By Dash Shaw. New York Review Comics, 2021. 304 pages. $27.95/paperback.
The graphic novel Discipline by Dash Shaw concerns a 17-year-old Quaker boy who violates his meeting’s pacifist convictions and devastates his family by sneaking off to join the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War.
The narrative begins in Indiana in 1851 where Shaw presents the story’s moral crux by depicting protagonist Charles Cox as a little boy planting seeds on his parents’ farm. His father joyfully lifts Charles into the air and sets him down near a chicken, which pecks him in the eye. The father kicks the chicken before tending to his son’s injury, inviting readers to consider whether it is ever acceptable to respond to harm with violence.
In 1863, Charles meets soldiers who persuade him to enlist. He absconds as his parents and sister, Fanny, sleep. He prays and takes his Bible with him. Charles’s family and Friends deplore his choice to join the military. His sister writes to him frequently, expressing her anguish but also her love for him.
“We think of thee often, and plenty of words are spoken of thee in meeting. I hope thee are finding silence somehow, if at least within thyself,” Fanny writes. Shaw based the text and illustrations on letters and diaries by real soldiers and Quakers of the period. Although many Quakers abhorred slavery, members of Charles’s family and meeting lament that he has strayed from Friends’ pacifist discipline.
Charles and a soldier friend are assigned to ransack Rebels’ houses to steal rations. While they are doing so, a woman householder confronts them at gunpoint. Charles rationalizes his actions to himself, saying, “They’ll have more than enough to get through winter. By then the war will be over.” After Charles and his fellow fighter leave, the woman shoots Charles in the ear. He manages to ride away from the scene of his wounding, but falls from his horse and lies on the ground gushing blood, thinking of his mother and sister. His fellow soldiers find him and bandage his injury. They then burn down the house of the woman who shot him.
The Union soldiers enable many enslaved people to escape by allowing them to cross a bridge, which the Northern fighters dismantle before the Rebel forces can cross.
Charles, as narrator, reflects:
I am told that to many in the South the idea of Liberty itself is strangely associated with that of African Servitude. We are pitted against a demonic spirit which has been known in all ages as Oppression: that spirit which is so brutalizing in its influence that it can change a woman into a fiend, and a child into an imp of cruelty. Peace is not the answer now. We must do wrong rather than suffer wrong. There is no folly in expecting Satan to cast out Satan.
The book’s plot twists and multilayered illustrations depict Charles’s moral struggle and spiritual journey. Discipline invites readers to consider how Quakers could have agitated against both slavery and war.
Sharlee DiMenichi is a member of Lehigh Valley Meeting in Bethlehem, Pa. Her writing has appeared in The Progressive and America. Her first book is The Complete Guide to Joining the Peace Corps (Atlantic Publishing), and her second book, Holocaust Rescue Heroes, is forthcoming from Royal Fireworks Press.