Being Henry David

Seventeen-year-old “Hank” has found himself at Penn Station in New York City with no memory of anything—who he is, where he came from, why he’s running away. His only possession is a worn copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. And so he becomes Henry David—or “Hank”—and takes first to the streets, and then to the only destination he can think of—Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.

Cal Armistead’s remarkable debut novel is about a teen in search of himself. Hank begins to piece together recollections from his past. The only way Hank can discover his present is to face up to the realities of his grievous memories. He must come to terms with the tragedy of his past, to stop running, and to find his way home.

Related: Fiction, United States, Young Adult (ages 14-18)

One thought on “Being Henry David

  1. Marilyn Carpenter & Holly Johnson says:

    For this month, we selected four fantastic young adult novels that, at first, didn’t seem to share much in common. Once I started reading the second book, however, I started to see how Being Henry David (Armistead, 2014) and Mortal Fire (Knox, 2013) shared commonalities that included protagonists searching for their identities. “Hank”, the young man from Being Henry David, wakes up in New York’s Central Station not remembering anything about the past, but he has the book Walden by Thoreau that guides him toward remembering. Canny, from Mortal Fire, finds that her true identity has been hidden from her. I find that a lot of young adult novels address identity. What is of interest with these two novels is that one was written by an American author (Armistead) and the other, a Kiwi from New Zealand (Knox), and thus the importance of identity is part of the human condition. I think identity, at least with more Western cultures, revolves around individual identity rather than community/group/cultural identity.
    This is not to say that family or community is not important. The novels share the importance of connection to family, as well, although that is not discovered until further in both novels, which makes sense, since both protagonists are on journeys of discovery. Hank is attempting to find out who he is and why Walden is so important, while Canny discovers the importance of her connection to family heritage. Both turned out to be mysteries because of the identity issues, but I think the search for identity or the development of identity often involves secrets and locked away parts of our memory and past. Both Hank and Canny find this out in these narratives.
    I don’t know if you want to discuss each book individually, Marilyn, or address all the novels at the same time, but I am finding such connections with all four books that it is interesting to discuss those connections. Did you see such occurrences when you were reading?
    My head is spinning with the various commonalities in these books that I now see because you got me started on thinking about them. I just finished reading Mortal Fire for the second time. As I was reading I saw many connections with the other books we are discussing this month. So, I do see such occurrences and it would be interesting to start our discussion with those. I agree that Canny develops her identity as she navigates through the unforeseen challenges that confront her. In this way Mortal Fire has many connections to the other three novels that are our focus for this month. The other two novels that we will discuss along with Mortal Fire and Being Henry David are: Half Bad (Green, 2014) and The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean “telt by hisself” (Almond, 2014).
    In all four books, the main protagonists are going through a process of discovering who they are and as they do they change in significant ways. Canny accepts herself and comes to terms with who she is. Nathan too in Half Bad comes to terms with himself. When I was reading this book I was constantly asking myself is Nathan really half bad as the title would imply? Or, is he good, as his two loving siblings and gran see him? Nathan is the son of a white witch mother and a evil, feared black witch, his father. He has never known either parent. My question also seems to be the question that Nathan is working out for himself. His father is a killer and those that hate him do so because he has killed someone dear to them. When Nathan goes on his journey of discovery he is captured and brutally tortured. But despite his suffering he becomes a stronger person who recognizes his own qualities and establishes for himself boundaries that his father has not observed.
    Each of these characters comes to terms with who they are and what their capabilities are. Billy Dean goes through a similar process as he comes to terms with who he is and what he discovers is right for himself. There is another connection with the characters in each of these books. Each of them comes to understand their own power and how to use it wisely or not. Billy Dean has been manipulated into thinking he is a healer of the desperate, wounded people who come to him to be made whole. He comes to understand the limits of his power.
    What do you think, Holly? Does, do you see that connection with Being Henry David? Does Hank come to understand his own power?
    Discussion continues with Half-Bad.

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