ETHEL & ERNEST

By Raymond Briggs

Knopf. 104 pp. $21

Reviewed by Nina King.

This is a love story, an English artist's portrait of his parents' happy marriage. Ethel, a housemaid, and Ernest, a milkman, met in 1928, married in 1930 and remained together for 41 years until Ethel's death. Even death did not long part them. Ethel's in 1971 was followed by Ernest's later that same year.

Raymond Briggs's most celebrated previous book is The Snowman, a children's tale told completely in pictures. In Ethel & Ernest, Briggs's text appears in cartoon balloons, tightly integrating words and illustrations. The words are almost entirely Ethel's and Ernest's, representing a 40-year dialogue that seems to have been sufficient unto itself. There are few signs of a circle of friends or family -- except, of course, for young Raymond, whose childhood successes in school, a source of great pride to his parents, are briefly overshadowed by his bewildering choice of a career as a cartoonist and his "Mod" lifestyle.

Briggs's illustrations are charming: Ethel's rosy cheeks match her red-and-white checked apron. Ernest looks the complete Cockney in his jaunty cap. The backgrounds of the cartoon-style paintings are filled with details of English working-class life of the period. A few of the pictures are stunning -- in particular a two-page spread of Ernest and Raymond, age 5 or 6, fleeing a doodlebug -- one of the unmanned bombs that were the scourge of London in the early days of the Battle of Britain. The howls of the air raid sirens and the "burbleburble" sound of the little planes are graphically conveyed by wiggly lines. The second page is dominated by a view of one plane's underside against the green of a community garden. At the bottom of the page, Raymond the future artist comments: "I didn't know they were bright blue underneath, Dad."

Ernest is a dedicated newspaper reader, who likes to read the choice bits aloud to Ethel, thereby linking their lives to the larger world beyond. It is a world of enormous changes. In the early pages of the book, a plane flying overhead is a cause for comment; toward the end, a man walks on the moon while the Briggses watch on TV.

But for Ethel and Ernest's generation, the dominant public event of those years inevitably was World War II. As bombs fall on London, Ernest becomes a firefighter; Ethel goes to work in a factory; Raymond is evacuated to the countryside. Seen through their eyes, all the familiar matter of wartime Britain -- air raid shelters and gas masks and blackouts and doodlebugs and Churchillian rhetoric -- seems fresh again.

After the war their dialogue becomes more overtly political. Ethel is a romantic Tory, who looks to Churchill to save the country again and again. She brooks no disrespect of the monarchy. Ernest is fiercely, idealistically Labor and, as an inveterate newspaper reader, is better armed for political battle. But when his passion overwhelms his common sense, Ethel gets the best of him. When he exults at the dawn of the Welfare State -- "Social Security from the cradle to the grave!" -- she observes, "It will all have to be paid for."

"Yeah, `course it will," says Ernest. "We'll all chip in. That's the whole idea."

"You can't chip in if you're out of work or off sick or on a pension," Ethel replies.

To which Ernest can only sputter: "No . . . well . . . 'course not. It's all got to be worked out. It's economics, see? Economics will see to it."

Ernest's highest word of praise is "modern," and the grand old house they acquire in 1930 is transformed by his considerable skills as a handyman. He flaunts his working-class status like a badge of honor, partly to tease Ethel, who is outraged by the label. She wants things to be "nice" and strives for a specious gentility, even finding fault with her adored Mr. Churchill for the perceived vulgarity of "blood, toil, tears and sweat." "Ernest! Don't! Disgusting!" she chides, him as he reads the speech to her.

"It's your gentry talking, His words, not mine." Ernest replies. Ethel is undeterred. "Yes, but he was talking to the common people. He wouldn't use words like that in his own home."

Raymond Briggs is not the first artist to write a cartoon narrative based in part on his father's World War II experiences. That distinction probably belongs to Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, which chronicles his father's survival of the Holocaust and Spiegelman's survival of an unloving father. The two books are very different. Though Ethel & Ernest has value as social history, it is above all a tender and funny love story. Maus is a dark and bitter fable. There is room for both.

Nina King is associate editor of Book World.