Most of us have a deep nostalgia for childhood, for that rare and precious time in which imagination reigns unconstrained and we live a life mostly free of concerns about mortality, identity and social status. At least, that’s the way we often remember childhood in the haze of nostalgia.
But childhood is also a terrifying time. Social status is ephemeral, twins get mixed up with each other, and even the death of a much-loved pet can trigger a group of friends to go deep into mourning.
Gordon Harris’s Dust Elves: Mistaken Identity is a thoughtful exploration of childhood, one in which unicorns and fighter pilots and elves all live side by side in the imaginations of a pair of twin girls and their friends. Harris creates a world of small secrets and shared imaginations, a miniature universe inside kids’ heads where children show their complexity and readers feel a curious mix of nostalgia and empathy. Mistaken Identity s a series of vignettes connected by small plot threads, more a set of sketches than a story.
Those sketches add up to something deeper than the sum of their parts. Mistaken Identity is a bittersweet meditation on the nature of childhood, of imagination, of a twin girl who invents a complete and complex fantasy life which helps her make sense of her world. This slim graphic novel feels loose and arbitrary and surprisingly derivative in details like the elf who dreams of being a physical therapist (shades of Hermey, the elf in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer whose dream ambition is to be a dentist). Harris presents his world in a way that seems to channel the memories we all have of being younger.
There are scenes in Mistaken Identity that revived memories in my head, both good and bad. I was never a twin but I remember my jealousy of my sister, three years younger, who stole my parents’ attention. I remember the worlds I made up in my head, the deeper meanings I attempted to attach to my experiences, and the stumbling way I tried to deal with the deaths of my grandparents.
Life is bittersweet. That means childhood is bittersweet. Gordon Harris captures that exquisite bittersweet flavor, leaving an intriguingly complex aftertaste.
Dust Elves: Mistaken Identity can be ordered on Gordon Harris’s website.