by Jeffrey Canton
Laker Wyatt is nearly seventeen and doesn’t have any place to go. His somewhat hapless and irresponsible mother, Audrey, has kicked him out after a particularly nasty altercation with his stepfather, Rick, has escalated from verbal cockfighting to physical violence. From Laker’s perspective, Rick the Prick has forced himself between mother and son, and Audrey has betrayed and abandoned him. He hops a bus and ends up in Bemidji, Minnesota, without a dime, living on the streets, until he is rescued by eighty-three-year-old Henry Olsen, who offers him a job, food, shelter, and, in time, his extraordinary friendship.
Henry might be willing to open his home and his heart to Laker but there is a price: Henry’s family. His overprotective, interfering daughter makes it quite clear she doesn’t like Laker staying with her father, while her daughter sees Laker as a threat to her comfortable relationship with her grandfather. Laker has mixed feelings about being with Henry: he is grateful for Henry’s generosity, but he also wants to be independent as soon as possible.
Being with Henry is quite simply an extraordinary novel. That will certainly come as no surprise to fans of award-winning novelist Martha Brooks; her last novel, Bone Dance, won the 1998 Ruth Schwartz Award and the Canadian Library Association’s Young Adult Book Award. Brooks first introduced readers to Laker and Henry in the short story, “The Kindness of Strangers”, which appears in her 1994 collection, Travelling On into the Light. From the germ of this short story, she’s built a densely rich novel that is not only profoundly moving, but is written with delicate grace and a subtle sense of humour.
Brooks adroitly weaves us into the complex lives of her characters, but she leaves plenty of room for imagination. She’s not the kind of writer who feels the need to tell all. Indeed, part of what makes Being with Henry so striking is what Brooks leaves unsaid. As you delve deeper into the novel, you realize that you have bits and pieces of stories. It’s with a stunning series of deft and delicate brushstrokes that Brooks draws you into the novel’s world, leaving you breathless.
Being with Henry explores much territory. Parenting, the nature of friendships, aging, the nuclear family, marriage, first love, artistic expression and the power of words—all are handled with sensitivity, insight, and amazing integrity.