Monday, May 6, 2013

When Will This Stop?

The first thing that I needed to address, before launching into any kind of review of Susin Nielsen's The Reluctant Journal of Henry K, Larsen, was whether it would have spoilers or not. Would I speak in vague terms and just touch the surface? Or would I get right into the meat of the story and then be free to discuss all some of the themes and issues that jumped out at me and made Henry an emotional read for me?

I have read books that have made a real impact on me because I knew little about the story and did not expect what was coming. A recent example is What Happened to Ivy by Kathy Stinson. All I had was a recommendation from a colleague. I literally gasped while reading this Young Adult novel at a part that I later found contained in many brief plot summaries. I am so happy that I had not read anything about the story beforehand.

Henry is such a book. The less you know going into it, the greater your reading experience will be. However, because I need to talk about some of the deeper complexities of the story, I have decided that I will include MAJOR SPOILERS in this review. Please, if you have not yet read Henry, do yourself a favour and get a copy. It is a quick and easy read technically. I found myself putting it down for awhile to catch my breath, get a tissue, and hug my children.

Come back and join me when you're done.

First of all, I found Henry in the general Fiction section of the Children's department at my public library. I had heard only that it dealt with a heavy subject and would be an intermediate (grades 7 and 8) read. I was a little surprised that it was not shelved in the Young Adult stacks. After reading it I was even more surprised. I found the plot, themes, and language suitable for an older audience. A quick check of some standard reviewers gave the following suggestions:
  • Kirkus - age 12+
  • School Library Journal (starred review) - Grades 5+
  • Booklist - Grades 5-8
You be the judge, but when I purchase a copy of The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen it will be catalogued as a YA book and will be available to Intermediate students only.

If you are ignoring my suggestion and proceeding before reading this winner of the 2012 Governor General's Award for Fiction you should know the basic plot line. Henry K. Larsen is a 13-year-old boy who has just moved with his dad to a new city in the hopes of starting over after IT happened. The journal is his therapist's suggestion. Henry is not keen on the idea; thus the reluctant adjective. In bits and pieces Ms. Nielsen reveals to us that  IT refers to the day that Henry's older brother, Jesse took their father's gun to school and shot and killed his tormentor before turning the gun on himself. IT was also the beginning of the unravelling of Henry's family. His mom is now in a psychiatric facility in Ontario, while Henry and his dad have relocated to the city of Vancouver in the hopes that they won't be recognized.  For sure, it is a timely topic and should promote a lot of discussion. Bullying, belonging, gun control, suicide, grief, blame, guilt, family crises, recovery - it is all found in this book.

Ms. Nielsen's use of humour, through the narrator of Henry, somehow helps to soften the serious tone of the story. I am not sure how she does it, but a crafty balance has been achieved. On the very first page Henry gives a physical description of his psychologist, followed by what he wants to say to him: "Hey Cecil ...  the 60's called.They want their look back." Similar observations are sprinkled throughout his journal. It is in the darker side of his humour that the reader sees his attempt at dealing with his grief. He writes:

     Questions I would like to ask Jesse:
  1. Why did you do it, you dick?
  2. Did you ever stop to think about what it would do to the rest of us?
  3. Where did you put the Settlers of Catan game, because none of us can find it?
  4. Why did you do it, you dick?

The initial suspense surrounding IT could not help but remind me of We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It was the same ominous feeling - you know that something terrible has happened, but you don't know the details or the exact outcome. Even after we have been told about IT, the suspense surrounding April 30 is not revealed until page 200. I love the way that Ms. Nielsen reveals the course of events in small packages. It is so well-written in that sense. The gradual revelation of Henry's "wobblies" and "furies" is another example of her wonderful craft. I have to admit, I was picturing something else for the wobblies before I understood them to be the rolls of fat that Henry has acquired in his recent weight gain.

As nice as the humour is, it doesn't take away all the pain that is found in Henry. And I felt bitter pain. I felt pain for Henry as he goes through his own bullying drama; as he grieves for the loss of his brother, and as he faces the destruction of his family. I felt the pain that each of the characters endures: Henry's parents and grandparents, his new classmates, his neighbours, the victim's family. I got teary when Henry and Farley were bullied. I felt brutally uncomfortable when Henry wrote about being embarrassed by his brother. I cried as Karen shared the story of her father's suicide. But nothing prepared me for reading about April 30.

And that's when I got angry. Why do humans continue to do this to one another? It doesn't stop from one generation to another, and, I hate to say it, but it doesn't stop when you leave high school. Who on this earth declares themselves the almighty judge and decides what personality traits and physical attributes are acceptable or not? Who are these people who get to decide if gingers are in or out? If having acne makes you a social outcast or not?  What the perfect body mass index is? If playing on the soccer team is cool or not? Because really, it is by the grace of God that someone has blonde hair, good skin, perfect measurements, and athletic ability. And, it is by the grace of God that our children are chosen by their peers as acceptable or not. When we hold our babies in our arms, we know that they are perfect gifts from God. There are few words that come close to describing that love. To imagine sending them off into the world with the chance that they be tormented to the degree that Jesse is is just unthinkable. We are all travelling on this journey together. Can't we just support each other along the way? How many more times do we need to hear about someone so ostracized by their peers that their only recourse is checking out? And taking innocent and not-so-innocent people with them?

I am not sure where we go from here. Henry certainly left me with more questions than answers. But if you are looking for a timely, well-written, intermediate read that will invoke introspection and discussion; that can be tied into current events, look no further than The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susan Nielsen. Tundra. 2012. 243 pages.

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