Graphic novel written and illustrated by Carol Swain and published by Fantagraphics Books in 2014. 

The story focuses on an 11-year-old girl named Helen who has just moved with her family to rural Wales. Helen is a quiet girl with a keen interest in nature and keeps her own journal to write about and draw the animals and plants she sees. Her family doesn't seem to mind her roaming all over the countryside which gives her a lot of freedom to see what she wants and talk to local residents.

One of the local residents mentions to her a "rare bird" who recently committed suicide. Helen's curiosity is piqued by the idea of an animal that has killed itself, and she is directed to Cuddig Farm. She talks to a couple of dogs at the farm (The animals here can talk. It doesn't seem to be Helen's imagination -- other people mention talking to animals. This is not considered strange -- probably magic realism going on here) and learns the rare bird was not so much a bird as a person -- Emrys Bowen, a reclusive and lonely farmer who wore makeup and bright hair dye and dressed as a woman. 

Helen works to learn more about Emrys. Some of her detective work involves searching the area around Cuddig Farm She finds some of Emrys' belongings, chiefly a cosmetic kit and a spent shotgun shell. She also interviews other people around the area, as well as Emrys' dogs and the Tup, a ram in Emrys' herd of sheep, about what they knew about Emrys. She's one of only two people to attend Emrys' funeral (the other is the Avon Lady -- she thought she was providing makeup for Emrys' sister). Finally, she takes an all-day outing to a small cafe just over the border in England, where Emrys traveled every day to eat lunch. The waitress remembers Emrys fondly, but they only ever had one short conversation over the course of many years. 

Helen's investigation of Emrys' life is the dominant plotline of the book, but it isn't the only element of the story. Helen is also busy investigating the country she's moved to, sketching the animals and birds she meets, writing down new Welsh words she learns, learning the hard facts about how to run a farm, and wandering across the landscape for page after beautiful black-and-white page. While Emrys' story is sad, it's far from the only sad story she encounters. Other humans who Helen meets suffer from the loneliness and isolation of the rural setting. And the Tup has his share of hardships, including a diseased foot that could get him put down early -- Helen's conversations with the Tup are some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, and insightful in the book. 

For all the sorrow of the book, the empathy it brings to its characters is even greater. Though the book consistently refers to Emrys as male, this feels like a storytelling decision -- rural settings are rarely the most enlightened of locales, and the local residents may have never even heard of terms like "gender identity" or "gender dysphoria." Helen's education on these matters is also probably rudimentary. In fact, the book never states outright whether Emrys is transgender or is merely cross-dressing. I suspect that she is transgender, however, and her suicide may have come about because of her isolation and unhappiness

However, you never hear any character express contempt for Emrys. The locals may have thought she was strange. The animals may have considered her to be a man. Helen may see her as a mystery to unravel. But none of them express dislike for her, and more than one says words to the effect of "That's just the way things go." And the egg man who first tells Helen about Emrys refers to her as a "rare bird" -- if he meant "bird" as a slang term for "woman," acceptance for who Emrys was may have been more widespread than we expect. And Helen's investigation into Emrys' past guarantees there's at least one person who will probably remember Emrys for life. 

If you can find this one, you should pick it up. It's a beautiful and compassionate story, and you won't soon forget it. 

Gast (?), v. t. [OE. gasten, gsten to frighten, akin to Goth. usgaisjan. See Aghast, Ghastly, and cf. Gaze.]

To make aghast; to frighten; to terrify. See Aghast.

[Obs.]

Chaucer. Shak.

 

© Webster 1913.

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