My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Seventeen-year-old “Hank” has found himself at Penn Station in New York City with no memory of anything –who he is, where he came from, why he’s running away. His only possession is a worn copy of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. And so he becomes Henry David-or “Hank” and takes first to the streets, and then to the only destination he can think of–Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Cal Armistead’s remarkable debut novel is about a teen in search of himself. Hank begins to piece together recollections from his past. The only way Hank can discover his present is to face up to the realities of his grievous memories. He must come to terms with the tragedy of his past, to stop running, and to find his way home.
So I talked about Being Henry David in a Waiting on Wednesday post a couple months ago, and I was really excited to read it. And like Walden, I found it compelling, but not overwhelming. After the initial set-up, the story moves with a leisurely pace, gently telling the story of a kid who’s lost.
When the story starts, we don’t know the protagonist’s name, and neither does he. He’s somehow found himself at Penn Station in New York City with only ten dollars in his pocket and a copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. He doesn’t remember his past life at all.
After getting into a few pretty dark scrapes on the streets, and still unable to figure out who he is or what he’s doing, he names himself Hank (after Henry), and figures out a way to get to Concord, Massachusetts in hopes of finding out about himself. He gets flashes of who he is and what he likes, but he simply cannot remember what caused him to forget everything. He knows he must have done something bad, but that’s pretty much all he knows.
I enjoyed Hank’s journey, and I liked how he learned more about himself. The secondary characters around him were especially interesting. Thomas, the Thoreau interpreter who initially finds him sleeping at Walden Pond, becomes like a father figure – albeit one with tattoos and library science degree. Hailey, the girl he falls for, is a singer with a jerky ex-boyfriend, but she’s definitely more than just that in personality. I liked how much the secondary characters helped Hank just by being themselves and letting him know that he was cared for.
Of course, with a title like Being Henry David, there has to be a lot of Thoreau. Hank can and does quote Thoreau often, both in his sleeping and waking moments, and there’s definitely a nice tribute to him throughout the book. Honestly, though, I was expecting more Thoreau than we got…there’s definitely a feeling of embracing Thoreau’s philosophy, and an admiration for him, but Hank is very much his own person, on his own journey. And that’s probably how it should be.
I liked Being Henry David, but I can’t say that I loved it. The story was strong, and so was the writing. I found the ending just a touch cheesy, but overall, it was a solid YA read. I didn’t feel wowed, but it’s a good, fast read with well-drawn characters, and a good mystery.
Boy Protagonist: Hank’s voice is authentically male, and pretty great. I slipped into his brain quickly, and nothing felt out of place. Also, he’s hot. You can totally tell. =)
Literary references: Oh, Thoreau. Several times in the book, Thoreau is quoted, and it becomes a game between Thomas and Hank to see who can finish more quotes. It’s cute. Yes, I’m a total sucker for this.
Natural Things: The landscape around Walden is gorgeous, and the author took care to ensure that the natural setting was worked into the book seamlessly.
The Final Word:
This is a book about self-discovery, and about trying to figure out what you want when you’re left with nothing but your own instincts. If you’re looking for a solid YA contemporary with a good male protagonist, it’s one I would recommend.