11.25.2011

Around the World, written and illustrated by Matt Phelan, 235 pp, RL 3

Around the World

With Around the World Matt Phelan brings us yet another remarkable graphic novel that peers into less known corners of history, American history to be exact. The Storm in the Barn  is the magical, sometimes painful story of a family's survival during the Dust Bowl. With Around the World Phelan peers into the lives of three amazing adventurers, Thomas Stevens, Wheelman (1884), Nellie Bly, Girl Reporter (1889) and Joshua Slocum, Mariner (1895). All three circumnavigated the world in the era before airplaines, and in three different ways. 

The first story belongs to Thomas Stevens, a Colorado miner who decides he is going to ride his bicycle across the United States. He keeps a diary of his journey with the intent of turning it into a book. What fascinated me most about these adventurers, among many interesting things, was the fact that all three of them financed their trips around the world with the sale of their writing. I thought that we Americans, in the last ten years or so, invented the concept of the commissioned autobiographical journey ( see: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and My Life as an Experiment by AJ Jacobs and Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk with the Queen of Talk by Robyn Okrant) but Phelan has proven me wrong. However, this fact of their travel is a small part of Phelan's book, although it must have consumed much of their time when these adventurers were planning their voyages. As Phelan writes in his author's note, the words "the public journey & he private journey" were his original early guidelines for mapping his story, thinking he would "simply dramatize the events of each of my subject's first-person narratives. The journeys were all extraordinary and fascinating on their own. My job would be primarily one of editing and pacing. Or so I thought." What Phelan finds are places where the "biography and narrative did not quite match up," inspiring him to delve into the "why they did it" of the stories instead of the "what they did." This thoughtfulness and insight is evident in the stories that Phelan chooses to share with his readers. 

Stevens' story is first and it is exhilarating and eye-opening to see this man struggle to maneuver this behemoth of a contraption across America, where bicycling is just gaining popularity. His journey is a mostly joyous one, especially in Europe where the bicycle has already caught on. Phelan ends Stevens' chapter with a quote from his book, Around the World on a Bicycle.
Around the World

Nellie Bly's story was the most exciting to me, knowing a bit about her beforehand. As a woman, of course I was interested in her fight to be taken seriously as a journalist and her undercover work as a mental patient in an asylum. What I knew less about was her attempt to travel around the world in a shorter time than Jules Vernes' Phileas Fogg from Around the World in 80 Days. In 1888 Bly proposed to her editor at the New York World newspaper that she travel the world in seventy-four days. Dismissed as an unrealistic task, Bly is called into the editor's office a year later and the idea turns into a reality, with Bly leaving two days later. She has two very specific, special dresses made for her and packed a small satchel and set off. Soon, another paper had sent a woman reporter on the same journey as competition for Bly. Newspapers had never had a better selling period. Bly was even invited to spend the afternoon with Jules Verne and his wife while passing through Paris, something she did grudgingly as the visit cost her precious time. Phelan includes many interesting tidbits from Bly's visits to exotic locales.


Phelan's final chapter covers a more solemn story, that of Joshua Slocum. Slocum, at veteran sailor, starts his first journey around the world alone in April of 1895 at the age of fifty. Slocum's journey is the most solitary of the three, perhaps necessarily by the nature of his chosen form of transportation, but also because of the nature of the man himself. As his story unfolds, we learn that Slocum has lost the love of his life, his wife and mother of his seven children, Virginia Albertina Walker. Slocum suffers from doldrums and memories as he makes his way from port to port, visited only by memories of his beloved, departed wife. After his journey had ended and his book, Sailing Alone Around the World, was published, Slocum led a quite, if not eccentric, life in Martha's Vineyard until, in 1909 at the age of sixty-five, he set sail once again on the Spray, the ship that had taken him around the world. He was never seen again.

I can't say enough about how amazing  Around the World is. I have read it many times and can easily imagine any boy or girl doing the same thing, then, hopefully seeking to learn more about the three characters who took these adventures. This is also the perfect book for any student given the assignment to write a book report on a biography! 


AROUND THE WORLD. Copyright © 2011 by Matt Phelan. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, SomervilleMA.

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