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Review of "Polar Vortex" by Denise Dorrance: The Dangers of Returning Home

Review of “Polar Vortex” by Denise Dorrance: The Dangers of Returning Home


Denise Dorrance’s illustrated memoir, Polar Vortex, is captivating and visually stunning, with a delightful blend of humor and heartfelt insight. Despite its focus on aging, which may deter some readers, the book remains remarkably relevant. In fact, it has the potential to attract a wide audience to the world of graphic novels. With the increasing number of people caring for older loved ones or anticipating their own aging process, Dorrance’s experiences and reflections are relatable to many. As I absorbed the pages, I couldn’t help but think about my own belongings and the inevitable task of decluttering and sorting through them. It’s a daunting thought that I try to push away, but it’s one that cannot be avoided forever.

Dorrance has resided in London since 1995. However, she was actually born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In her first full-length graphic book titled “Polar Vortex,” she reluctantly revisits her hometown. Her elderly mother, who is now a widow, has been hospitalized due to a fall. Tough decisions must be made. On the surface, this may sound mundane. Nobody wants to read about commodes! Yet, Dorrance’s writing is subtle and she has a deep understanding of the complex setting she has returned to.

A strip from Polar VortexView image in fullscreen

There is a lot happening, not all of which is related to her mother’s dementia. When we return home, we regress to our childhood selves – even when we need to act like adults – and she finds this amusing. But what exactly is considered home after being away for so long? She shares many jokes about being out of place: clashes between cultures stemming not only from her city savvy, but also from the locals’ perception of her English identity (they love her accent, which they think makes her sound like the queen).

The title of the book not only alludes to difficult emotions, but also hints at an impending snowstorm. The heavy snowfall adds to the feeling of a reverse fairytale within the pages. The whiteness of the snow creates a mesmerizing atmosphere, making it hard to focus on oneself when distractions cannot be easily reached (especially if one is bundled up in a wool coat rather than layers of nylon padding). In her drawings, which are just as expressive and skilled as those of Alison Bechdel and Posy Simmonds, Dorrance embraces this theme. Death makes an appearance as a villain in a pantomime, while the Cedar Rapids hospital, with its red-brick and Victorian look, looms in the midst of the blizzard like an impenetrable castle.

She possesses a multitude of creative talents, utilizing vintage photos, postcards, and letters, and even incorporating a wagon train, to effectively pace the story. As her mother’s limited choices after leaving the hospital are presented, the ghost of game show host Monty Hall adds a touch of cheesiness, turning it into a televised quiz show (“Pick number two and become a resident at Living Care!”). Overall, it is a magical and emotionally resonant piece of art. I highly recommend it and urge you to share it with others.

  • Polar Vortex by Denise Dorrance is published by New River (Β£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com