“Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace” by Ashley Bryan, 2019, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 108 pages, $21.99
Before you even begin to take notes, the page is full of doodles.
You can’t help it: It’s human nature to scribble stars and squiggles, to write your name, make boxes around words and draw silly faces. If there’s a pen in your hand, you use it, right? And in “Infinite Hope” by Ashley Bryan, one man used a pen to stay alive.
Like every child with some crayons and paper, Bryan loved to make art. Even his teachers noticed his talent, and they nurtured it, but alas, Bryan couldn’t land a scholarship to art colleges because of the color of his skin. It was the early 1940s, and Jim Crow laws didn’t allow it.
On the advice of others, Bryan applied to attend The Cooper Union in New York City, and he loved it there. The school helped grow his talents, and he was eager for the future — but then, at age 19, he received his draft notice.
Bryan was headed for World War II.
For someone who grew up in the North, basic training was quite unexpected. Men at the military induction center were told “Whites on one side. Blacks on the other,” and Bryan was shocked. It took a minute to understand that the military was segregated, but like all black soldiers then, he hoped that serving during wartime might lead to “equal treatment for all.”
Sometimes, soldiering was boring, so Bryan drew. He sketched fellow soldiers, their bunks and their jobs. He drew the children who befriended him near his first post in Boston. He painted pictures of the docks.
When he went overseas, he sketched castles in Scotland and villages in the countryside. He wrote letters home to his cousin, Eva, and he drew card games and cold mornings until June 2, 1944, when Bryan and his brothers-in-arms were sent to Normandy.
There, he drew cathedrals, people, despair and destruction. He wrote to Eva about what he saw and when the war was over, that was that.
“I left my drawings in the map-case bureau for forty years ...”
Readers looking for “Infinite Hope” may be left scratching their heads. It’s likely to be found in the teen or even the children’s section of your local library or bookstore — and yet, this book is absolutely perfect for any adult.
Without much narrative, author-illustrator Bryan tells a tale of segregation, war, racism and horror, but while it’s vividly told, readers aren’t left aching: threaded in with every chapter of Bryan’s life is also a sense of joy.
He takes obvious delight in the people he meets, and he has his art: soaring sketches, pensive portraits and single lines drawn thick to depict the chaos of war. These are accompanied, collage-like, with letters home that are multi-layered over the art, and that will leave an impact on newly-aware teens and adults who remember all too well.
Either way, give “Infinite Hope” and then borrow it back to see yourself. Any reader, ages 15 to grandpa, will be quickly drawn in.