Honor Girl is Maggie Thrash's graphic memoir that was released last year and garnered awards and attention. Thrash chronicles the summer at an all girls camp where, having just turned fifteen, she falls in love for the first time.
Maggie's mom and her grandma went to Camp Bellflower, set deep in the Kentucky Appalachians. Every summer, on the first night of camp, the Honor Girl, chosen on the last night of camp the summer before, is serenaded. At the end of the song, the Honor Girl's candle is used to light the candles of all the other campers. Thrash writes, "the criteria for Honor Girl were vague, with no particular definition. It was just the one who seemed, in an unmistakable way, to represent the best of us." Maggie is reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, her favorite Backstreet Boy is Kevin Richardson and she wears a leash at night that tethers her to her bed and keeps her from sleepwalking. The details of 15-year-old Maggie's life are mundane yet so genuinely real. Thrash is a gifted writer, making the quiet, everyday minutiae interesting and engaging. It's easy to get inside Maggie's head, feel what she feels, be fifteen.
Thrash tells the story of her first crush in all its thwarted, unconsummated, painful truth and it happens the way that I am sure most first loves happen, not the way they play out in fiction, especially YA fiction. Her crush, Erin, a 19-year-old counselor and astronomy major at college in Colorado, is not unknown to Maggie. But, she begins to feel differently about Erin after she gives her a routine lice check, running her fingers through Maggie's hair. Thrash uses wordless panels to illustrate this seen and as you scan you can feel something turning on, waking up, or beginning to slowly burn inside of Maggie. Thrash's skill as a visual story teller deepens the story immensely. Her illustration style is markedly different and less polished than many other graphic novels I have read. I'm still learning how to write about the art work in graphic novels and often look to other reviewers to help me shape my thoughts. I turned to Monica Johnson's review for The Comics Journal and found that her words describe Thrash's style (and the unique abilities that graphic novels have over other forms of writing) better than any I could find. Of Honor Girl Johnson writes,
Thrash certainly has drawing skills, but they're her own, and they're specifically savvy for the story she is telling. Her bare-bones line drawings colored with watercolor pencils seem to be channeled directly from her 15-year-old self. The drawings have the rawness and bright-eyed directness of the teenager depicted in them, who can't hide behind a catalog of romantic experience and mastery. This is part of the brilliance of the comic medium itself - the way images work in concert with the literal to tell a deeper, much richer story - and Thrash really hits the mark with it. The drawings are so believably vulnerable, which is maybe why her story feels so devastating.
Johnson's use of the word vulnerable is well placed, both in describing the illustrations, Maggie and Erin. Maggie and Erin have moments of vulnerability and missed opportunities. Erin is a counselor for the junior girls and Maggie is a senior girl, so they don't have many chances to run into each other alone. Then there is the fact that, in the eyes of the law, Erin is an adult and Maggie is a child, not to mention that, even though it's 2000, this is the South and a Christian girl's camp and being openly gay is not accepted. Maggie shares her feelings about Erin with friends and finds sympathy and support. They keep Maggie's secret and also nudge - or shove, in the way that teenage girls do - her toward Erin. In a meeting alone between Erin and Maggie, Maggie knows that Erin has made a move, and now it's up to her to make the kiss happen. But, filled with self doubt, she can't make it happen. She can't be that vulnerable.
While Honor Girl is a memoir about first love, it is also, if peripherally about being gay. Maggie is pulled aside by the head counselor who starts wide, telling her that her parents could sue the camp for statutory rape if her relationship with Erin goes any farther. Circling in for her target, she tells Maggie that it's, "her job to make sure everyone feels safe" because camp is a place where "girls can be totally innocent and free, maybe for the last time in their lives." Maggie assures her that she does feel safe, to which the response is, "Everyone else needs to feel safe, too. From you. . . Don't ruin it for everyone." The brutality of that moment is hard to read, especially because I think most of us, most women, experienced a time in our adolescence when an adult betrayed, disappointed or backhandedly told us not to be ourselves and those words go deep.
Thrash bookends Honor Girl with an event that takes place two years after her summer with Erin, but seems to play itself out the same as it did at Camp Bellflower. As Johnson says wisely in her review, "If you don't let people know that they are wanted, they will go away. Love relationships are fragile opportunities. They need care and attention. They need those moments to happen." Honor Girl is a powerful, bittersweet reminder of this.
Source: Review Copy