Publication date August 2017
Reviewer NJ Sandon
Is returning to a book over and over again for yet another immersion, one criteria for a “good book”? You’ll return to this one just to dive onto the sketches but… Something in the sketches underscored by the story resonates, attracts, stimulates reflection and gets you hooked. The thing with Bruce Whatley’s book, like P Dick’s, Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep or G. Orwell’s, 1984, is that a book ahead of its time. It takes us away from our 2017 preoccupations and self interested materialistic preoccupations driving us towards the logical conclusion. With all things automated to set us free from work, the question begging – Free to do what and where?
Bruce Whatley refers to his book as the “most complicated project to date…”
Ruben was started ten years ago and the illustrations six years ago. So we are not dealing with an overnight thought bubble.
The story line is a simple one where a young boy, Ruben, lives a deteriorating city some time into the future. The “golden era” is over. Very little has survived, so in order for Ruben to survive, the young man has to ventures deeper and deeper in to the city. Escape we are told is essential. But escape from what and escape to what? What do you need to have around you in order to survive – examine closely Bruce’s sketches. Each detail requires a line of enquiry.
Where are the adults? Why are books being burnt? What is Koji’s place in the story line? Where are Ruben’s or Koji’s parents? How much accumulating of things will provide comfort or even safety? Why does Ruben return to being alone again?
While simple, the story is communicated through propositions and illustrations – in some instances there are no words but the reader can “hear” the story through the evocative sketches.
Prophetic for sure. A city and life is automated, optimized, stylized, maximized …ized, in every way, so that people are set free. But set free to do what? They’ve disappeared. Leisure in another place with dignifying work? Machines occupies the city space and Ruben and his newly found friend moves about between the machines and available spaces. Ruben is moving about in spaces of human’s own creation – hardly dignifying. Occupying a new but exhausted “no man’s land”.
As a reader I was set up to examine the extraordinary detailed sketches. For example, find the sketch of a page out of a deaf sign language dictionary with the finger spelling of the letter “A”. Why is that there? Look at Ruben’s collection that keeps him safe with familiar things in his little space – his survival pod. Why that collection? What memory is invoked?
I love this book. But here’s my dilemma – is it a children’s book or a book in a children’s genre? Is it an apologetic piece for adults in a children’s genre? A book for parents to warn their children of the final striptease of materialistic humanism? Who is the beneficiary of this cautionary tale? – where things got in the way of trees and people and birds and …
This a wise piece that could be made mandatory #101 reading for students in senior school to engage their critical faculties. In our rush for profits without limits and alleged freedom from work, we’ve done ourselves in. And Ruben is alone and withdraws and remains isolated from the “other”.
Editors have cast this as a children’s book! Something of an overreach in this poor reviewer’s judgment. Parents buy, borrow or steal this one. But a must have book for your library to visit and revisit as a salutary reminder!! A great work of elegant sketches produced by hand and story images produced by imagination. Yes, I would go so far as to write – a book ahead of its time but for its time! Thanks Bruce!
Bruce Whatley jumped into writing/ illustrating books in 1992 after a career in advertising. Whilst based in Australia, Bruce’s work is published internationally. A detail I love about Bruce is is that he is left handed – yes a “kacky hander”, a” south paw”. A detail that shouldn’t be lost on the reader as Bruce submitted his PhD dissertation in 2008, “Left Hand Right Hans: ambidextrous image making” – examining the image making of the non-dominant hand. He’s illustrated three books with his non-dominant hand. Water-colour artists will appreciate this skill for developing innovative images ambidextrously and simultaneously.