Brontosaurus Illustrated, a graphic novel by Leanne Grabel, reviewed by Cathy Smith

A violent kidnapping and rape at the age of nineteen created a Brontosaurus-sized trauma in Leanne Grabel’s life. In the accordingly-titled Brontosaurus Illustrated, she tells her tale in vivid words and drawings to explain how this trauma has lived with her for more than fifty years. Though slightly fictionalized, every single word of this book is true. This is a memoir, but an unusual one.

Grabel introduces us to Nina Gold⁠—a keen-eyed teenager on a full-ride scholarship at Stanford to study math. During her sophomore year, she and two friends visit Baja, Mexico, for spring break, and this is where the violence unfolds. While there is nothing “entertaining” about rape, we are sucked into the story immediately. Grabel’s words are muscular, brave, intimate. Especially as she rehashes the moment she knew there was no knight in shining armor coming to save her and her friends from the attack. She recalls, “I frantically looked up and down the beach, searching for saviors. There was no one. Nothing. There was not a pimple, not a blip, just the roar and ripple of waves. And the darkness that sat on me like a mean, drunk father. The air was so unsettled that even the fish were gasping, whispering to each other about our doom.”

Grabel’s metaphors are luminous, and often unexpected. For instance, a mouth is “stretched open like an umbrella.” Shame “seeps” like liquid. Nina feels like a “fungus.” Blindfolded and tied up in the van, Nina notices that her “legs started slapping together, thigh to thigh. My thighs were actually clapping, as if a happy audience.” In such ways, Grabel uses a musical cadence throughout this story to pull us deeper and closer into the feelings Nina experiences. Short sentences build toward a clearer picture of a moment or a person. Grabel also uses precisely-chosen words as a magnifying glass. This technique additionally helps us understand how Nina thinks, and how she takes in the world around her. Another prime example comes when she describes an editor at one of her first jobs, noting, “The editor was perfect. She was slender and pretty. She was urbane, sophisticated, understated and wealthy-looking. She had a rich brown bob that was brushed to one side in a large sweeping wave. The wave rippled as she moved, often falling over one green eye. Picture key lime pie in a milk chocolate crust.”

To make the evocative descriptions all the more detailed, every single page of this book is illustrated with Grabel’s glorious black-and-white drawings (complemented by Robin Chilstrom’s impeccable design layout). They leap out and cause one to linger over the words nearby. These drawings are remarkable not only in how they show close-ups of important elements that may or may not be part of the overarching theme in a chapter, but reveal Grabel’s and Nina’s emotional priorities. To put it another way, the “brontosaurus” may be in the room, but Nina’s awareness fixates on the shrub outside the window sometimes, or on a pair of cowboy boots she had as a child. This juxtaposition in story elements creates profound intimacy for us.

Throughout Brontosaurus Illustrated, the quotes Grabel selects help to frame and orient us as we glide through the story like we’re living it ourselves. There are quotes from children about fear. Passages from scientists explain what happens to the body during trauma. Poets remind us about the universal and the ignored.

This is a book about a beast: trauma and how it lives with us forever and changes one’s life. Grabel mentions in her preface that the book is “cartoons and rape.” Yes, maybe. But Brontosaurus Illustrated is also a book about truth, resiliency, and living a meaningful life with trauma. As a trauma survivor myself, I’ve never read a more relevant and honest portrait about what really happens to a human being during and after a traumatic event. There is no quick release. Ever. Sometimes there is transformation, if one can keep understanding the large beast in the room.

Grabel gets this. There are sections when people show Nina with their bodies and tones that they are not willing to hear the word “rape.” As if one could sweep a Brontosaurus under the rug. These reactions, even from loving relatives, happen all of the time. Nina keeps pursuing the truth of what happened and what this means. Also, for Nina, this rape was her first experience with sex. In the aftermath, Nina goes on a seemingly endless quest to find “regular sex.” As if, mathematically, she could offset the trauma with enough consensual trysts. This is so very real and common.

At another point, a parade of trauma specialists use wands and tapping and other techniques to try to help Nina resolve her trauma. Nina meets these people earnestly and then swishes them away in funny (but emotionally honest) ways. I wish every trauma specialist or mental health professional would read this book. 

How does one get to the time after trauma? With her unflinching eye for absurdity, Grabel posits that maybe there isn’t one … but you can still learn how to live again. To pick up the pieces and laugh. For Brontosaurus Illustrated drips with humor, in addition to being a visually stunning and human novel about making a meaningful life … with a large beast nearby.

Brontosaurus Illustrated, by Leanne Grabel. The Opiate Books, June 2022. 208 pages. $34.99, paper.

Cathy Smith is a former independent bookseller who loved (and still does) putting a book in the hands of a reader and sharing why and how the book sings. She helped put HarperCollins Children’s Books online and then edited a book about teenage angst and first love, after developing a very popular Young Adult book review site that served teens, teachers, and librarians alike. Cathy works to help writers unblock and remember their strengths and through-lines. In between, she grows vegetables and makes pickles near Portland.

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