Imagine waking up in Penn Station, where a homeless man accosts you and tries to steal the only possession you have, a copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. As he starts to chow down on the worn book’s pages, you realize that it’s the only clue you have to figure out something rather important–your identity.
This is precisely what happens to our hero, a teenager who has amnesia. With only a gnawing sense that he’s in danger and Henry David Thoreau guiding him, the boy–who christens himself “Henry David” or Hank for short–sets out to make a life for himself.
Being on your own in a strange city with no memory, however, is no cake walk. Hank quickly throws his lot in with two other runaways–Jack and Nessa–who navigate the seedy underbelly of New York City with him. When Hank’s situation goes from bad to worse, he flees to the only place he can think of–Concord, Massachusetts, the stomping grounds of Henry David Thoreau.
Hank slowly builds a home for himself in this quiescent wooded suburb, befriending a biker librarian and a local high schooler named Hailey. He finds contentment in the tranquility of nature, Walden, and his new friends, living in the moment without delving into his shadowy past.
Cal Armistead does a wonderful job building suspense to the big reveal, slowly dishing out small kernels of information about what prompted Hank’s memory loss and who he is/was. The reader is torn between wanting Hank to go on living his happy new life and hoping that he will be able to come to terms with what happened to him.
On a deeper level, Armistead prods readers to think about what really constitutes our identities. Who are we when we are stripped of our families, our names, and our obligations, simply living the “essential facts of life” in the woods. She artfully brings Henry David Thoreau’s Walden into this conversation. More than simply parroting famous lines from Thoreau’s most beloved work, Armistead weaves his ideas about spiritual discovery, self-reliance, simplicity, and the healing power of nature into her narrative.
Still, there is plenty in Being Henry David that will appeal to young adult readers: a light, but not overly engrossing teen romance, a cool mentor, a coming of age and redemption plot line, and a battle of the bands.
Being Henry David dares to be more literary than is popular with young adult books today and strays from plot conventions like love triangles that have become all too common. The result is a highly original, well-written book. Being Henry David also has great potential for use in classroom settings. Armistead makes Henry David Thoreau accessible and hip for young readers. Being Henry David would make for a great point of entry for discussions about this classic American author.