Title: Being Henry David
Author: Cal Armistead
Publisher: Albert Whitman Teen
Released: 1st March 2013
Rating: 3 of 5 stars
'Hank' wakes up at Penn Station in New York with no memory of how he got there, why he's there or who he is. He possesses nothing but the clothes on his back, a $10 bill and a copy of Henry David Thoreau's Walden. He spends his first night after waking up on the streets with Jack and Nessa, two runaways, but after some trouble he escapes to Concord, where Thoreau and some of his contemporaries are much revered. Gradually he pieces back his memory, but with this comes guilt, grief and pain, and Hank needs to figure out how he's going to move on.
I think the first thing that caught my eye about this, and one of the things that I really liked, was that this is from a male perspective. I read so many books where the protag is female, so this was a nice change. For some reason I find it appealing to read from a guy's POV, at least if it's done well, and Armistead has managed to do that here. Having said that, though, Hank isn't a particularly memorable character. Right now I'm struggling to think of anything that distinguishes him from the sea of YA protagonists that are out there. I might attribute it to my awful memory, but just before this I wrote a review for a book I read even before Being Henry David, and I was able to recall the heroine just fine - which means at least some of the problem lies with Hank. I thought characters like Thomas had much more personality.
The other thing that interested me slightly was using Walden and Thoreau as part of the basis for this book. Don't worry if you haven't read it or come across Thoreau before, because it gets explained - really, Thoreau pretty much permeates the novel. In a way I liked the idea of Hank following Walden, looking for answers to his past. I liked the quotes that were used and getting to know another classic author this way. But I felt it was also taken a little too far, because there seemed to be an element to it almost supernatural. Therefore I found myself a little confused when I remembered that this is a contemporary novel; the two points at which it seemed to slide just outside of contemporary felt out of place and bizarre.
The writing itself was not bad, but something about it just fell flat for me. I wasn't able to connect with it as much as I would have liked, and this was something that stayed with me right from the beginning. Parts of it really did hold my interest, did have me reading in curiosity, especially when it came to Hank really trying to remember how he had ended up at Penn Station. But when I found out the reason, I couldn't say if it was really all that believable. Tragic, yes, but it seemed to me just a little much. The romantic element, too, was somewhat irritating. There's an emphasis on how Concord is a close and safe town, where people do, for the most part, trust each other. Yet you have to wonder at the naivety of a girl who would give a guy her number after meeting him only minutes before. Nor did I really appreciate the whole 'high school experience' side that worked its way in. The second half of the book, it seems, was not particularly impressive.
Despite genuinely enjoying parts of Being Henry David, I am left, on the whole, feeling dissatisfied. Perhaps some of these things could have been overlooked, or at least tolerated, had the ending helped to compensate. Instead it was too open, and I am left with more questions than I am comfortable with. This was a decent read, but nowhere near as powerful as it could have been.