Thirteen-year-old Henry's happy, ordinary life comes to an abrupt halt when his older brother Jesse picks up their father's hunting rifle and leaves the house one morning, before the family is awake. What follows shatters Henry's family, who are forced to resume their lives in a new city, where no one knows their past. When Henry's therapist suggests he keep a journal to record his thoughts and feelings, he is resistant. But soon , he confides in it at all hours of the day and night.
In spite of Henry's desire to "fly under the radar," he eventually befriends a number of oddball characters, both at school and in his modest apartment building. And even though they know nothing about his past- at least not yet- they help him navigate the waters of life after "IT."
Everything about Henry is charming, from his wobblies, to his attempts at wooing Alberta, and his singular lack of faith in his hippie therapist. The little band of misfits that he falls in with, despite his best efforts, are lovable and real in a way that is so beautifully encapsulated by Karen and Mr Atapattu's angry notes to each other:
PLEASE, DO A BETTER JOB OF SEPARATING YOUR GLASS AND PLASTIC CONTAINERS.
PLEASE, QUIT BEING SO ANAL!!
In short, Nielsen sets you up with such a lovely cast of characters, lead by such a fantastic protagonist that I'm pretty sure she could have filled her 243 page book with fart jokes and I would have been teary eyed and in love.
But instead she knuckled down and talked about bullying, suicide, the end of relationships, and the beginning of new ones. And she did it in an entertaining way, which is shocking because this is not happy material people.
Before June 1st, this would have been a dream come true. I love this kind of stuff. But I saw what happened to Jesse in high school. High school can be a game-changer.I think Nielsen had me at hello, to be frank. I picked The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen up at the BEA, and when I found myself in the extremely long line for The Curiosities, I picked it up and started reading it on the spot. Now, I never read more than one book at a time, and back in the hotel room I had the partially finished, grand finale conclusion to the Nicholas Flamel books. So needless to say I didn't continue on with Nielsen's book after I walked out of Javits that day, but I was so instantly captured by her prose and her story (but mostly by Henry), that I was greatly looking forward to getting back to it. And I have to say, it did not disappoint.
When you're little, you can let your freak flag fly. You can tell people all the weird things you know. you can sing in public. You can go to the park wearing tighty-whities over your pants and pretend you're the Great Dane or another one of your favorite wrestlers from the Global Wrestling Federation. I know this because Jesse and I used to do it all the time.
But when you get older, all that changes. You learn that it's best to fly under the radar. I know I can't change my stupid red hair or my stupid freckles. But I can lower my freak flag.
Possibly the best book I've read dealing with bullying, Henry's story was both a celebration of those of us who walk to the beat of our own band, and an acknowledgement that it can be a struggle, and often a dangerous one, to do so in high school. There was no self pity, and no apologies, I didn't walk away from the story understanding Jesse's act or his bullies, but I walked away with a warm feeling about survival, and how people can overcome even the most unbelievably bad experiences. Nielsen made me cry in public, it was embarrassing, so maybe don't read the end anywhere but in the confines of your living room.
A wonderful book, funny and heart warming, and full of meaningful observations on human relationships. Don't pass The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by next time you're at the bookstore.
The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, by Susin Nielsen
Published by Tundra Books, Sept 11, 2012
My copy acquired at the BEA
Buy The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen on Amazon