Soupy Leaves Home by Cecil Castellucci and Jose Pimienta is one of my favourite books read this year. (I mean. It’s only March, but I’ve done a lot of reading. The book award selection committee life, y’all. It’s intense.)
Here’s what the back cover has to say:
When Pearl runs away from her abusive father, she has nowhere to go — until she stumbles upon a disguise that gives her the key to a new identity. Reborn as a boy named Soupy, she hitches her star to Ramshackle, a hobo who takes her under his wing.
Ramshackle’s kindness and protection go a long way toward helping Soupy heal from her difficult past. But he has his own demons to wrestle with, and he’ll need Soupy just as much as she needs him.
Two misfits with no place to call home take a train-hopping journey from the cold heartbreak of their eastern homes to the sunny promise of California in this Depression-era coming-of-age tale.
One of the things that marks the graphic novel written by someone who really knows what they’re doing is how pared down the text is, or isn’t. Is everything that happens in the panels laid out in the text boxes, or does the writer trust the illustrator to carry the tale? In Soupy Leaves Home, the words are pared down about as far as they could be: in the first three pages, there are only four text boxes. We see Pearl leave a house yard, walk the dark streets. We don’t know what is going on, not immediately, but we know that something is very wrong.
Pearl — not yet Soupy — doesn’t speak. It isn’t only that she has no one to talk to. At this point in her life, she has lost autonomy and her voice. She is still too near to home; and running away alone hasn’t freed her.
The thing about Ramshackle is he’s kind. He is unerringly kind and patient, the grandfather and friend anyone might dream of. The demons mentioned on the back cover: don’t worry, this is not a book where the friend and guide turns out to be a predator. Everyone is carrying their own wounds, and still tries to lighten the burdens of others.
This is a story of community.
The hobo world has complexities beyond the day to day matters of survival. Even outcasts have insiders and outsiders, and social currents that shape who is welcomed and who is not. The glimpse into these currents and into the hobo code, both the literal signs and the code of conduct, is compelling, heady stuff.
Above all, though, this is Soupy’s story as she finds a family, a people, and — eventually — herself.
Pimienta’s use of colour is genius. Most of the story is drawn in one set of shades at a time: everything in a certain yellow, or blue, or red. Imagination, storytelling, and hope are shown in rainbow-new swirls as Soupy and Ramshackle see beyond their present straitened circumstances. Important moments and shifts in character, as when Tom Cat reunites with his daughter, are visible via different colour. Not only a strong sense of place/time and culture, but character background are built in through the illustrations.**
Small complaints about a book I very much enjoyed: there’s a very odd conversation between Soupy and Professor Jack about sexuality that feels like a panel or two is missing; at least, I couldn’t quite follow the emotional flow and undercurrents of the conversation. (Professor Jack acknowledges that some hobos prefer men, even as he assumes that Soupy will like girls once he’s old enough to like anybody. Which is oddly heteronormative and pointless. Even if the joke’s on him.) There are a few places where the art and the text don’t quite match or flow, emotionally. And (slight spoiler) Soupy’s grandmother has a significant change in heart entirely off-page.*
That said, I loved this story. Soupy is believable and her journey pulls the reader right in. Her words on loneliness, grief, community, struggle, and finding her own strength are beautifully written and perfectly placed within the illustrations and the whole of the story. This is a book to stay in your head, to be reread and reread again.
You may just end up singing “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” for weeks on end.
Further reading, aka all the interviews:
- Nafiza’s interview with Cecil Castellucci
- Cecil Castellucci and Jose Pimienta talk with School Library Journal about the creative process behind Soupy Leaves Home
- Cecil Castellucci talks with School Library Journal about Soupy Leaves Home
- Cecil Castellucci talks with Paste about Soupy Leaves Home
- Jose Pimienta and Van Jensen talk with Comics Alliance about The Leg
- Cecil Castellucci talks with the Los Angeles Review of Books about the creation of Soupy Leaves Home, recovering from trauma, and working with Jose Pimienta
- Nafiza’s review of Castellucci’s Shade
- Nafiza’s reviews of Castellucci’s Janes (1) (2)
*I wanted the grandmother to suffer more. SPOILER: she’s a freaking abuse enabler/(lesser) abuser herself; I wanted some groveling. But I guess overriding her son and sending Soupy to college is a decent apology.
**For instance, the words never mention that Professor Jack is Navajo, because Soupy (probably) doesn’t realize it. But the reader can piece together clues from his sister’s house, especially the sign above the door (Haash Yinilyé, or What is your name?) and gather that this heritage is another part of the reason most other hoboes mistrust the Professor. (The sign is a particularly brilliant illustrative touch, imho, as Flossie’s house is the first place where Soupy can imagine being happy and being Pearl again; the first place where she has to choose again whom to be, for now.)