I love it when a novel for young adults tackles something I remember feeling as a young adult. I can’t recall another novel that takes on the issues and concerns of “good kids” as well as Cal Armistead’s new Being Henry David (Albert Whitman, 2013).
The premise of the book is intriguing: a teenaged boy wakes up in New York’s Penn Station. He has no ID, no nothing, except for a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden, sitting at his feet.
When I say “no nothing,” I’m serious. He has no memory of who he is or how he got where he is. This becomes even more interesting when, after reading Walden once, he has a near photographic memory of the text.
Taking the name Henry from the book, he sets out on an odyssey of self-discovery leading to Walden Pond in Concord, MA, out here in my neck of the woods. Along the way, he meets runaways, a tattooed librarian and Henry David Thoreau historical interpreter, and a very talented young female singer.
I won’t tell you what crisis drove Hank’s memory away and set him on his quest. But I will give you a passage mid-book that illustrates how he copes with the gradual return of memory in his dreams:
The bad memory dreams are the ones where I see myself going through the motions of being a “good kid,” when in truth I’m holding so much inside that I want to break furniture and throw things at the wall and scream until I burst a few blood vessels in my head. I’m the phoniest person around, putting hundreds of miles on my running shoes to escape, playing guitar till my calluses bleed because that’s an escape too. On the outside, I’m the perfect kid—like a statue of perfect marble, serene and unreal. Inside, it’s all snakes and maggots and broken glass.
Throughout Being Henry David Armistead’s writing rings true. I hope this first novel gets all the recognition it deserves when award time comes around again. Check it out and try, along with both Henrys, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
PS: Here I am at the reconstructed Thoreau Cabin in Concord, MA. If you have not visited, you really should. In the meantime, happy summer reading!