Book: Powell, Nate. Swallow Me Whole. Marietta: Top Shelf Productions, 2008.
Genre: Realistic Fiction in the form of a graphic novel
Audience: This book is intended for ages 15+.
Read-Aloud: (Coming soon)
Summary: Swallow Me Whole explores the life of Ruth (who is a schizophrenic) and her step-brother, Perry, whom also suffers from mental health issues. While most adolescent works explore the typical themes of the teenage experience (love, family relationships, bullying, etc.) Powell’s novel does so from the perspective of someone with a mental problem. The book allows you to see how Ruth deals with typical teen problems (or at least attempts to) with her illness. While the reader is able to explore the chaos in her mind and what she personally experiences, they still may not understand why she makes certain decisions, beyond exclaiming that she is ill. The novel also shows how the mental health of someone close to a mentally ill person may be affected if they are not “stable” themselves.
Themes: A prominent theme in Powell’s novel is obviously mental illness. Both Ruth and Perry appear to have problems in which no one else really understands outside of them. Throughout the novel, the reader can witness and/or experience Ruth’s mental breakdown: by the end of the novel, the reader is left to determine what actually happens to her. Perry seems to get better, but the reader gets to witness him slip back into old habits (he could be taken as having O.C.D.) as Ruth seems to get progressively worse. Ruth’s grandmother also appears to have a problem, although what is specifically wrong is quite ambiguous.
Another theme Swallow Me Whole explores is romantic relationships. As most teens do, Ruth and Perry engage in romantic relationships with other teens they get to know. In both cases, Perry’s even more than Ruth’s, the person’s partner seems to give them an escape from their “mental imprisonment”. When Ruth is with her boyfriend, she seems to be more stable and slows down on her bug collecting quite a bit; however, after some time passes, she goes even more crazy and gets out of control. In contrast, Perry is able to stop “listening” to his tiny, wizard, pen topper and even moves out of the house while he is in his relationship. He only begins to show signs of illness again after Ruth’s breakdown towards the end of the novel.
I also found evidence of alienation in Powell’s graphic novel. There are sections in which Ruth feels alone after Perry starts spending more time with his friends, and there is no one left that understands what she is going through. There is also evidence of their parents feeling alienated since the kids are growing up; they feel useless to them. Their mom believes she does not even compare to the teachers because she can only impose restrictions on them and their father believes there is nothing valuable he can do for them until they are adults.
Connections: Powell’s novel is based largely around mental illness and the breakdown of the human psyche: it would be very useful if a teacher was doing a lesson on diversity through the use of literature. A majority of young adult novels discuss whatever its central theme is, through the experience of a young, white, and healthy protagonist. Swallow Me Whole reveals the idea that life does not always work out that way and all young adults are not healthy. Besides bringing this idea to students, the novel goes even further to let the reader into the mind of a mentally ill youth, to understand how they experience everyday events like falling in love and dealing with family problems.
Reactions: I really enjoyed reading this novel. I am one of the many people that suffer from schizophrenia, so it was really interesting to see how someone else captures that frame of mind. At the same time, I may have understood it better due to a personal connection with the protagonist and I am not sure if that is a positive or a negative thing in this case. Still, I feel as if it is an interesting read, and anyone with questions about how a person with schizophrenia functions or perceives reality (things which I am asked frequently) may want to read Powell’s, Swallow Me Whole.
Reception: Greg McElhatton
On a site called Comic Mix, Andrew Wheeler describes the novel as “a major work by a young cartoonist”. While he does admit the novel moves slow, he also believes Powell hints at a sense of immediacy, due to everything continuously happening without external markers: just as life does. Just as G. McElhatton, Wheeler also finds the novel to be a tad unsettling but in a positive light. He feels as if it really allows readers to get inside of their minds.