August 2023

Two Tribes

By Emily Bowen Cohen
Review by
The graphic novel Two Tribes examines the complex tensions and beautiful facets of a childhood between cultures and in a blended family.
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Mia is of two tribes: Her mom is Jewish, and her dad is Muscogee. Mia’s dad and his new family live in Oklahoma, far away from California, where Mia lives with her mom and stepdad, Roger. Since marrying Roger, Mia’s mom has begun to take participation in Judaism much more seriously.

Exhausted by her experiences at Jewish day school and frustrated with her mother’s refusal to speak about her dad, Mia works out a secret plan to visit her dad in Oklahoma and learn more about her Muscogee heritage. While Mia initially feels like an outsider there, it doesn’t take her long to bond with an older cousin and feel at home with new traditions. But Mia’s mom quickly realizes that Mia’s not on the school trip she claimed to be and comes to get her. Will this incident be the final fracture in Mia’s family, or will it create a bridge between tribes?

Inspired by author and cartoonist Emily Bowen Cohen’s real-life experiences growing up Jewish and Muscogee, graphic novel Two Tribes (Heartdrum, $15.99, 9780062983589) examines the complex tensions and beautiful facets of a childhood between cultures and in a blended family. Cohen supports the story with a vibrant but realistic illustration style peppered with the occasional abstract image.

Where Two Tribes shines is in its portrayal of Mia as a self-possessed 12-year-old who is attuned to the importance of embracing differences rather than pretending they don’t exist. Cohen provides a nuanced picture of how Mia has in some ways come to resent her Jewish heritage because of the way it’s been placed in opposition to her dad’s Indigenous culture.

The story is somewhat unbalanced by Mia’s Jewish family and rabbi, who are portrayed more antagonistically than the other characters. For example, when Mia’s school rabbi makes a racist joke about Native Americans at dinner with Roger and Mia’s mom, it’s brushed off by all the adults as a simple mistake rather than a genuinely problematic remark. However, Mia’s family and her rabbi eventually begin to understand how they have failed Mia in certain aspects.

With its incredibly complex subject of personal identity, Two Tribes might have benefited from the additional space given by a traditional novel form to explore its themes more deeply rather than coming to a picture-perfect resolution. That said, perhaps the increased accessibility of the graphic novel format serves this book well. For children just coming into adolescence, a biracial background—especially involving two marginalized groups—can make for a tangled web of difficulties. By seeing their stories represented, things might start to make sense.

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Two Tribes

Two Tribes

By Emily Bowen Cohen
ISBN 9780062983596

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