Book Review: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen

Title: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen

Author: Susin Nielsen

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

Number of Pages: 256

Rating: A

Recommended?: Yes

Susin Nielsen is quickly becoming one of my favorite YA authors. She’s been described as the ‘Canadian John Green’ but I actually think she’s the superior writer. Reading this novel made me want to binge-read everything on her list I haven’t gotten to yet (Word Nerd, No Fixed Address, and Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom.) She does such a good job of combining humor and tragedy.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is about a kid and his family going through a terrible, traumatic thing but overall, it isn’t a depressing book. Painful, yes, but not without hope. The set-up is familiar (an epistolary novel where a therapist urges an emotionally troubled teenager to keep a journal) but that didn’t matter too much to me. Plus, I learned a little bit about the main character’s passion (wrestling) that I never would have bothered to find out otherwise.

Henry Larsen’s family is destroyed when his older brother Jesse shoots and kills his bully, Scott, before turning the gun on himself. Henry and his dad move to a new town to escape the judgment and condemnation of the people in their old community. His mom moves back in with her parents but ends up being admitted to a mental hospital to be treated for post-traumatic stress.

Naturally, Henry is devastated by also furious at how Jesse’s actions affected the lives of others. What makes it even more painful and complicated was that Scott’s younger sister was Henry’s best friend. At his new school, Henry is reluctantly (see what I did there?) befriended by Farley, a socially awkward kid who gave off a little bit of an autistic vibe to me.

Farley that Henry is a fellow outcast and is determined that the two of them bond, and he gets him to join a trivia team, where Henry meets a beguiling, oddly dressed girl with a lazy eye named Alberta. Henry and Farley start collecting used cans and bottles trying to save up enough money to go to a big wrestling match, and Henry secretly hopes the experience will bring his parents back together.

We gradually start to get a clearer picture of how severely Jesse was bullied and how hopeless he felt when he committed his crime. Honestly, I understand why he did what he did. I’m not condoning it! I liked how the author showed how awful Jesse’s actions were without completely demonizing him. Henry was flawed and the adults in his life were also imperfect, trying their best given the circumstances.

Some of the characters in Susin Nielsen’s books feel similar (like Alberta and the French exchange student Wilbur had a crush on in Tremendous Things) but that’s a minor quibble, she writes familiar types of characters but she’s so good at doing so that they’re a delight to read. I also love the crossovers in her novels! (Ambrose in Word Nerd, which I haven’t read yet, showed up in this one.)

Everything in this book is handled in a believable way, even if that means keeping some things (like Henry’s mom and dad’s relationship) ambiguous. Grief is portrayed as something that affects people throughout their entire lives, not something that can be fixed with medication and therapy. Henry doesn’t always deal with his unimaginable amount of trauma in a way that doesn’t hurt others and himself, but his journey towards being ‘okay’ is bittersweet and endlessly engaging.

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