Thursday, March 28, 2013

Being Henry David by Cal Armistead

Being Henry David
* * * *

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.


When I was in my mid to late teens I mostly read classics such as Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, etc.  At the time I tried to read Thoreau’s Walden but just couldn’t get into the language.  Now, many years (we won’t say how many) and multiple copies (we own three) later, I still haven’t made another attempt to read it.  But that doesn’t mean the idea of it doesn’t continue to fascinate me.  Which is why I was thrilled to receive this title from Albert Whitman Teen via NetGalley.

Our hero, Hank, wakes up in a train station to a homeless man asking him if he plans on eating his copy of Walden.  As Hank struggles with the realization that he has no identity or any idea where he might be, the bum steals the book and starts eating it.  This is just the start of what will prove to be a bizarre and scary day.  Over the next 24 hours Hank meets two homeless teens, almost kills a crazed addict, steals a guy’s wallet and runs away from a crime boss.  This is just the beginning of Hanks adventure to discover who he is and why he has no memory of his life before waking up.  With the cash from the stolen wallet and his half-eaten copy of Walden, Hank sets out for Concord, MA in hopes that visiting Walden Pond will shed some light on who he is.

Hank was a likeable character.  Even with the possibility that he was running away from doing something terrible couldn’t stop me from caring for him.  The other characters in this book were also excellent and all played a part in helping Hank come to terms with his memory loss and identity. My favorite was Hank’s newly acquired mentor and confidant, Thomas.  He reminded me of Joe from Amy Lane’s Sidecar - a big softie with a tough guy exterior.

And then there are the descriptions.  They were strong without being overwhelming or boring. I felt as if I were in Concord.  It has always been a place I wanted to visit (huge Luisa May Alcott fan here) and now I can’t wait to see it and see what I recognize from this book.

This book was excellent.  Armistead took a story that could have been gloomy and slow and made it fast-paced and hopeful.  And believe it or not, I am seriously contemplating reading cracking open one of our three copies of Walden now that I have read Being Henry David.


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