Sometimes I find books. And sometimes they find me. This one falls into the latter category: a happy accident.
From the author’s website:
A teenage boy awakes from a deep sleep to find himself at Penn Station in New York City, with no memory of who he is, or where he came from. His only possession is a book at his side: Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. He decides to take the name Henry David, shortened to “Hank” by Jack, a street kid who befriends him. Shortly after they meet, Jack and Hank are involved in a crime with a kid-exploiting criminal called Magpie. Afraid to approach the authorities for help, Hank flees to Concord, Massachusetts, hoping that Walden–both the book and the location–will offer clues to his identity. That first night, Hank sleeps outdoors at the site of Thoreau’s cabin, then seeks shelter in the local high school and the public library. A tattooed, motorcycle-riding librarian/Thoreau historian named Thomas takes Hank under his wing, and guides him on the painful path to discovering his true identity. When Hank can run no further from the truth, will he confront the tragedy of his life or seek the ultimate escape?
I stumbled upon this book while browsing the local library’s e-book holdings in Overdrive, while on the hunt for Thoreau books. It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I have been on an insatiable quest for All Things Thoreau for about a year now. When this book popped up in my search results, I was intrigued, but skeptical. I thought the Thoreau connection would be just a gimmick, and that Henry’s ideas would be glossed over, if given any attention at all.
I was wrong.
Being Henry David grabbed me on Page One, on its own merits and not Thoreau’s. I immediately needed to know how he got into this mess and how he was going to get out of it. Long before he got to Concord, Hank had me in his cheering section, and the author had me firmly in her pocket. (And I will never hear the words “You gonna eat that?” quite the same way again.)
To be fair, there were a few small things I could quibble with. Without spoiling it, the ending did seem a bit too pat — all wrapped up in a bow, with a few big questions dangling out the side of the box.
But overall Being Henry David was a satisfying, suspenseful, and quick read. The first-person narrator is likeable and believable, even when he doesn’t like or believe himself, and the supporting characters — particularly Thomas — are well-rounded. The Thoreau angle hits the right balance; it fleshes out the story and enhances Hank’s character development without becoming preachy or breaking the story rhythm too much. I especially enjoyed all the detailed settings (Walden Pond, the Concord Library) since I had visited those very places less than a year ago myself and have been feeling a bit “homesick” for them ever since.
Not only did I enjoy the book, but I have recommended it to a friend who is a teacher of reluctant readers in high school. I think the kids — both male and female — will really enjoy it. The story has a great hook and moves quickly, so it is sure to grab students’ attentions and imaginations.
Best of all, this book will engage young people at a crucial age, introducing Henry David Thoreau’s ideas to them before they begin to “lead lives of quiet desperation.”
What’s not to love?