In Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi’s The Dam Keeper, black fog is deadly and, without a dam keeper, Sunrise Valley doesn’t stand a chance. Described in oceanic terms, the fog moves in tides and Pig’s dad has built a dam to keep the waves out. That dam must be maintained, however, and when Pig steps into his father’s shoes, there’s no one left to relief him from the position.
The Dam Keeper is a story about innocence lost and the anger that builds after losing it. It’s about a young pig who carried a plant in a sling, because he wanted to be responsible, coping with the fact that his dad walked into the fog by choice. It’s about a community with the will power not to come to Pig’s aid and who’ve made memory, represented by the fog, something terrible to remember.
In Pig’s words, Sunrise Valley has almost forgotten the fog exists, and the fact that they’re in near-constant peril. While it’s one thing to forget white walkers when they’re miles away in the North (Game of Thrones reference), it’s another not to see fog on the other side of a dam. Pig’s commitment to his work allows people to pretend, but what he calls “normal” is neighbors sweeping dust when he walks by.
They can live in denial, forget Pig’s efforts if they need to, but they can’t ignore Pig because of their issues with the truth. Adults ignore him, kids ignore him, and in one image that strikes to the core of bad school memories, the dreaded chalkboard command, “Find a partner,” leave pig working alone at his bench.
On the one hand, school can be ostracizing and few stories go there, without providing dishonest relief. Here the psychology of an entire town is under trial. Pig accepts his role as their stand-in Quasimodo, sequestered in the dam’s attic room, but they are the ones willing to allow that. It’s more than living alone but living beneath constant pressure and, in the most haunting imagery, Pig’s memories are his nightmares.
Going by the cover, it would be easy to think The Dam Keeper‘s for kids, but that’s what concerns me. Marketed for ages 7-11, The Dam Keeper needs to be read but I don’t know by readers that young, and I don’t know if adults will know this book is for them. I realize the picture I’ve painted of this story sounds wearying, but it’s a book that’ll take you places emotionally because it’s a children’s book. You don’t realize what you’re in for, until after you start reading, and the cute animals are decoys.
For parents, though, it’s dangerous when you can flip through a book without picking up on the heavy subject matter. Kondo and Tsutsumi both worked as art directors for Pixar (The Dam Keeper is a continuation of their Oscar nominated short), so they’re knowledge of raw emotion is finely tuned, but Pig’s dad doesn’t pass away (the one or none Disney rule for parents). He commits suicide, and Pig’s nightmare is a memory of that night. Everyone has different triggers and there will be children who can handle this, just as there are children who can handle R-rated horror movies, but while the new It movie left me unaffected, this book left me haunted. A depressing Wizard of Oz, The Dam Keeper takes time to shake off, but I know I’ll stick around for the sequel.
Art Lead: Yoshihiro Nagasuna
Additional Art: Toshihiro Nakamura and Brandon Coates
The Dam Keeper is available Sept 26.