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. 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, at first he is resistant. But soon his 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.”
A Note: I received an ARC of this novel in early August. I read it the day it came in the mail. But it has taken me the last three months to write this review, because it was one of the most difficult and heartbreaking novels I’ve read in my entire life. Sometimes I remember a scene in the middle of the day and have to swallow back the tears. Sometimes I don’t succeed.
Tell Me More: Bullying is just one of the things I have had to live with in the last 24 years. Without going into too much detail: yes, I was bullied–physically, verbally and emotionally–for much of my childhood. They were classmates, kids my family saw in church every week with their own families. They were smart. They were charismatic. They knew, just as Scott Marlin knew, how to pretend their actions were nothing more than accidents or mistakes. And I knew, just as Jesse Larsen knew, what everything really meant.
Reading this book was one of the hardest things I ever asked myself to do. I knew what was coming, and what Henry would have to face, and if the mental torment was horrifying for him, it was doubly horrifying for me. Susin Nielsen did a brave thing going into the mind of a thirteen-year-old who is confused and hurt and terrified. It could not have been easy–I know this from experience. And even while I was on the fence about the journal form of the novel, I found that I trusted Nielsen to be true to Henry’s voice.
I have a little brother. Like Henry, he had no idea what I went through every day. We attended the same school, but while he spent many a happy recess with his friends in 1st grade, I did my best to avoid everyone for fear of what they might pick on next. Henry is what I imagine my little brother might have been during those years. And that knowledge made my heart hurt for both Henry and Jesse.
I didn’t like Henry sometimes, or the way he thought about some of the people in his life, but that is to be expected. He is a teenager, barely on the cusp of adolescence, and he is still trying to figure things out. The fact that his brother committed such a terrible act is a burden he will carry his whole life, so I could forgive him for his quick judgments. He grows out of them through life experience. I especially liked that Nielsen didn’t rely on the supporting characters to pull Henry out of his grief and anger. They were all fleshed out and real and served a purpose in the story, and I myself was surprised by the layers they hid.
Reading this book won’t stop bullying. But if I had had this book when I was a kid, maybe I wouldn’t have held onto the pain as long as I did. Make no mistake–The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is a story about ugliness and cruelty and desperation. But it is also a story about picking up each jagged, bruised piece of yourself and letting the people who love you help you glue them back together again. It is a story of acceptance and pain and moving past truly horrifying experiences.
The Final Say: It goes without saying that every single child should read a book like The Reluctant Journal at least once in their lifetimes. But parents and teachers should too, because even if the thought of bullying is completely out of your experience, I can guarantee you that there is at least one child who could use your help and guidance.