May 06, 2019

We Contain Multitudes

Written by Sarah Henstra
Penguin Teen
384 pp.
Ages 14+
May 2019

We might as well take advantage of the fact that we don't owe each other anything, that no one else is ever going to read what we're writing, that it's just me and you and whatever we feel like saying. (pg. 19)

When Adam Kurlansky and Jonathan Hopkirk begin their correspondence, it's as an assignment for Ms. Khang's English classes. Kurl, as he is widely known from excelling at football and basketball, is repeating his senior year while Jo is a Grade 10 Walt Whitman aficionado. Though their first letters follow their teacher's directives to introduce themselves and discuss topics like their heroes, Jonathan really gets into the writing, sharing about his father Lyle and sister Shayna, his passion for poetry and folk and bluegrass music, and what is happening around school, including the bullying he endures at the hands of a group of students he calls the "butcherboys." His narratives are generally observational, always poetic and often psychologically astute, though it takes some time for Kurl to begin to share his secrets including of physical abuse and his take on his own life and the people in it, as well as what he sees happening to "Little Jo."
I mean weird kids do have this aura to them.  It's like a smell almost. They're stuck somewhere in their heads, in some kind of a bubble. People can't really help themselves: They see a bubble, they want to pop it. (pg. 12)
But as they continue to correspond, now beyond the assignment's scope, Jo and Kurl develop a relationship on paper and in person, and one that brings emotional and physical support and finally love.  We Contain Multitudes may be an examination of how we present a multitude of selves to ourselves, our families, our peers and strangers but We Contain Multitudes is a love story. It's about finding love through words and sharing those multitudes of ourselves and developing new selves with others.  Jonathan is a son of a single dad and a dead mother with a fuzzy history, a brother, a poetry lover, a musician, a victim, and an aesthete while Kurl is a brother, a punching bag, an athlete, a thinker, a cook, a hard worker, and a secret-keeper. But with others, they are more because we are all combinations and permutations of our selves, depending on others in or not in our lives and on the events that change us. Our identities are sweeping and dynamic, and we all contain multitudes. And isn't it wonderful when two become even more because of love?
I am completely, one hundred percent of the time filled up with you. (pg. 189)
Sarah Henstra may have won last year's Governor General Literature Award for her adult novel The Red Word (ECW, 2018) but I'm gratified that she has returned to her YA roots. (I reviewed her first book Mad Miss Mimic (Razorbill, 2015) and interviewed Sarah Henstra too.) The writing is exquisite, the voices of Jonathan and Adam deep and sorrowful and passionate, and the convergence of their stories creates something bigger than the parts.

As I finished this novel of letters, a book I didn't want to leave, hopeful of the many multitudes of Jonathan and Kurl still to come, I'm overwhelmed with the infinitude of these young men and of Sarah Henstra's story. They and it know to  "Be real and be true" (pg. 9) and are, and I want more.

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