Mohawks. He takes along with him Mssrs. Jeromus la Croex and Willem Tomassen, who will become his trusted companions, and often the 2nd and 3rd stooges in this intriguing journey.
You may be wondering, how does one take a historic journal and turn it into a rather charming graphic novel, without any editing of any sort? Well, I imagine the genius of George O’Connor has a lot to do with it.
As you might suppose, von den Bogaert’s journal is fairly factual, although the details that lie within provide a rich foundation for O’Connor’s ample imagination. O’Connor’s brilliance comes into play with the illustrations. Where von den Bogaert’s account lacks in narrative intrigue, O’Connor elaborates with a healthy dose of supposed (and deftly wrought) emotion in the players, all through the use of his pen. In fact, O’Connor paints a whole other story line on top of the factual events – and this story line is truly what makes the book and characters interesting, approachable, and engaging. That’s not to say that he’s altering von den Bogaert’s account, but enhancing it, and bringing it into the realm of a marketable tale in the 21st century.
Unfortunately, sticking to the original text causes the story to be a bit aimless. It may accurately describe the events of Harmen’s journey, but it certainly doesn’t follow a classic story arc in any way. O’Connor does try to fabricate something resembling a climax (which is in fact fairly moving) solely through his illustrations, but it’s not nearly momentous enough to give the book the familiar balance that you’re used to. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Remember, this is in essence an illustrated journal, and it should not necessarily be judged on the same criteria as a work of fiction or a biography.
As noted above, George O’Connor’s artwork bears the lion’s share of bringing this piece of history to a wider audience. But it should be mentioned that his illustrations are also quite appealing and stylistic, and fully able to stand on their own – independent of the fascinating tale that they help to tell. His style is slightly cartoonish, which gives the story a light feeling, and makes the characters that much more accessible. The ambiance is further enhanced by the brilliant and appropriate color palette of colorist Hilary Sycamore.
If you’re a fan of non-fiction (and history, specifically), then I think you’ll find a lot to like in Journey Into Mohawk Country. I personally found it interesting, informative, and charming – which all adds up to very enjoyable if you do the math. Where it suffers for want of Hollywood pacing and structure, it makes up for in likable and sympathetic characters, and historical relevance. Overall, I give Journey Into Mohawk Country a 7 out of 10 – the very description of a decent book. Do pick it up, and happy reading!