Being Henry David by Cal Armistead ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Publisher: Albert Whitman Teen
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: Walden, amnesia, on the run
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley! (Thanks!)
Summary: “Hank” wakes up to find himself in New York City without any knowledge of who he is and where he has come from. His only possessions are the clothes on his back, 10 bucks, a head wound, and a copy of Walden. His time in NYC is short-lived when a midadventure forces him to run off yet again to the only place he can think of — Walden Pond. Will it hold the answers of who he is and what he’s been through?
Having spent many many grueling hours in Penn Station myself, I would not wish for anyone to wake up there. Much less, wake up there and not know who they are and where they are from.
In the case of a 17-year old kid with amnesia, debut young adult writer Armistead knows how to keep her readers guessing. I felt just as discombobulated and lost as Hank did for a majority of the book. Slowly, she would unveil some memories we would have to file away and save for another time. What if Hank never found out who he was?
For awhile, I thought that’s where Being Henry David was leading. Hank carried Henry David Thoreou’s Walden like a Bible, and used it to find his way… somewhere. He didn’t have much of a choice. And for whatever reason (fate? luck?) he lands in Concord and comes into contact with some genuine, wonderful people and starts to make a place of his own — despite the mystery that still continues to irk him. As someone who hasn’t read Thoreau, I thought the author did a wonderful job of capturing the essense of nature and the importance of living in the moment. Her language was truly beautiful and it was no wonder why Hank was able to find comfort in Thoreou’s words and philosophies.
As Hank’s old life comes into focus though, I couldn’t help but think the author gave him a bit too much of damage to deal with. I don’t want to spoil, but when/if you read it, there are two events that truly affect his family in horrific ways, and I wish she would have limited it to just one. It was a little overzealous and added too much weight to a story that already spanned many settings, various characters, and explored a ton of conflict.
That being said, I really did find myself rooting for Hank. He was resourceful, funny, loyal, and when he got the opportunity to act like his true teenaged self, I just wanted to hug him. At the same time, he was able to showcase such fortitude and independence, and give into his vulnerabilities. I so wanted for him to come to terms with his past and be able to move forward, even though I never knew what that would entail.
Being Henry David is a very unique title in the young adult genre, and for that I am grateful. Armistead weaves in the Thoreau influence in a sophisticated way without making the book feel pretentious. It’s almost like the power of literature brought Thoreau and Hank together: each searching for their own peace and meeting somewhere in the middle.