by Martine Leavitt
In Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, the lines between what was real and what was fantasy were blurred. While you often were aware that something you were seeing came from Calvin’s imagination, sometimes you were fooled into thinking something “real” was happening, only to have the rug pulled out from under you.
And so, Watterson’s strip was the perfect background for Martine Leavitt’s YA novel Calvin — a book about a seventeen-year-old with schizophrenia who has trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is imaginary.
It’s a book in which the reader is constantly wondering which parts of the story are true. The main character shares his name with Watterson’s creation: Calvin … though the reader has to wonder if even that much is true, since so much of what Calvin tells us is a product of his own mind.
Calvin once believed that he was, in fact, Watterson’s character, and had a stuffed tiger that he believed was Hobbes. At the point in which the main story takes place, our Calvin is aware of his schizophrenia and knows that he is not Watterson’s Calvin, and he also knows that Hobbes is not real … though that doesn’t stop Hobbes from hanging around.
This is where any certainty Calvin has ends. It’s also where any certainty the reader has ends, and it’s this uncertainty that gorgeously, delightfully, and poignantly powers the novel.
Calvin — our Calvin — has a friend who we are told is named Susie. He also has a bully named Maurice. People familiar with Watterson’s comic will know that his Calvin has a frenemy named Susie Derkins and a bully named Moe. And if you really know your stuff about Calvin and Hobbes, you’ll know that one of the monsters who lives under his bed is named Maurice.
So, we have to wonder if Maurice is real, and is really named Maurice. But Maurice is a minor character. More important to the reader is whether Susie is real, because Susie is Calvin’s companion on the journey that he ends up taking.
And what a journey it is. Calvin has given himself the idea that he can clear his head of his delusions if he can meet Bill Watterson and convince him to draw one more strip of the comic he walked away from in 1995. To do that, Calvin is determined to walk all the way from Leamington, Ontario, across frozen Lake Erie, to Watterson’s home in Cleveland, Ohio.
And Susie is going with him.
The planned journey is so outrageous that the reader has to immediately doubt that Susie exists, because it’s almost unimaginable that a real person would follow Calvin on his trek. But this Susie does.
We also wonder if Calvin is really making this journey at all.
They run into an ice fisherman along the way across Lake Erie — and get advice on how to know when the ice is safe to walk on. The advice is so specific and so solid that we begin to believe the journey must be happening and that, since the ice fisherman acknowledges Susie’s presence, she must exist too.
But that, of course, presumes that there really is an ice fisherman.
And as if we don’t have enough layers of uncertainty already, Leavitt even takes a moment to make us question whether what we perceive as reality in our own world is reality after all.
The suspense remains high throughout the book. But there’s far more than suspense, because Calvin’s story grips the heart. The reader, like Calvin, is in a constant battle between what they want to be true and what they know to be true. And Susie is a big part of the battle. As Calvin and Susie become closer, and even romantic, we hope, desperately, for Susie to be real, because we want Calvin to find real happiness. And we do more than just wonder if she is real: we fear that she is not, and that fear becomes intense.
The emotional battle has another element: we want for Calvin to win his mental health battle, even though that means conquering the illusions. If Susie is one of the illusions, there is sadness attached to winning the battle.
Of course, we also have another concern: walking across a Great Lake in the middle of winter sounds extraordinarily dangerous, and it sounds that way because it is. The questions about what is real and what is not real start to take a back seat to the worry that not everyone on this journey — whoever is actually on this journey — is going to survive.
Calvin is deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking while telling an engrossing story. Every step of Calvin’s journey is a treat. And though the copyright page tells us that the book was written and published without the approval of Bill Watterson, one hopes that he will enjoy that readers of Calvin are likely to go back and re-read Calvin and Hobbes comics with a different perspective.
Reviewed by Barry Jowett