My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Being Henry David” by Cal Armistead is an emotional ride through the mind of a seventeen year old and along the way it keeps you wondering what happened to him(with scattered symbols and icons) and how did he end up in Penn Station without a memory of who he is? The book requires a grain of patience.
A boy finds himself on the floor of Penn Station with nothing but a tattered book by Henry David Thoreau called “Walden”. He doesn’t know his name; he has no recollection of anything except the here and now. So waking up he encounters a homeless man who eats pages, wallets and anything else he can ingest, a couple of runaway kids who have been homeless for quite some times and eventually he lands himself in trouble with a thug named “Magpie” and finds himself escaping to Concord, Massachusetts where he finds a nice girl and more clues begins to unravel in his mind causing him to rethink what he really wants: A new, fresh unfamiliar start in life or to go back home where there is a family who is concerned about him?
Eventually, the boy calls himself “Hank” short for Henry David because he can quote Walden as if it’s locked in his blood. Throughout the book there are clues as to who he is:
“To calm my twitchy brain, I take a little internal inventory; try to piece together what I know about myself so far. Okay so I’m a teenage guy, probably somewhere between 16 and 18 years old. Hair: black; eyes gray. Not bad looking, either….and there’s a black beast inside me that doesn’t want me to know stuff. It guards my memory, clawing at my insides and going for my throat if I get too close” (Armistead, 2012, pg. 28: Being Henry David).
As a reader, you encounter morsels of icons and symbols to clue you in on what exactly is this “beast” that holds Hank’s memory hostage. However Hank relies on a few helpful friends to retrace his steps: Thomas the giant librarian and his nurse friend Suzzanne, Sophie the Janitor and his muse, Hailey- the red haired beauty he meets while in Concord.
His other reliance is on the words of Thoreau. It is a balm to his weary soul and he constantly seeks out the wilderness to get closer(or further?) from who he is. Because once Hanks learns what really landed him there at the Penn Station that night, will he even want to go back?
Being Henry David, Cal Armistead
Published: Albert Whitman & Company(March 2013)
Keywords: Amnesia, runaway children, thoreau, street children, family problems