Stein Erik Lunde’s “My Father’s Arms Are A Boat” is a Norwegian picture book that tells the story of a young boy and his father trying to make sense out of the grief that has rocked them since the death of the boy’s mother. Translated into English by Kari Dickenson and featuring gorgeous illustrations by Oyvind Torseter, “My Father’s Arms Are A Boat” is not afraid to be sad at times. After all, grief is sad stuff. And the heartbreak of the experience is captured, tenderly and gently in this beautiful book.
The illustrations in the book are a combination of 3D paper constructions, flat drawings, and some paint. The choices in each spread have the effect of creating distance in some scenes and drawing us closer in others. This is, perhaps, a reflection on the vacillation in grief between intense emotional immediacy and numbness.
The book opens with the boy observing his father sitting quietly before the fireplace in the throes of grief over the loss of his wife. The boy retires to his room. His father tells him to leave his door ajar “so that your dreams can come out to me.” In his room, the boy can’t sleep, noting that the house “is quieter now than it’s ever been.” So he creeps back into the living room, where he climbs on his father’s lap and curls into a ball.
As they sit together, the two plan to chop down a spruce tree the next day, an activity that the father enjoys. But the boy begins to worry about the bread that he’s left out for the red birds that hide up in the trees. He asks his father if the fox is going to eat the birds’ bread, and his father reassures him that “everything will be alright.”
We find out why the birds are so important to the boy when he reveals that, when he visited his grandma at the old peoples’ home where she lives, she told him that the red birds are dead people. She could barely talk, but the boy “knew what she meant.”
Trying to understand where his mother has gone, the boy asks his father, “Is mommy asleep?” His father says that mommy is asleep, but that she’ll never wake up, not in the place she is now. This seems like a bit of a cop out in terms of explaining death to children. Mommy’s not asleep, after all–she has died.
There are children’s pictures books that do a fantastic job of gently yet explicitly explaining the life cycle to children, and explaining what it means for someone’s life to end. But this is not one of those books. Instead, “My Father’s Arms Are a Boat” poetically captures the emotions of the heartbreak of grief — about how we can lean on the people we love to help us through the pain.
At the end of “My Father’s Arms Are a Boat,” the boy’s father picks him up and carries him outside to look at the stars, just as they will help carry him through the loss of his mother.