Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielson

This deeply moving novel deals with the hot topic of bullying through the fictional story of a young boy whose entire world has been undone by the ripple effects of violence triggered by bullying.  Written by Susin Nielson, author of Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, Nielson is also a script writer for the television series Heartland, Arctic Air and Robson Arms.

Thirteen year-old Henry Kaspar Larsen is trying to deal with the aftermath of his older brother Jesse's suicide - a tragedy which Henry refers to as "IT" . When Henry begins speaking "robot" after Jesse's death, his father takes him to psychologist, Dr. Cecil Levine.  Henry refuses to talk during his first sessions, so Cecil encourages him to keep a journal of his thoughts and experiences. Henry is at first dismissive of the idea and tosses the journal Cecil gave him, but then retrieves it and begins writing. What follows are entries that are at times tragic but humorous, while revealing Henry's innermost feelings and his deep turmoil over what has happened.

Henry and his father have just recently moved from Port Salish on Vancouver Island to Vancouver where he attends Trafalgar Secondary School. His mother is not living with them because she has had a nervous breakdown and is in a mental health facility in Kingston, Ontario near her parents. Henry and his dad live in a run down apartment complex eating take out most nights. Their obsession with wrestling and the Saturday Night Smash-Up is what keeps both of them going. Henry doesn't much like their neighbours, a widower, Mr. Atapattu who is from Sri Lanka and pushy Karen Vargas, a single woman who seems to be wheedling her way into his dad's life.

Coming into grade nine in January is a difficult for any student but especially so for Henry considering what he's just been through in the past eight months. Everyone has managed to find their group of friends and so does Henry when he meets Farley Wong, who is smart and friendly. Farley welcomes Henry but Henry is not sure he wants Farley as a friend. This is because Farley is bullied by Trafalgar's resident bully, Troy Vasic, due to his appearance; he wears thick glasses, dresses oddly and carries a briefcase. Farley invites Henry to join the school's Reach For The Top team which not surprisingly, includes a few other school misfits including a sassy girl named Alberta who is in Henry's Home Ec class. Alberta doesn't mince words,  has spiky hair, several piercings, dresses eccentrically and wears purple Doc Martens.

Henry too becomes a target of Troy Vasic mainly because he is now overweight, has red hair and of course he hangs out with Farley. He wishes he could get an "upgrade" in the friend department. However, as time passes, Henry discovers that Farley is a true friend and when Farley experiences the same sort of bullying that his brother Jesse did, Henry finds his courage and acts.

In Henry Larsen, Nielson has created a character that everyone can identify with because there's a bit of Henry in all of us. He's stubborn, loyal, witty, intelligent and a very typical 13 year old boy. But he's also experiencing great pain over the suicide of his brother.

We see Henry grow throughout the story in many areas of his life. At first he doesn't like Farley, or Alberta or Mr. Atapattu. But as Henry comes to know them better, he realizes that Farley cares for him, that Alberta likes him for just how he is, and that Mr. Atapattu with his kindly understanding gives Henry what he needs most in the moment. Even Karen, whom Henry suspects is after his father's affections, becomes a good friend because she has suffered a similar loss. Karen, perhaps more than anyone else, helps Henry to understand his feelings by being honest with him. She helps him identify and acknowledge his grief over the loss of his brother, his pain at seeing his happy family unravel and his mother hospitalized, and his anger towards his brother for what he has done.

Through the use of the diary format, Henry is gradually able to write about the incident that led to his brother Jesse arriving at school one day with his father's gun, even though Henry can't bring himself to speak about "IT".  In his journal, Henry reminisces about his family's life before "IT" enabling the reader to see how his family has been affected.

To avoid overwhelming her readers with the tragedy of Henry's family, Nielson has created a narrator with a great sense of humour that is sometimes dark. These funny bits create laugh-out-loud moments and ease the tension. They make Henry, as well as many of the other characters in the novel, very realistic. For example, the battles between Karen and Mr. Atapattu over various apartment building rules are quite comical. But anyone who has lived in an apartment, including many inner-city children, will easily relate to them.

Nielson's novel highlights the wide-reaching effects that unresolved bullying can have on a individual's life. Initally Jesse was impacted but as the bullying intensified, it affected Henry and his view of his brother, and eventually Henry's family, the bully's family and the community at large.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is a well written, thoughtful novel about bullying. Populated by wonderful, realistic characters, with a great storyline, and a satisfying ending, this novel is a great choice for readers over the age of 9.

Book Details:
The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielson
Tundra Books      2012
241 pp.

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