November 08, 2012

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen

by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books
243 pp.
Ages 11-14

If you're looking for another book of irreverent humour similar to Susin Nielsen's Word Nerd (Tundra, 2008) or Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom (Tundra, 2010), the reader may be somewhat disappointed with The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen.  While Susin Nielsen's characteristic humour is still there, especially in her characterizations of Henry's Reach for the Top team mates and details about the Global Wrestling Federation's fighters, it takes a backseat to overwhelming despair.

The story begins seven and a half months after "it" happened.  "It" revolves around our protagonist's older brother, Jesse, 15, and the bullying he tragically endured.  The family has moved from Vancouver Island after Dad lost his business, Mom lost her job, and they could not remain.  Mom has been staying with her parents in Ontario, seeing a psychiatrist, while Henry and his father have moved into an apartment in Vancouver. Henry, thirteen, is gaining weight, uses a robot voice when stressed, and reluctantly visits Cecil, his psychologist.  Dad just tries to make ends meet by working.  Luckily, the family's shared interest in the Global Wrestling Federation's Saturday Night Smash-Up provides some connection for the distressed family.

At his new school, the only kid who befriends Henry is geeky Farley Wong, who drags trivia-knowledgeable Henry to join the school Reach for the Top team.  Except for Alberta, the funky but rude girl with whom Henry is smitten, the team consists of geeky kids who probably are all victims of some bullying.  In fact, Henry is sadly reminded of his brother's experiences and continues to suffer guilt and shame when he sees Farley being victimized regularly at school by Troy Vasic. 

While feeling like his family is falling apart,
"I'm the only one who's trying to fight for this family.  And I'm beginning to think we may not be worth the fight" (pg. 181)
Henry is also trying to resolve the nature of his friendship with Alberta, his dad's relationship with their neighbour Karen, the blame he feels from his mother, and his reluctance to reflect on his possible role in his brother's tragedy.  Ultimately it is through his interactions with the new people in his life that Henry finds the means and strength to deal with the issues of his past.

Susin Nielsen always addresses important issues in her books, though they are often flavoured with much comedy.  In Word Nerd, Ambrose deals with his mother's overprotectiveness, isolation and bullying.  In Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, Violet endures the repercussions of her parents' divorce: her mother's repeated disasters with loser boyfriends and her dad's excessive attention for his new family. But there is little humour in The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen.  And maybe it's best that, while the story is infused with the quirkiness of Henry and the other teens, the emphasis should be on the overwhelming anguish experienced by those left behind after unnatural death.  Nothing could or should remedy that agony except time, acceptance, and maybe forgiveness of oneself and others. Susin Nielsen shares the complicated nature of grief and grieving while helping the reader see the far-reaching and unpredictable consequences of bullying.

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