Call Me Bill by Lynette Richards

Review by Jade Courchesne

Conundrum Press, September 2022

85 pages, Paperback, $18.00 CAD,  9781772620788

Ages 12-18+

Young Adult, Graphic Novel

Last night was crackling cold. The polished black sky was magnificently laden with stars. I stayed on deck through the mystical hours before dawn, with the milky way stretched above me like a path. I was euphoric. I felt miniscule yet part of immense grandeur. My heart swelled with profound happiness.

When I slept, I dreamt I was floating, peacefully through a slurry of stars and souls. Swirls and eddies formed in my wake. I heard myself ask, though I did not speak, ‘where are we?’, and heard the response, ‘this is the universe, where everyone is from and returns — each one unique and perfect.’

With dreamy illustrations in shades of white and grey, Call Me Bill presents an intimate look at real-life sailor Bill Armstrong, a gender non-conforming adventurer at heart who sought nothing more than to be accepted for who he was. Set in the mid to late 19th century, the graphic novel chronicles an imagined portrait of the life and death of William, also known throughout their travels as Margaret/Maggie. Beginning and ending with the famed 1873 shipwreck of the SS Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia, the hero contends with the challenges of disguising as a young man while reminiscing about memories of home.

The reader is whisked away by expressive images of fading silhouettes, salty ocean waves and misty starlight, set to the backdrop of everyday life in the 1860s/70s and its judgmental approach toward queer and non-conforming individuals like Bill. Quiet moments are given the space to peek through in the encouraging words passed between sailors, the longing gazes at the moon and tender hands that meticulously craft Bill’s journey toward self-discovery and acceptance. I especially loved the attention to detail on the eyes of the characters — they shimmer and sparkle even in the novel’s darker panels, enchanting me to delve into the relief, pain, pleasure, and distress of Bill’s story.

The strength of Call Me Bill lies in the gentle appeal to readers to remain empathetic and proud of their own backgrounds, whatever they may be. Our attention is drawn to the importance of documenting these stories in the present so that their legacies can join a long history of other unseen individuals who continue to dream of resisting social norms. Lynette Richards is an insightful and compassionate writer in her portrayal of Bill, seamlessly weaving in historical publications about the protagonist while creating a poetic, idealistic model for the newly adult readers of the novel. She displays a keen awareness of the current social landscape with regards to language surrounding respecting pronouns and fluid gender identities, offering a heartwarming addition to emerging canon of radical queer creatives in the young adult genre. For those growing rapidly into an intimidating young adulthood, I’d recommend the novel if only to immerse for a moment into a life of bravery and kindness. And for the parents of gender non-conforming children: you’ll find a lovely glimpse of the infinite possibilities into which your child can grow.

Jade Courchesne is currently working towards an MA in Cinema and Media Studies at UBC. Her SSHRC-funded research considers identity formation and performativity within the Canadian-Chinese diaspora, especially looking at code-switching and language practices of multiracial individuals on screen. Her published work (Ricepaper Magazine, Film Matters Mag and others) contributes to the expanding body of anti-racist literary media through discussions on ‘good’ representation and ‘performing’ race.

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